US President Joe Biden's administration has designated 17 countries as not doing enough to combat human trafficking and warned them of potential US sanctions while also calling out allies like New Zealand for backsliding in their efforts.
The designations came in the US State Department's annual "Trafficking in Persons" report, which cited the coronavirus pandemic as a cause for a surge in human slavery between 2020 and 2021.
The report covering 188 countries and territories said the outbreak had put millions more people at risk for exploitation and distracted some governments from efforts to stem human trafficking.
The report classified the 17 mostly authoritarian countries as "Tier 3" for failing to meet minimal standards to stop what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called an "inhumane cycle of discrimination and injustices".
The designation means that without a presidential waiver those countries could lose some US assistance, although decisions on such penalties will not be made until later this year.
"It's a global crisis, it's an enormous source of human suffering," Blinken said, citing estimates that almost 25 million people, many of them women and children, are victims.
"This crime is an affront to human rights. It's an affront to human dignity."
Newcomers to the Tier 3 category are Malaysia and Guinea-Bissau, both of which had been on a watchlist for a downgrade for three years and were ineligible to avoid the designation because they had failed to take steps to improve their anti-human trafficking efforts.
They join Afghanistan, Algeria, Myanmar, China, Comoros, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Venezuela in the worst offender category.
Most of those countries are already subject to US sanctions for other reasons.
Meanwhile, six valued US partners and friends - Cyprus, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland - were downgraded from the top Tier 1 category to Tier 2.
That means they don't meet international standards for fighting trafficking but are making significant efforts to do so.
No penalties are attached to a Tier 2 designation.
The report cited US treaty ally New Zealand for not initiating any prosecutions for labour trafficking and weak prison sentences for child sex traffickers that "significantly weakened deterrence, undercut efforts to hold traffickers accountable and did not adequately address the nature of the crime".
The report criticised NATO ally Norway for not prosecuting any human trafficking cases during the reporting period and charging people suspected of the crime with lesser offences.