Laos is a source, and to a much lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women, children, and men who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Lao trafficking victims often are migrants seeking work outside the country, sometimes with the assistance of brokers who charge high fees, who encounter conditions of involuntary exploitation after arriving in destination countries, most often Thailand. Many victims, particularly women, are exploited in Thailand’s commercial sex trade, and sometimes in forced labor in domestic service, garment factories, or agricultural industries. Lao men and boys are also victims of forced labor in Thailand, especially in the fishing and construction industries; increasing numbers of identified victims are male. NGOs report that individuals offering transportation services near the Thai border facilitate the exploitation of economic migrants into forced labor or sex trafficking in Thailand. Additionally, many trafficking victims may be among the migrants deported or “pushed back” from Thailand without official notification, often sent back to Laos in boats across the Mekong River. Mini-van drivers sometimes intercept these migrants when they arrive back in Laos and facilitate their re-trafficking. Some adults and children were reportedly subjected to forced labor within Laos in the agricultural sector. A small number of women and girls from Laos are reportedly sold as brides in China and the Republic of Korea and subsequently subjected to sex trafficking; a small number of Lao sex trafficking victims were also identified in Malaysia.
Laos is increasingly a transit country for Vietnamese and Chinese women who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor in neighboring countries, particularly Thailand. Some Vietnamese and Chinese women are also subjected to forced prostitution in Laos, usually in close proximity to casinos or Special Economic Zones, reportedly to meet the demand of Asian tourists. Although there are fewer reported instances of internal trafficking, sex trafficking of Lao women and girls within the country remained a problem.
The Government of Laos does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. During the reporting period, the government continued to operate a transit center in Vientiane, provided funding for the Lao Women’s Union shelter, and continued to rely heavily on foreign donor support for long-term victim assistance. The government obtained fewer convictions of trafficking offenders than in the previous year. In November 2012, following five years of inaction, the prime minister approved a long-awaited national plan of action on human trafficking, but its implementation has not begun. Proactive victim identification measures and systematic monitoring efforts were not implemented during the current year.
Recommendations for Laos: Increase efforts to address internal trafficking by identifying and assisting Lao citizens trafficked within the country and prosecuting perpetrators of these offenses; demonstrate greater efforts to combat the trafficking complicity of public officials, especially on the local level, through the criminal prosecution of officials involved in trafficking crimes; develop monitoring mechanisms for labor recruiters tasked with processing work permits and contracts to prevent the trafficking of migrant workers; implement formal victim identification procedures and train police and border officials to systematically identify trafficking victims, particularly among migrants returning from Thailand; increase resources and vocational trainings to support victims, including male victims, in reintegration after returning to their home communities; develop a victims’ protection framework and raise awareness of options for legal redress available to victims to increase the number of victims willing to testify or assist in investigations; approve memoranda of understanding with NGOs and international organizations in a more timely manner; reduce the demand for sex tourism by promulgating awareness and enforcing criminal penalties; sustain progress on the proposed national database system on trafficking cases; consider allocating a portion of the budget specifically for anti-trafficking activities; and continue to develop a comprehensive anti-trafficking law.
The Lao government’s prosecutions and convictions of trafficking offenders declined during the year. The government prohibits all forms of human trafficking through its 2006 revision of penal code Article 134, which prescribes penalties ranging from five years to life imprisonment, fines ranging from the equivalent of approximately $1,250 to $12,500, and confiscation of assets, which are sufficiently stringent punishments and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The government did not report tangible results during the year from the committee it previously formed to assess gaps in current legislation and to draft a comprehensive law. Within the current reporting period, authorities reported investigating 75 cases of suspected trafficking. Court cases resulted in 18 convictions, a significant decrease from the 37 obtained in the previous year. The government did not specify the nature of these cases nor provide details on punishment or sentences for the individual offenders. During the year, the government led at least 11 donor-funded trainings that reached 335 law enforcement officers and covered topics including the country’s legal framework to combat trafficking and appropriate methods for interviewing victims. However, court proceedings lacked transparency and adequate record-keeping, and the Lao judicial sector remained weak and inefficient. Lawyers did not always have formal training and victims were not made sufficiently aware of their legal rights. In addition, the general public’s continued reluctance to work with law enforcement hampered the government’s ability to effectively investigate internal or cross-border trafficking cases. Corruption remained an endemic problem in Laos. Anti-trafficking organizations have reported that some village or other officials received payment to facilitate the immigration or transportation of girls to Thailand. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials for complicity in human trafficking or trafficking-related activities during the year.
