LAOS: Tier 2 Watch List
The Government of Laos does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts during the reporting period by expanding training for provincial law enforcement, strengthening processes for the identification of internal trafficking victims, and initiating an increased number of trafficking prosecutions. However, the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. Inter-ministerial efforts and coordination on trafficking prevention remained insufficient. The government employed ineffective victim identification and referral methods abroad due to lack of awareness among front-line officers, and it did not provide or fund protective services to victims. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Laos was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore, Laos remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the fourth consecutive year.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR LAOS
Collaborate with civil society to implement the 2016-2020 national action plan; strengthen efforts to implement the 2016 anti-trafficking law by investigating, prosecuting, and convicting traffickers, including complicit officials, as well as child sex tourists; disseminate, implement, and train police and border officials on formal victim identification procedures, including domestically and among such vulnerable communities as undocumented migrant workers in special or specific economic zones, men and boys in forced labor in the maritime industries, children subjected to forced labor in the commercial agricultural sector, and foreign women and girls facing deportation; increase expenditures from the government anti-trafficking budget for service provisions and assistance programs for victims, including restitution awards from courts and incentive mechanisms for victims to participate in formal legal proceedings, and expand these services for male victims; in partnership with local and international organizations, increase resources and vocational training to support victims, including male victims, to reintegrate into their home communities; improve transparency by collecting information on government anti-trafficking activities, including case details and financial allocations, and share this information among ministries and with nongovernmental stakeholders; consider legislation to penalize knowingly soliciting or patronizing a sex trafficking victim; and strengthen efforts at diplomatic missions overseas to assist in victim identification and protection.
The government maintained modest law enforcement efforts. It promulgated an anti-trafficking law passed in 2015; article 134 of this law generally prohibits all forms of human trafficking and prescribes penalties ranging from five years to life imprisonment, fines ranging from 10 to 100 million kip ($1,224 to $12,240), and confiscation of assets; these penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2016, authorities reported investigating 37 individuals and prosecuting at least 11 for suspected trafficking offenses, leading to the conviction of seven traffickers. This compares to 41 individuals investigated, nine individuals prosecuted, and 13 individuals convicted in 2015 (31 prosecutions and 21 convictions in 2014). The government provided no information on sentencing for the convicted individuals; an international organization reported one of the cases was under appeal at the end of the reporting period. The government provided no information on prosecutions of foreign nationals in Laos who engaged in child sex tourism. The Ministry of Public Security (MOPS) collaborated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), domestic civil society groups focusing on women’s issues, and international organizations to coordinate with local officials on provincial anti-trafficking efforts and to disseminate information to 174 officials about the 2016 anti-trafficking law. The Secretariat assigned the Office of the Supreme People’s Prosecutor to develop a trafficking investigation manual clearly defining the types of offenses, but it is unclear if the work was completed, or if authorities employed it as part of their investigations. Law enforcement also collaborated with Thailand on a number of investigative processes, including victim interviews and criminal pursuit. They also met with Chinese authorities nine times to collaborate and assist with several trafficking issues.
Anti-trafficking organizations and media reported some low-level officials might have contributed to trafficking vulnerabilities by accepting bribes for the facilitation of immigration and transportation of girls to China. Despite these reports, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials for complicity in human trafficking or trafficking-related activities during the year.
The government maintained inadequate victim protection efforts. The government adopted the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking, provisions of which outline robust victim identification and referral procedures, and established a national referral mechanism in accordance with the 2016 anti-trafficking law. The government; however, did not implement these or other previously developed standards in the identification of victims among vulnerable groups. Authorities did not systematically screen for trafficking indicators among deportees from Thailand, nor among the 20 individuals deported from Laos to Vietnam during the reporting period, likely leaving some victims unidentified. Front-line officers’ lack of awareness often led to conflation between trafficking and smuggling, which may have resulted in the penalization of victims. The government reported identifying 85 Lao victims of internal trafficking, an increase from 46 in 2015. The government also reported receiving 99 Lao trafficking victims returned from Thailand, China, and Indonesia—including 84 sex trafficking victims and 15 labor trafficking victims—compared to 143 victims in the previous year. The vast majority of external victims were identified by the authorities in neighboring countries. International organizations reported identifying a higher number of Lao trafficking victims exploited in other countries, and it was unclear if these figures were captured in the government statistics. NGOs experienced difficulties contacting Lao embassies and consulates abroad to report trafficking incidents. The government did not provide any information about protective services supplied to victims, including restitution awards or other incentives to facilitate victims’ participation in formal legal proceedings, and it continued to rely heavily on neighboring countries to identify and refer victims, according to NGOs and MOPS.
