In an annual report, the State Department faulted ally Saudi Arabia for rampant violations against its vast foreign labour force and accused adversary Cuba of trafficking through its programme of sending doctors overseas.
The two countries were downgraded to those that have failed to make significant anti-trafficking efforts after both were kept on a watchlist for four years, said the report.
Others included on the 21 countries listed on Tier 3 – the worst ranking in the report – were China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela.
A Tier 3 designation means that the US can restrict assistance or withdraw support for the country at the IMF or other global development bodies.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US last year took measures against 22 countries due to the human trafficking designation.
“That action and the message that goes with it is very clear – if you don’t stand up to trafficking, America will stand up to you,” Pompeo said as he presented the report alongside Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump‘s adviser and daughter.
The president, however, can also waive sanctions over human trafficking, and US officials often hope that the shame of the Tier 3 designation will encourage action, especially when issued against US allies.
On Saudi Arabia, the US said that the kingdom has prosecuted few traffickers and done too little to help human trafficking victims, instead often jailing, fining or deporting them by accusing them of immigration violations or prostitution.
The report called on Saudi Arabia to do more to screen and assist workers fleeing abusive bosses and to reform its sponsorship system, in which employers control workers’ permits to leave the country.
The designation comes despite staunch and increasingly controversial support by Trump to Saudi Arabia on an array of fronts, including its offensive in Yemen, where millions face starvation in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Pompeo made no mention of Saudi Arabia in his remarks launching the report.
The US did not include the kingdom on its list of countries that recruit and use child soldiers, despite evidence pointing to the use of underage fighters by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition.
Reuters News Agency reported earlier this week that Pompeo had stepped in to block the country’s inclusions, dismissing his experts’ findings that the Saudi-UAE -led coalition has been using child soldiers in Yemen.
John Cotton Richmond, ambassador at large to monitor and combat trafficking persons, told CNN that the State Department was “aware of some of the reports regarding the possibility that the Saudi government support some of the children that were fighting in Yemen, but it didn’t rise to the level to warrant a listing this year.” He added that he disagreed with the reports that there was debate among those involved in making the list about whether to include Saudi Arabia.
Pompeo said that North Korea was involved in human trafficking at the state level through its deployment of workers overseas and said Pyongyang “uses the proceeds to fund nefarious activities”.
He also renewed criticism of China for its massive incarceration of an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim members of Turkic-speaking minorities, saying the camps have produced garments, carpets, cleaning supplies and other goods for domestic consumption.
China, facing rising international criticism, describes its camps as vocational training centres aimed at reducing “religious extremism”.
Cuba is more frequently in the sights of the Trump administration, which said that the Cuban government threatened or coerced doctors to be part of its medical programme, in which Havana sends tens of thousands of low-cost doctors around the world.
Cuba ended the programme last year in Brazil after Jair Bolsonaro, who was then Brazil’s incoming right-wing president, described it as human trafficking.
The State Department also upgraded two countries from the Tier 3 designation – Laos and Gabon.
It credited Laos with providing restitution and services to victims, while Gabon stepped up investigations and signed agreements with neighbouring countries in Western Africa to combat cross-border trafficking.
The 2019 report also dropped a warning from the 2018 issue that traffickers prey on children separated from their parents, a practice that US President Trump applied to thousands of migrant families.
“The physical and psychological effects of staying in residential institutions, combined with societal isolation and often subpar regulatory oversight by governments, place these children in situations of heightened vulnerability to human trafficking,” the 2018 report said.
The US section of this year’s report made no mention of the separation of more than 2,700 children from migrant families who crossed the US-Mexico border between official ports of entry, and the children’s placement in government custody.
The separations, which occurred during the period covered by the report, were implemented under a “zero tolerance” policy on irregular immigration that subjected parents to criminal charges.
Trump rescinded the separation practice in June 2018 amid an international outcry.
Judith Kelley, dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and author of a book on the trafficking report’s impact, said Trump’s child separation policy should have been cited, Reuters reported.
But its exclusion should not diminish the extent of US anti-trafficking efforts or the impetus the report gives other countries to improve their ratings, she added.