The United States on Tuesday added Vietnam, Cambodia, Brunei and Macau to a human trafficking blacklist that already counts Malaysia, alleging weak efforts to stop forced sex work or assist migrant laborers.
In an annual report, the United States also added authoritarian-ruled Belarus to the blacklist and, in a rare criticism of a Western ally, put Bulgaria on a watchlist over concerns it is not taking trafficking seriously.
"If you look at the report, you're going to see a mixed picture of progress," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said as he presented it.
Blinken said that corruption was a "top tool" of traffickers who count on a blind eye from governments.
"As we tackle issues like climate and corruption throughout our diplomacy, we also have to address how they intersect with trafficking in persons," he said.
The State Department's annual trafficking report has historically not spared close allies, often causing friction, although US officials say the unflattering headlines have led governments to act.
Nations that are put on the blacklist -- "Tier 3" -- are subject to US sanctions, although the administration routinely waives punishment for friendly nations that promise improvements.
Kari Johnstone, a senior State Department official in charge of combatting human trafficking, said that several Asian governments were downgraded because they had previously been on the watchlist and had not shown progress.
"Unfortunately, there were a number of countries this year within that region that did not make the increasing efforts," she told reporters.
Vietnam, which has a warming relationship with Washington due to shared concerns over a rising China, was downgraded to Tier 3, with the State Department saying that prosecutions dropped off in 2021.
The report especially found fault with Hanoi taking no action against a Vietnamese diplomat and embassy staff member posted in Saudi Arabia who were accused of complicity in trafficking several of their citizens.
In Cambodia, the State Department said that "endemic corruption" has impeded efforts to help thousands including children trafficked to entertainment establishments, brick kilns and online scam operations.
"Authorities often overlooked, denied or downplayed labor abuses -- including forced child labor -- in factories and at brick kilns and colluded with brick manufacturers to arrest, jail and return indentured laborers who had attempted to escape," the report said.
In the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Macau, a former Portuguese territory known for its bustling casinos and sex industry, the report said that authorities did not provide services to a single trafficking victim for a third consecutive year.
On Bulgaria, which along with Serbia was threatened with a downgrade to the blacklist without improvements, the State Department said that authorities investigated "significantly fewer" traffickers and at times punished victims for the crimes against them.
Also newly added to the Tier 3 blacklist was the tiny Dutch Caribbean territory of Sint Maarten.
Along with Malaysia, nations that remained on the list from the previous year were Afghanistan, Cuba, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Nicaragua, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.
Algeria and the Indian Ocean archipelago the Comoros both were upgraded off the blacklist this year following improvements.