The novel coronavirus pandemic had made more people vulnerable to human trafficking, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday as an annual US report added Afghanistan and Nicaragua to a list of worst offenders while Saudi Arabia was upgraded.
"Instability and lack of access to critical services caused by the pandemic mean that the number of people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers is rapidly growing," Pompeo said in the annual US State Department Trafficking in Persons report.
The report kept China, a persistent target for criticism by Pompeo, on the lowest rung and again highlighted widespread use of forced labor, including through what the United States and human rights groups say is the mass detention in camps of more than one million minority Muslims.
It said Beijing had expanded this campaign into other provinces and begun implementing it among other religious minorities. China denies mistreatment and says the camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
Pompeo, in remarks on the report, singled out China, "where the Chinese Communist Party and its state-owned enterprises often force citizens to work in horrendous conditions on Belt and Road projects," he said, referring to an infrastructure project to link China with other parts of Asia and Europe.
The report also took aim at Hong Kong, which US President Donald Trump has threatened to strip of economic privileges over China's tightened grip on the former British colony.
Hong Kong, alongside Pakistan, was downgraded to the report's "Tier 2 Watch List," a category denoting those meriting special scrutiny, on the grounds that it had failed to enact legislation to fully criminalize trafficking.
Saudi Arabia, a major US ally and arms buyer that was last year (here) placed on the list of countries that failed to meet minimum US anti-trafficking standards, was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List.
Afghanistan, a US ally in the fight against the Taliban, and Nicaragua were both demoted in this year's report to Tier 3, falling into the lowest category, which can bring restrictions on US non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance, a decision that would be made by the president.