WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. envoy on combating human trafficking will visit Malaysia next week, an official said Friday, amid complaints that the Southeast Asian nation has failed to investigate properly alleged official complicity over mass graves of suspected trafficking victims.
The State Department has faced a barrage of congressional criticism after Malaysia, a key U.S. trading partner, was kept off a blacklist of countries that fail to meet minimum standards against modern-day slavery.
Susan Coppedge, ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, will meet Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, during her two-day visit to the main city Kuala Lumpur starting Monday.
Spokeswoman Mai Shiozaki said Coppedge will also will meet with senior officials in the attorney general's chambers and the prime minister's office, and host a round-table with nongovernment groups.
The department says there are several million migrant laborers in Malaysia and more than 150,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers who are also vulnerable to traffickers.
The Obama administration controversially took Malaysia off its human trafficking blacklist in 2015 although it had secured only a handful of human trafficking convictions in the previous year. The administration denied accusations of political interference driven by Malaysia's participation in the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
The upgrade of Malaysia to a so-called "watch list" came soon after the May 2015 discovery of suspected human trafficking camps and dozens of graves along the border with Thailand. The watch list ranking was renewed in the department's latest human trafficking report issued three weeks ago, which found that the Malaysian government questioned several officials in connection with the mass graves but did not prosecute any officials last year for complicity in trafficking crimes.
Several lawmakers pressed Coppedge on the issue at congressional hearings July 12. She agreed that it was "troubling" that no government officials have been prosecuted or held accountable.
Kristen Abrams, acting director of the Washington-based Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, said Coppedge's visit would send an important signal to Malaysia that "the world is watching."
"We hope she will communicate to the Malaysian government that the time is now to get serious about combating human trafficking," Abrams said.