WASHINGTON (2nd UPDATE) - The United States on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) removed the Philippines and Singapore from a human trafficking watchlist that had drawn concerns from the close allies, but it still reported persistent abuses around Asia.
The State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report has become increasingly sensitive for Southeast Asian governments, which face a cutoff of US assistance if they are found to be unresponsive in fighting trafficking.
The latest report elevated the Philippines, Singapore and Laos off the watchlist to so-called Tier 2, which means that the countries do not fully meet standards on human trafficking but are making efforts to do so.
Indonesia and Cambodia stayed at Tier 2, but Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam remained on the watchlist. The only Asian jurisdictions on Tier 1, meaning full compliance, were South Korea and Taiwan.
Releasing the report, the State Department said that millions of people around the world remained trapped in modern-day slavery for sexual exploitation or labor and called on governments around the world to take action.
The report "embodies the United States' continued dedication to fighting traffickers no matter where they may be, because fighting slavery and standing up for human rights is part of our national identity," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a forward to the report.
But US allies have sometimes responded indignantly. Singapore last year lashed out at being put on the watchlist and urged the United States to examine its own record, including the treatment of its millions of illegal residents.
The United States gave itself a Tier 1 ranking but offered details about problems at home, including allegations of exploitation by federal contractors.
"I don't think it's fair for us to rank others if we don't look hard at who we are and what we're doing," Clinton said at a launch event for the report.
In the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino took the unusual step of announcing in April that his country was off the watchlist, leading US officials to clarify that no decision had yet been made.
In Monday's report, the State Department praised an "intensified effort" by the Philippines. It said the Philippines convicted 25 trafficking offenders, compared with nine the previous year, including first-ever convictions for forced labor.
Off watchlist, downgrades
Elsewhere in Asia, the State Department removed Sri Lanka and Fiji from its watchlist. It praised Sri Lanka -- often on the receiving end of criticism over human rights -- for its first convictions under an anti-trafficking law on the island, which is a major source of workers to abuse-prone Arab countries.
On the other hand, the United States downgraded the Federated States of Micronesia to Tier 3, meaning that some assistance will be suspended to the nation of more than 600 islands that is closely linked to the United States.
The report said that Micronesian traffickers have forced women into prostitution in the United States with promises of well-paying jobs.
The State Department said that Micronesian waters are seen as easy for traffickers but that no figures are available as the government has not conducted any investigations into the problem.
Myanmar, North Korea and Papua New Guinea remained at Tier 3. In a change ordered by the US Congress, any countries that stay on the watchlist for two consecutive years will now automatically drop to Tier 3, causing an aid cutoff.
Bangladesh remained on the watchlist, but Clinton singled it out for praise, saying that a proposed law against human traffickers showed that "political will and political leadership are making a difference" around the world.
Estonia, Belarus put on watchlist
The United States put Estonia and Belarus on the watchlist, alleging they failed in the last year to step up efforts to fight prostitution and forced labor.
The State Department also maintained Russia on the list for the eighth consecutive year for the same alleged failures.
"Estonia is a source, transit, and destination country for women subjected to forced prostitution, and for men and women subjected to conditions of forced labor," the State Department said.
Not only are Estonian women from the countryside forced into prostitution in the capital Tallinn, they also end up in the sex trafficking trade in Finland, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany and Italy, it said.
Both men and women from Estonia are also "subjected to conditions of forced labor" in Spain, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, according to the 2011 Global Trafficking in Persons Report.
"The government of Estonia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so," the report said.
"Despite these efforts, the government did not demonstrate evidence of increasing efforts over the previous reporting period," it added, placing Estonia on the Tier 2 watchlist.
Belarus was put on the list for the same reason, with the report charging that the government in Minsk "demonstrated decreased law enforcement efforts" while the report was being conducted.
The report said women and children are sold into the sex trade in Russia, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Spain, Greece, Belgium, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates.
There were also continuing reports of women from poor families forced into prostitution in the capital Minsk.
"Belarussian men, women, and children are found in forced begging, as well as in forced labor in the construction industry and other sectors in Russia and Belarus," it said.
Russia reprimanded again
The State Department also reprimanded Russia once again.
Citing the Migration Research Center, it said around one million people in Russia are exploited by business leaders who withhold their documents, fail to pay for services, physically abuse them and deny them proper living conditions.
Abuses occurred in the construction, manufacturing, agriculture and domestic services industries, it added.
"There are reports of many men and women from North Korea subjected to conditions of forced labor in the logging industry in the Russian Far East," it said.
"There are also reports of exploitation of children, including child prostitution in large Russian cities and forced begging," it added.
"Russian women were reported to be victims of sex trafficking in many countries, including in Northeast Asia, Europe, and throughout the Middle East," it said.
It said that because it had a written plan, Russia was not dropped to the lowest Tier 3 group, countries which are deemed not to be making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards of fighting trafficking.
"Russia is devoting sufficient resources to implement that plan," it said.
Tier 3 countries may "be subject to certain sanctions, whereby the US government may withhold or withdraw nonhumanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance," the State Department said.