Washington: The United States removed Thailand from its human trafficking blacklist on Thursday, though forced labour remains widespread in the nation's lucrative seafood industry.
The State Department made the assessment in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which examines 188 governments' efforts in combating modern-day slavery.
Key U.S. trading partner Malaysia was taken off the blacklist controversially in 2015, soon after the discovery of mass graves of suspected trafficking victims. Malaysia retained its ranking, though it has initiated fewer trafficking investigations and prosecutions in the period covered by this year's report.
The report was released by Secretary of State John Kerry, who called it an attempt to bring public attention to the full nature and scope of the $150 billion human trafficking industry.
The promotion for military-led Thailand could ease tensions with the U.S., its longtime ally. The Thai government reported an increase in prosecutions and convictions for trafficking and had lobbied hard for an upgrade after two years on "tier 3", the lowest ranking in report, which it had shared with the likes of North Korea and Syria. It is now on the "tier 2 watch list," which is for governments that do not fully meet the minimum standards of combating trafficking but are making significant efforts to do so.
Labor abuses in the Thai seafood industry gained in prominence around the globe after a two-year investigation by The Associated Press that led to the freeing of more than 2,000 slaves and the arrest of more than a dozen alleged traffickers. Several have been convicted.
Neighbouring Myanmar, which recently shifted to a popularly elected civilian government after decades of military domination, was demoted to tier 3 on Thursday. It had faced a mandatory move up or down the rankings after four years on the watch list.
The department said military and civilian officials continued to compel men, women, and children into forced labour, and army recruiters and civilian brokers continued to recruit children into the state armed forces. Myanmar's denial of legal status to minority Rohingya Muslims also increased their vulnerability to trafficking, it said.
Rohingya have been targets of communal violence, and tens of thousands have fled the country.
Uzbekistan was put on tier 3 because the Central Asian state's government was still compelling forced labour of adults in the cotton harvest and had increased its attempts to conceal labour violations from independent monitors, the report said.
Djibouti, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Sudan, Suriname and Turkmenistan were also demoted to the blacklist. There are now 27 nations on tier 3.
President Barack Obama now has 90 days to determine whether to apply sanctions. But the U.S. often chooses not to, based on its national security interests, as it did last year for Thailand.
Thailand has been under immense international pressure to clean up its $7 billion annual seafood export industry. AP's reporting followed slave-caught seafood from fishing boats, to the Southeast Asian nation and on to American dinner tables. This month, the European Union warned Thailand to take "swift and determined action" to improve its fisheries and labour practices or face a possible EU ban on Thai seafood by year's end.
The Thai Embassy in Washington said in a statement it welcomes the U.S. report "which recognizes the progress and significant efforts made by Thailand in the fight against human trafficking."
The State Department credited Thailand for undertaking legal reforms; for convicting 241 traffickers during 2015, compared with 104 in 2014; and for filing criminal charges against 34 officials in 2015, up from seven in 2014.
But the department said reports persist that some government officials are directly complicit in trafficking, and migrant workers, especially those who are undocumented, are fearful of reporting trafficking crimes and cooperating with authorities. "Widespread forced labour in Thailand's seafood sector continued to occur," the report said.
When Malaysia and Cuba were taken off the list of worst offenders last year, it prompted human rights activists and lawmakers to decry that politics not reality shaped the list, hurting the report's credibility.
Critics charged that Malaysia's promotion was intended to safeguard its participation in the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement - which has since been signed but not ratified and that Cuba was benefiting from its diplomatic normalization with Washington. Like Malaysia, Cuba was kept on the watch list this year.
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey told AP before Thursday's report was released that both countries should be downgraded. He said Malaysia had failed to prosecute anyone in connection with the discovery of the mass graves at the Malaysia-Thai border in May 2015. Menendez, who opposes the TPP, was the author of legislation restricting the participation of tier 3 countries in the trade pact unless the president certifies they are acting on the trafficking report's principal recommendations.