Victims could receive temporary accommodation, legal advice, health care, and education or job training, with most of these services provided and funded by NGOs and international organizations; however, the government did not report how many victims benefitted from these services during the reporting period. The government cooperated with several international organizations to run transit centers in Vientiane, where victims returned from Thailand could stay for approximately one week before being reintroduced to their home communities. A quasi-governmental women’s union operated a short-term shelter for victims of abuse that also offered services to trafficking victims. For the first time, MOPS reported providing training on victim identification and assistance to 95 anti-trafficking law enforcement personnel in all 18 provinces during the reporting period. Authorities reported conducting victim-screening interviews at these shelters, as well as at a series of referral offices at international ports of entry, although it was unclear if these interviews culminated in any victim identification or law enforcement efforts. A lack of adequate long-term support due to limited resources made victims vulnerable to re-trafficking. Although a significant number of victims identified in 2016 were male, and despite their particular vulnerabilities to labor trafficking in the maritime sector, the vast majority of services were available only for women.
The government maintained prevention efforts. Government-controlled print, television, and radio media continued to promote anti-trafficking awareness; with the help of foreign donors, public officials expanded distribution of materials on the dangers of human trafficking to provincial leaders, local community members, and civil society groups. Authorities distributed 30,000 calendars featuring trafficking-related content in particularly high-risk border areas. Delays in securing final approval of its draft action plan for 2016-2020 prevented full realization of inter-ministerial efforts and coordination on trafficking prevention. The government reported maintaining funding for anti-trafficking activities in its annual budget, but did not provide specific information on how it allocated this funding. The national steering committee for anti-trafficking efforts continued to coordinate activities; however, civil society organizations reported a lack of government transparency, which, in conjunction with insufficient planning and resources, severely obstructed coordination between relevant ministries and international partners. At times, authorities may have impeded the work of NGOs by requiring prior government approval of all anti-trafficking activities. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel, nor did it take any discernible measures to reduce the demand for forced labor or commercial sex acts.
As reported over the last five years, Laos is a source and, to a much lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women, children, and men subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Lao trafficking victims often are migrants seeking better opportunities outside the country who experience labor or sexual exploitation in destination countries—most often Thailand, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, and Japan. Some migrate with the assistance of brokers charging fees, but many also cross borders independently with valid travel documents. Traffickers, including victims’ family members, are often known to those in the rural communities where they lure victims with false promises of legitimate work abroad.
A large number of victims, particularly women and girls, are exploited in Thailand’s commercial sex industry and in forced labor in domestic service, factories, or agriculture. Lao men and boys are victims of forced labor in Thailand’s fishing, construction, and agricultural industries. Lao victims of forced labor in the Thai fishing industry have been identified in Indonesian waters. NGOs report individuals offering transportation services near the Thai border facilitate the placement of economic migrants into forced labor or sex trafficking in Thailand. Foreign traffickers increasingly collaborate with local Lao middlemen to facilitate trafficking. Many trafficking victims may be among the more than 10,000 migrants deported or “pushed back” annually from Thailand without official notification, often by way of boats across the Mekong River. Vehicle drivers sometimes intercept these migrants when they return to Laos and facilitate their re-trafficking. A small number of women and girls from Laos are sold as brides in China and subjected to sex trafficking; according to the UN, this trend may have spiked during the reporting period due to the sharp increase of Chinese men registering marriages with Lao women in 2016. Some local officials reportedly contributed to trafficking vulnerabilities by accepting payments to facilitate the immigration or transportation of girls to China.
Laos is reportedly a transit country for some Vietnamese and Chinese women and girls who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor in neighboring countries, particularly Thailand. Local organizations reported concerns that some of the Vietnamese men and women working in or near (often illegal) logging and construction areas along the Laos-Vietnam border may be trafficking victims. They reported similar concerns about Burmese nationals working as manual laborers or involved in the sex trade near the “Golden Triangle”—the geographic area marked by the intersection of the Lao, Burmese, and Thai borders.
There remained little data on the scope of trafficking within Laos. International organizations reported a high number of undocumented migrant workers in Lao Special or Specific Economic Zones might be vulnerable to trafficking or other labor abuses. Some Vietnamese, Chinese, and Lao women and children are subjected to sex trafficking in the country, usually in larger cities or in close proximity to borders, casinos, or special economic zones, reportedly to meet the demand of Asian tourists and migrant workers. Some Lao adults and children are subjected to forced labor in the agricultural sector within Laos. Populations in villages resettled due to the construction of dams and other large infrastructure projects may be especially vulnerable. Reports indicate child sex tourists from the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States travel to Laos intending to exploit child sex trafficking victims.