KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia Sunday rejected harsh US criticism for failing to tackle human trafficking after an annual State Department report shamed the Southeast Asian country, together with Thailand and Venezuela.
Bangkok has also said it is disappointed at being placed in the annual Trafficking in Persons report at the bottom of a list of countries accused of failing to address modern-day slavery - a designation which could trigger US sanctions.
The foreign ministry of Malaysia - a magnet for labourers and refugees from poorer regional countries - said combating "this heinous crime" was "still a work in progress".
"Malaysia has taken substantive measures in the past two years to improve the situation related to human trafficking and smuggling of migrants. In this light, the US State Department should reconsider its assessment on Malaysia," it said in a statement.
It also said it believed information used to prepare the report was "flawed, inaccurate" and "provided by dubious organisations".
Authorities in neighbouring Thailand have also hit back, saying they "respectfully disagree with the State Department's decision" and that the report "did not recognise our vigorous, government-wide efforts that yielded unprecedented progress and concrete results".
But Aegile Fernandez, director of Malaysian migrant labour rights organisation Tenaganita, said her group had been handling an increasing number of worker abuse and trafficking cases.
"We see very little progress" to fight this, she told AFP. "If you look at the human rights violations, it's terrible. You cannot deny that. We are really going down and down." Malaysia and Thailand were downgraded to the so-called Tier 3 of the State Department's report, together with Venezuela and Gambia. The report released Friday said Malaysia had ignored warnings to draw up a plan to comply with "the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking".
Such nations as Iran, North Korea and Syria already languish on the lowest tier.
US President Barack Obama can choose to impose sanctions on Tier 3 countries, but State Department officials acknowledged he had waived that option against China and Russia, which were downgraded last year.
The Philippines, which retained its Tier 2 ranking for trying to comply with "minimum standards" to eliminate trafficking, meanwhile vowed to do more after the US cited cases of children forced to perform sex acts for global Internet audiences.
"The government is doing its best to file these cases (against human traffickers) and to see that the prosecutions are properly done," President Benigno Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte said on government radio.
The Philippines announced in January that it had dismantled, with the help of police in Britain and Australia, a paedophile ring that streamed live sexual abuse of Filipino children over the Internet, leading to 29 arrests.
An estimated 20 to 27 million people are believed to live in slavery around the world.