US upgrades Vietnam in human-trafficking report despite concerns

By Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. State Department on Monday boosted Vietnam's ranking in a human-trafficking report, even as it cited concerns that the Southeast Asian country had failed to investigate government officials complicit in trafficking crimes.

A rights group last week accused Hanoi of giving misleading information and attempting to cover up trafficking cases involving officials in its communication with U.S. officials over the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Washington removed Vietnam from a watch list in the 2024 report, citing "overall increased efforts" on trafficking, including submitting an anti-trafficking law to the legislature for review, increasing prosecutions and assisting more victims.

But the U.S. report published on Monday cited a series of areas where Vietnam fell short of minimum standards, including its handling of human trafficking in which government officials were complicit.

Cindy Dyer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large on human trafficking, told reporters that officials looked at a range of information, including from civil-society groups, in their decision to upgrade Vietnam.

"We certainly note that there are areas for improvement, as there are for every country," Dyer said, noting that official complicity "is a big concern" with Vietnam.

Vietnam in 2022 was downgraded to the report's lowest level, Tier 3, specifically citing the case of a Vietnamese labor attache and another staff member in Saudi Arabia alleged to have directly facilitated the forced labor of several Vietnamese nationals.

The cases came to light after a Vietnamese girl taken to work in Saudi Arabia as a minor died after alleged abuse by her employer.

The prior TIP report downgrades, which can lead to sanctions, added an awkward note to U.S.-Vietnam relations. Washington has sought stronger ties with Hanoi to counter China, formally upgrading the relationship last year.

Asked if strategic concerns played a role in the decision to upgrade Vietnam, Dyer said officials make "the most objective assessment that we can" when it comes to the TIP rankings.

The U.S. upgraded Vietnam in the report last year in part because it had initiated criminal procedures against the two officials in the Saudi Arabia case.

This year's TIP report said the investigation had been closed and the diplomat reinstated in a government post.

"The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human-trafficking crimes," the report added.

Vietnam's embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report also upgraded several other countries for improvements in anti-trafficking efforts. Brunei and Sudan were downgraded to Tier 3.

Vietnam's ranking was being closely watched after rights group Project88 released a report based on official Vietnamese documents it obtained showing an effort to undermine the U.S. report, including by withholding information about the case in Saudi Arabia.

(Reporting by Simon LewisEditing by Bill Berkrot and Rod Nickel)