LAOS: Tier 3
The Government of Laos does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts to do so compared to the previous reporting period. Although Laos meets the criteria for Tier 2 Watch List, because it has been on Tier 2 Watch List for four consecutive years, it is no longer eligible for that ranking and was therefore downgraded to Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking, including by continuing to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence a modest number of traffickers; providing re-integrative livelihood assistance to some returned victims; and conducting awareness-raising activities in Lao communities at elevated risk of forced labor in relation to large-scale infrastructure projects. However, some officials reportedly continued to facilitate and sometimes profit from illicit activities permissive or generative of trafficking vulnerabilities. Lack of awareness among front-line officers and insufficient border security measures likely prevented the identification and service provision of many Lao victims voluntarily returning or deported from neighboring countries. Poor inter-ministerial coordination and policies constraining the operations of non-government service providers continued to impede effective implementation of Laos’ national action plan to combat trafficking.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR LAOS
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 and referral procedures, with a focus on vulnerable groups; screen for trafficking indicators among foreign workers and Lao men and boys working on large infrastructure, mining, and agricultural projects, in special and specific economic zones, and returning from work in foreign maritime industries, and among Lao women in domestic prostitution, Lao women and girls subjected to forced or fraudulent marriages abroad, and foreign women and girls facing deportation; strengthen efforts to secure, formalize, and monitor unofficial border crossings in remote and mountainous areas commonly used by Lao labor migrants returning from abroad, and screen for trafficking indicators among them; collaborate with civil society to implement the 2016-2020 national action plan; increase expenditures from the government anti-trafficking budget for service provisions and assistance programs for victims, 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; further improve transparency by collecting information on government anti-trafficking activities, including case details and financial allocations, and share this information among ministries and with non-governmental stakeholders; and strengthen efforts at diplomatic missions overseas to assist in victim identification and protection.
The government maintained insufficient law enforcement efforts. Article 134 of the criminal code criminalized sex and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties ranging from five years to life imprisonment, fines ranging from 10 million to 100 million kip ($1,210 to $12,090), and confiscation of assets, depending on the severity of the crime; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2017, the Ministry of Public Security reported investigating 69 incidents, culminating in the positive identification of 44 trafficking cases. At the end of the year, there were 29 ongoing investigations (19 investigations in 2016), and the remaining 15 were pending submission to the prosecutors’ office. Authorities also initiated 13 prosecutions against 24 alleged traffickers (11 in 2016) and secured convictions in eight cases (six in 2016). The total number of traffickers convicted among these cases was unknown. Nine Chinese individuals were reportedly convicted and sentenced on charges related to forced or fraudulent marriage and subsequently delivered to Chinese custody after first serving jail terms in Laos of between nine months and one year. An additional 31 cases submitted by the anti-trafficking police were pending trial at the end of the reporting period, but further details were unavailable. The government did not provide details on the type of trafficking in each case, nor did it disaggregate sentencing data in all cases per convicted trafficker, but courts imposed penalties ranging from nine months to 16 years with fines of up to 50 million kip ($6,040); authorities reported three individuals were sentenced to prison terms longer than one year. Three prosecutions were ongoing 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; authorities received and confirmed reports from international law enforcement agencies on entrance into Laos by known child sex offenders, but did not make efforts to appropriately monitor them.
The Lao Anti-Trafficking Secretariat collaborated with an international organization to integrate trafficking-specific content into the curricula at state-run degree-conferring programs designed for law enforcement officials. Authorities reported disseminating information to 1,346 provincial government officials and law enforcement officers about the 2015 anti-trafficking law (174 in 2016). With the assistance of an international organization, the Office of the Supreme People’s Prosecutor completed a procedural manual for trafficking trials and distributed it to judges and court officers throughout the country; however, due to its delayed release, authorities generally did not implement its provisions during the reporting period. Lao law enforcement agencies continued to cooperate with multilateral organizations and counterpart agencies in China, Malaysia, and Thailand on transnational trafficking investigations—some of which culminated in extraditions—but did not report relevant statistics.
Anti-trafficking organizations and media continued to report some low-level officials contributed to trafficking vulnerabilities by accepting bribes for the facilitation of immigration and transportation of girls to China, including through falsification of travel and identity documents. Observers also reported immigration officials may have enabled the illicit transportation of thousands of undocumented migrant workers from China and Vietnam into Laos for work on large-scale infrastructure, mining, and agricultural projects, where some of them may have been subjected to trafficking. Despite these allegations, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials for complicity in trafficking or trafficking-adjacent crimes during the year.
