WASHINGTON: The United States upgraded Malaysia in an annual report on human trafficking on Monday despite calls by human rights groups and nearly 180 US lawmakers to keep the Southeast Asian country on a list of worst offenders in failing to suppress trafficking.

The US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report also upgraded Cuba from its lowest rank for the first time since it was included in the annual report in 2003.

South Sudan, Burundi, Belize, Belarus and Comoros were downgraded to the lowest rank, Tier 3, where Thailand remained for a second straight year, alongside countries with some of the world’s worst trafficking records, including Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Malaysia’s expected upgrade to so-called “Tier 2 Watch List” status from Tier 3 removes a potential barrier to President Barack Obama’s signature 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Congress had approved legislation in June giving Obama expanded trade negotiating powers but prohibiting deals with Tier 3 countries such as Malaysia.

After Reuters reported on July 8 plans to upgrade the country, 160 members of the US House of Representatives and 18 US Senators wrote US Secretary of State John Kerry urging him keep Malaysia on Tier 3, saying they had seen no justification for an upgrade and questioning whether it was motivated by a desire to keep Malaysia in the TPP.

On Monday, the State Department said that while Malaysia does not fully meet minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, it was making significant efforts to do so, citing a proposed strengthening of anti-trafficking laws and a more than doubling in trafficking investigations.

Still, according to the department, Malaysian trafficking convictions declined in the 12 months to March, falling to three from nine in the period covered by the report. The report also described conditions under which migrants are still forced into labor and women and children coerced into the sex trade.

The upgrade follows international scrutiny and outcry over Malaysian efforts to combat human trafficking after the discovery in May of scores of graves in people-smuggling camps near its northern border with Thailand.

Kerry next month is expected to visit Malaysia, the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Washington is seeking to promote unity within the bloc in the face of China’s increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of US criticism. --Reuters