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Malaysia, Cuba Taken Off U.S. Human Trafficking Blacklist

The U.S. State Department has taken Malaysia and Cuba off its list of worst human trafficking offenders — which many human rights advocates and U.S. lawmakers say has more to do with politics than facts on the ground.

The department's latest annual Trafficking in Persons Report also upgraded Uzbekistan and Angola, while Belize, Belarus and South Sudan were among 18 nations downgraded this year. Russia, Iran, Eritrea and Algeria are some of the countries that have been on the blacklist for years.

Malaysia and Cuba were raised from the lowest level, "Tier 3," to "Tier 2 Watchlist" status.

Undersecretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Sarah Sewall said that Malaysia's government had made efforts to begin improving its victim protection policies, along with its legal framework. She said authorities also had increased the number of trafficking investigations and prosecutions compared with 2013.

"However, we remain concerned that low numbers of trafficking convictions in Malaysia is disproportionate to the scale of Malaysia's human trafficking problem," she said.

The decision to upgrade Malaysia went ahead despite the discovery in May of mass graves near the country's border with Thailand. The bodies are believed to be those of migrant workers. Sewall said the mass graves were discovered after all the research for this year's report had been completed. Thailand remained on the blacklist.

Moving Malaysia off the list of Tier 3 countries eliminates a potential roadblock to finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive trade agreement involving 12 Pacific Rim nations, including Malaysia.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez from New Jersey has led the charge to ban any Tier 3 countries from the TPP. According to Reuters, more than 160 members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to urge him to keep Malaysia on Tier 3, according to Reuters.

In a statement, Menendez said he was disappointed in the latest State Department report. "The Administration has turned its back on the victims of trafficking, turned a blind eye to the facts, and ignored the calls from Congress," he said.

Menendez also lashed out at the decision to elevate Cuba's ranking, saying the government there continues "perpetrating the abusive practices of forced labor."

Cuba was stuck on the lowest rung on the State Department's human trafficking list for several years. Its upgrade comes just one week after diplomatic relations between the two nations were normalized after more than 50 years.

Undersecretary Sewall acknowledged the U.S. is concerned that the Cuban government has failed to recognize forced labor as a problem, but she said Havana had reported significant efforts to address sex trafficking, including the conviction of sex traffickers.

The annual report is drawn from a staff in Washington and at U.S. embassies around the world. This is the 15th year a report has been issued. David Abramowitz, vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United, says there are often cases where countries are on the margin and should get a worse grading than they did. But he says this year is different.

"I would say that this year had the biggest cases where politics seem to have gotten involved ... here are some cases where there are really serious and significant concerns that the department seems to be ignoring in order to pursue other interests," Abramowitz says.

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.