PETALING JAYA - Malaysia identified 650 human trafficking victims last year but only nine traffickers were caught and convicted.
This is among the main reasons why the country has dropped to Tier 3 in the Trafficking in Persons (TiP) 2014 report - the lowest ranking, leaving it in the same category as Thailand, Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.
Malaysia must now work on closing the gap between the number of victims and the number of people brought to justice, according to US State Department ambassador-at-large Luis CdeBaca (pic).
The 2014 TiP report states that Malaysia decreased its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts and reported fewer investigations and convictions in 2013 as compared with 2012.
CdeBaca, who heads the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the treatment of victims was also critical.
"It is well known that if you treat your victims correctly, they will be good witnesses for you in court," CdeBaca told The Star in a phone interview from Washington.
He said this included providing psychological care and feeling of safety for victims.
CdeBaca also urged Malaysia to provide better support for non-government organisations (NGOs) involved in helping human trafficking victims.
"Countries which engage strongly with civil society in the fight against human trafficking end up being most successful," he said.
He pointed out that NGOs were unlikely to refer cases to authorities if victims are kept in detention centres and deported.
Citing cases of victims who were were held in shelters for almost a year, he said: "There is no freedom of movement.
"They have not been convicted of anything but are still behind gates and barbed wire."
However, CdeBaca acknowledged that there have been improvements since 2009.
He said Malaysia had dedicated officials fighting human trafficking and the drop from Tier 2 was not a denigration of those on the front lines.
He said the TiP report, published since 2001, is based on the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2002, which is calibrated to the Palermo Protocol.
"This is the United Nations anti-human trafficking treaty which most countries have signed," he said.
He also denied criticism that close allies of the United States would never fall to the Tier 3 category.
"One only needs to look at the downgrades this year of Colombia, Qatar, Malaysia and Thailand to recognise that the US is not afraid to tell the truth about the trafficking situation.
"I think there is a responsibility to tell your friends when there is a problem and work with them in partnership to try to address that," he said.