While the Government of Laos continued to provide modest support to victims repatriated from Thailand and victims identified within the country, it did not improve its efforts to proactively identify victims among vulnerable groups, and its overall victim protections remained inadequate. The government did not implement the use of a checklist it previously developed to proactively identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups. Upon their return from Thailand, victims identified by Thai or Lao authorities were referred to shelters or other providers of medical care, counseling services, and vocational training. Lao authorities reported screening undocumented migrants deported from Thailand to identify victims among this vulnerable group, but it is unknown how many victims were identified as a result of these efforts. During the final month of the reporting period, Thai authorities began to “push back” large numbers of Lao migrants into areas of the country where local officials lacked experience identifying and assisting victims. Consequently, unidentified victims among this group faced significant risk of being re-trafficked. During the year, 193 trafficking victims were returned to Laos under the official repatriation system; however, inadequate efforts on both sides of the border to identify victims among undocumented migrants left many victims unidentified. The total number of victims identified or referred to services during the year is unknown, though the government reported 302 victims in the cases it investigated. The government continued to rely almost entirely on NGOs and international organizations to provide or fund victim services. However, the central government operated and partially funded a transit center and a shelter in Vientiane. Victims returning from Thailand stayed temporarily in the transit center while assessments for longer-term arrangements were conducted by the authorities. The shelter, which served female victims of trafficking and other forms of abuse, cared for 28 trafficking victims during the year; the government did not report identifying any foreign victims during the year. NGOs provided the additional long-term support and vocational training available to victims. While the government depended on NGOs to provide resources for many trafficking initiatives, its own internal inefficiencies caused lengthy delays in granting approvals to NGOs and international organizations to implement anti-trafficking efforts in Laos. The government’s ability to provide medical and psycho-social services to victims increased with the signing during the year of a cooperative agreement between an NGO and a government-run hospital in Vientiane. Nevertheless, a lack of adequate long-term support available to victims made them vulnerable to re-trafficking.
Anti-trafficking organizations identified Northern Laos as a region that lacks much-needed victim assistance services. Additionally, although more than one-third of victims identified during the year were male, the majority of services in the country were only available to women. The Lao Women’s Union continued to operate a hotline for reporting a wide range of concerns, including suspected cases of human trafficking; although trafficking-related calls were received, the number was not provided. There were no reports of identified victims being subject to penalties for acts committed as a result of being trafficked, and central government officials instructed provincial authorities that they could not fine repatriated victims for immigration violations. However, the government did not make adequate efforts to identify trafficking victims, which may have led to some victims being treated as law violators. The government reported encouraging victims to cooperate with prosecutions, including through counseling for individual victims in shelters, but the lack of incentives to participate was inadequate to assure victims that formal legal proceedings, which can be lengthy and more costly, offered them a greater benefit than traditional out-of-court mediation. Some interpretation services, provided by volunteers, were available to foreign victims. The government did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face retribution or hardship.
During the past year, with assistance from international organizations and NGOs, the Lao government continued modest prevention efforts. Following five years of inaction, the Prime Minister’s office approved the national action plan in November 2012, though implementation of the plan has not yet begun. The government held a series of anti-trafficking awareness events to celebrate a national day against trafficking in December 2012. The events included a race involving 254 participants from 14 countries, a government-sponsored radio campaign, and poster and banners series displayed in Vientiane. The Lao Women’s Union continued to provide trainings which reached 246 victim service providers during the year, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare partnered with an NGO to train district level officials in Vientiane on laws related to human trafficking and the protection of women and children. The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism hosted experts to provide awareness-raising sessions on child trafficking prevention to government officials and tourism professionals. In March 2012, in an effort to decrease migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking, the government cooperated with an international organization to open two migrant resource centers and train 400 government officers on issues of safe migration. The government cooperated with an international organization to hold a workshop in a tourist area on the problem of child sex tourism and how to combat it. In an effort to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, the government reportedly fined an unknown number of owners and operators of venues and shut down some venues where commercial sex acts occurred. At times, it conducted raids on these establishments; inadequate efforts to identify sex trafficking victims may make some victims vulnerable to arrest. The government took no discernible measures to reduce the demand for forced labor.