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Malaysia’s US human trafficking upgrade decried as ‘disappointing’ amid migrant worker woes

Since January last year vast numbers of Bangladeshi migrants have travelled to Malaysia to fill legitimate government-issued job quotas. But on arrival many found the work non-existent and were dumped into unemployment and debt, or duped into illegal and poorly paid jobs which activists say amounted to large-scale human trafficking.

Yet late on Monday, the US State Department took Malaysia off its Trafficking in Persons Tier 2 watch list, a continued upgrade after the Southeast Asian nation had been relegated to the lowest level, Tier 3, in 2021 for widespread migrant labour abuses inside its factories and plantations.

The annual US State Department report ranks governments based on their efforts to acknowledge and combat human trafficking and remains one of the few global indices with teeth as it can trigger US sanctions for the worst offending nations.

Upgrading Malaysia to Tier 2, the report said the country had yet to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but had “demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period” to do so, including through trafficking investigations and convictions of criminals and corrupt public officials.

But migrant advocates were swift to decry the apparent reprieve for Malaysia by the influential US agency.

The “upgrade is disappointing and raises genuine concern about the legitimacy and accuracy of the US government’s country-based human trafficking assessments,” migrant activist Andy Hall said.

The flaws in the migrant recruitment process partly-run by criminals showed a system that allows impunity for corrupt actors who anchor the multibillion-dollar labour supply chain between Bangladesh and Malaysia, he added.

In April, a panel of UN