Has State Department's Human Trafficking Report Upgraded Countries for Political Reasons?

Lawmakers, advocacy groups worry nations were upgraded in the past to avoid diplomatic tension.

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Playing cards showing details of missing children are displayed in Beijing, China. The State Department released a report Thursday indicating China, among others, as a hub of human trafficking.

The State Department's annual human trafficking report, the latest version of which was released Wednesday, is supposed to be an objective measure of which nations are the worst offenders when it comes to human slavery, and which are working hard to combat the problem.

But in recent years, lawmakers and advocacy groups have expressed concerns that certain countries were either upgraded or not downgraded on the list to avoid diplomatic tension. This year's report, however, may be different.

[READ: Modern Slavery Emerging From the Shadows]

In a letter sent to Secretary of State John Kerry in April, 16 members of congress wrote they wished to convey their concerns about "continued, severe trafficking issues in several countries that are on the Tier II watch list."

Tier III is the worst ranking a country can receive, while countries can move up to the Tier II watch list category if they have a human trafficking problem but are making significant efforts to fight it. Lawmakers named China, Uzbekistan and Russia in their letter as three countries who had been on the watch list too long and needed to be moved up or demoted. In this year's report, all three were placed in Tier III, a demotion from years past.

"We are confident you agree the Watch List protocol...should never be used to push countries into a higher tier ranking than their records merit," the lawmakers wrote.

Ahead of the report's release, anti-trafficking advocates similarly voiced concerns that countries would be downgraded or upgraded based on U.S. diplomatic relations instead of how much human trafficking was taking place.

[ALSO: Google Helps Launch Global Human Trafficking Hotline]

"To me, the list in the past looked more like a list of countries the United States looks at as pariahs, rather then an objective measure of who is engaging in slavery," says Holly Burkhalter, vice president of government relations and advocacy of the International Justice Mission, a human rights group. But the State Department, whose ambassador-at-large for human trafficking Luis CdeBaca was not immediately available for comment, appears to have taken those concerns to heart this year.

Uzbekistan, China and Russia – all countries about which lawmakers and advocacy groups voiced inflation worries – were downgraded in this year's report. Malaysia and Thailand, an important ally in the U.S. 'pivot' towards Asia, were both put on notice, meaning they will be downgraded to Tier III in 2014 unless they work harder to combat trafficking.

Burkhalter called it "a welcome course correction."

David Abramowitz, director of The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, similarly cheered the report's results. In a blog post, he wrote the report was "only as good as it is honest," and commended the State Department for "using fact-based analysis – not concern for sensitive geopolitical relationships," when it assigned this year's rankings.

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