Tier 1 countries meet the "minimum standards" of fighting trafficking, set forth in the 2000 law, which include prohibition of and sufficient punishment for trafficking.
Tier 3 countries, the lowest tier, not only fail to meet the U.S. government's trafficking standards but also are not fighting enough to prevent trafficking. For such countries the U.S. President has the authority to withhold official "non-humanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance," among other possible actions.
Countries currently on the Tier 3 list include Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and Zimbabwe. Countries like Burma and Uzbekistan were downgraded in 2016 to Tier 3 countries, as well as Djibouti, Haiti, Suriname, and Papua New Guinea.
The 2016 report's tier rankings received some praise but also measures of criticism from the author of the law that first mandated the report, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). He said that despite some accurate ratings in the 2016 report the administration based some of its rankings on politics.
For example, China and Cuba should have been placed on the worst offenders tier, an omission attributable to politics, he said. They instead remained on the next tier up, the Tier 2 Watch List reserved for countries who are "making significant efforts" to fight trafficking but need to be watched closely because of the seriousness of their trafficking problems.
"China is the black hole of human trafficking," Rep. Smith contested, adding that it is not making acceptable progress in fighting trafficking -- its convictions have fallen over 60 percent in six years.
Yet China's one-child forced family planning policy – now a two-child policy for many families – has brought about a demographic crisis of about 118 boys born per 100 girls born, more than the world normal 103-106 boys per 100 girls. This has created a market for sex trafficking, he said.
Other human rights abuses in China include North Koreans working in "slave-like conditions" and organ harvesting and slave labor inflicted upon the prison population, he said, which completely merit a Tier 3 grade for the country.
"Tier rankings must be earned, not meted out as gifts to economic and security partners," he insisted.
"The President continues to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the Cuban people for the sake of his fanciful friendship with the Castro brothers," Rep. Smith said of Cuba remaining on the Tier 2 watch list instead of being downgraded.
The government "benefits from the forced labor of its own medical personnel abroad, the sale abroad of Cuban blood and organs, and sex tourism," he said.
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Yet Secretary of State John Kerry claimed on Thursday that the agency's tier rankings were not politically-motivated. "The tier rankings that I have designated reflect our department's best assessment of a government's efforts to eliminate human trafficking. They don't take into account political and other factors," he said.
Smith did praise the administration's downgrading of Burma, calling it "justified and long overdue" because of the complicity of state and military officials in trafficking there. He added that "Uzbekistan's record is now accurately ranked" at Tier 3 because its government "openly, notoriously, and unapologetically traffics its own citizens every year in the cotton harvest."
Last year, Rep. Smith and other members of Congress criticized the administration for upgrading Malaysia's status for it to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The move was unwarranted and political, human rights advocates claimed. Malaysia retained its position on the Tier 2 watch list in the 2016 report.
The upgrade was "egregious," Rep. Smith said, as it came during the Malaysia's "continued failure to convict sex and labor traffickers."
There are some particularly serious challenges to fighting trafficking today, the report noted, like religious persecution, violent conflicts, and a global refugee crisis.
Members of religious minorities in a country with a state religion or majority religion might not have due process. This means that they could be trafficked and might not be able to take legal action or enjoy the protection of the state because of their religious affiliation. They are especially vulnerable to forced marriages, or they might not have access to a job and become trapped in sex trafficking or wage slavery.