WASHINGTON - The United States State Department downgraded Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela on Friday to its list of the world's worst centres of human trafficking, opening up the countries to possible sanctions and dumping them in the same category as North Korea and Syria.
The three countries were all downgraded to the lowest "Tier 3" status in the US State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report as they did not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.
Thai officials repeatedly expressed confidence their country would be upgraded, submitting a 78-page report to the US government in April to make its case.
The downgrades could cause some multinational companies to reconsider investments in industries accused of using trafficked labour such as fisheries, a lucrative business in Thailand, the world's largest exporter of shrimp.
The countries could also lose US non-humanitarian and non-trade-related aid, and they could face US opposition to help from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
The report said the majority of trafficking victims in Thailand - "tens of thousands... by conservative estimates" - were migrants from neighbouring countries "forced, coerced, or defrauded into labour or exploited in the sex trade".
A significant number were trafficked into the fishing industry, garment production and domestic work.
The State Department also cited media reports of "trafficking-related complicity by Thai civilian and navy personnel in crimes involving the exploitation" of Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar by the tens of thousands over the past year.
Those reports included a Reuters story in December that documented a clandestine Thai policy to remove Rohingya from immigration detention centers and deliver them to traffickers and smugglers waiting at sea. Many Rohingya were then ferried back to brutal trafficking camps in Thailand, where some died.