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The U.S. State Department has changed the status of both Cuba and Malaysia. Both countries are now considered not quite so bad as they used to be at human trafficking. The change comes just as the United States makes a trade deal with one country and restores relations with the other. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The State Department says Malaysia and Cuba have made some progress in combating human trafficking and so has elevated both countries from the lowest tier-three up one rung to the tier-two watch list. Sarah Sewall, the undersecretary of state for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, says Malaysia's government has made efforts to reform its legal system.
SARAH SEWALL: Authorities also increased the number of trafficking investigations and prosecutions. However, we remain concerned that low numbers of trafficking convictions in Malaysia is disproportionate to the scale of Malaysia's human trafficking problem.
NORTHAM: Critics say the decision to upgrade Malaysia has more to do with politics than facts on the ground. Malaysia is one of 11 Pacific Rim countries negotiating a major trade agreement with the United States. Scores of members of Congress have tried to ban any blacklisted or tier-three countries from the trade pact. Upgrading Malaysia's status effectively removes that roadblock, says David Abramowitz with Humanity United Organization.
DAVID ABRAMOWITZ: There were concerns that if Malaysia was left on tier-three, then they would be unable to participate in a trade agreement that would get fast-tracked.
NORTHAM: Cuba's upgrade comes just one week after diplomatic relations between the two nations were normalized after more than 50 years. The State Department's Sewall acknowledges the U.S. is concerned the Cuban government has failed to recognize forced labor as a problem but has made progress in other areas.
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SEWALL: The government reported significant efforts to address sex trafficking, including the conviction of sex traffickers, the provision of services to sex trafficking victims, and continued efforts of the ministry of tourism to address sex tourism and the demand for commercial sex.
NORTHAM: Abramowitz says there are always questionable calls in the human trafficking report.
ABRAMOWITZ: But 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.
NORTHAM: Thailand, North Korea and Iran are among 23 nations that remain blacklisted by the State Department. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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