The government maintained insufficient victim protection efforts. In furtherance of its adoption of the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking in 2016, the government reported producing and disseminating a victim identification manual to Anti-Trafficking Department (ATD) officials throughout the country. However, the government did not take adequate measures to identify domestic or foreign victims. Among the 4,340 Lao individuals confirmed to have been deported or “pushed back” from Thailand in 2017, immigration officials reported referring 167 to NGO services. However, it was unclear how many of these were trafficking victims, and authorities did not systematically screen for trafficking indicators among these groups. This figure marked a significant decrease from the annual average of 10,000 pushback cases in recent years, despite a sharp increase in the number of Lao migrant workers who returned from Thailand as a result of new immigration policies. Observers believed this drove a large number of labor migrants—some of whom were likely trafficking victims—to return to Laos via unofficial border crossings in remote or mountainous regions. Authorities did not adequately respond to this new trend by screening among these groups for trafficking indicators. Front-line officers’ lack of awareness often led to conflation between trafficking and smuggling, which may have resulted in the penalization of victims. Authorities reported officially identifying a total of 86 victims (184 in 2016)—22 Lao victims of internal trafficking (85 in 2016) and 64 Lao victims subjected to trafficking abroad (99 in 2016; 143 in 2015). Officials reportedly screened for, but did not identify, trafficking indicators among 50 Lao women arrested during anti-prostitution raids and detained in June and July 2017; ATD officers “educated” them about the illegality of their conduct and issued warnings to the owners of the raided establishments. Observers were concerned some of these women may have been trafficking victims, despite their lack of formal identification. Unlike in prior years, the government did not disaggregate victim identification statistics by type of trafficking, age, or sex. International organizations identified a higher number of Lao trafficking victims abroad than reported by the government.
Most Lao victims exploited abroad were identified by authorities in neighboring countries. Despite allegations of forced labor among foreign workers involved in large-scale infrastructure, mining, and agricultural operations in Laos—and despite the prevalence of foreigners subjected to sex trafficking, often in relation to these industries—the government did not identify any foreign victims during the reporting period. Bilateral security agreements with China and Vietnam appeared to require Laos to repatriate their respective nationals without processing them through relevant legal channels, including the victim screening and referral procedures outlined in the national action plan.
Officials reported developing National Victim Protection Guidelines, although its provisions were unclear, as was the extent to which authorities consulted or implemented this system as part of their anti-trafficking efforts during the reporting period. Victims were entitled to temporary accommodation, legal advice, health care, education or job training, and sometimes financial and livelihood assistance, although most of these services were provided and funded by NGOs and international organizations with minimal government involvement. The secretariat and local authorities reported engaging in limited direct assistance to victims in 2017, including through provision of 40 head of cattle valued at 160 million kip ($19,340) to 15 male and 17 female victims who returned to their home communities. However, the government did not keep complete records of how many victims benefited from these services during the reporting period. Authorities cooperated with several international organizations to run a transit center in Vientiane, where victims returning from Thailand could stay for approximately one week before being reintroduced to their home communities. A quasi-governmental women’s union operated a single short-term shelter in Vientiane for victims of abuse that also offered services to trafficking victims. This shelter was in contact via its hotline with 46 men, women, and children demonstrating possible trafficking indicators; however, it did not report how many among them it positively identified as trafficking victims. In cooperation with an international organization, the government reportedly referred 50 potential victims to this shelter and another run by an NGO in 2017; the government reported only 22 of these individuals, including 11 children, ultimately benefited from shelter services. A lack of adequate long-term support due to limited resources made victims vulnerable to re-trafficking. Although authorities continued to identify male victims during the reporting period—and despite their particular vulnerabilities to labor trafficking in agriculture, mining, construction, and the maritime sector—the vast majority of services were available only for women. The government did not report instances of trafficking victims seeking or securing restitution; according to one international organization, one Lao woman was in the process of suing to recover wages withheld by her employers in Malaysia, but it was unclear if the Lao authorities assisted in any way.
The government maintained prevention efforts. It formally approved the ASEAN Convention on Trafficking in Persons in April 2017 and presented its instruments of ratification the following May. Authorities signed a new cooperative agreement on anti-trafficking with Thailand and revised preexisting agreements with Vietnam and China. Under the auspices of the latter, Lao authorities traveled to China to consult on cooperative measures to prevent forced and fraudulent marriages—a significant driver of sexual exploitation and forced labor. Anti-trafficking police also conducted interviews with victims in an effort to compile information on hundreds of illicit brokerages and entertainment establishments suspected of the crime throughout the country. The government continued to conduct a range of awareness-raising activities, including production of a television show focusing on trafficking vulnerabilities and, with assistance from an international organization, the creation of mobile advertising groups to educate youth. Authorities also held 33 workshops for more than 4,600 participants across four provinces in order to raise awareness among the communities most vulnerable to forced labor in relation to ongoing construction of a railway connecting China and Laos.
The government did not record complete data on the number of officials who received training on human trafficking. It continued to disseminate information on the 2016 National Action Plan through its national steering committee, which it also ordered to conduct a first annual report on the country’s anti-trafficking efforts in conjunction with NGO partners. This assessment was incomplete at the end of the reporting period. In practice, inter-ministerial efforts and coordination on trafficking prevention remained lacking amid resource constraints and restrictions on operating space for civil society. NGOs reported their cooperation with the government was hampered by the Decree on Non-Profit Associations, provisions of which imposed burdensome reporting requirements, prior approval for planned activities, and constraints on the receipt of funding from international donors. 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. Contacts believed the government had insufficient resources and bandwidth to carry out anti-trafficking work due to prioritization of efforts to address other crimes. 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 lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women, children, and men subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Lao trafficking victims, especially from the southern region of the country, are often migrants seeking opportunities abroad who then 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, while others move independently through Laos’ 23 official border crossings using valid travel documents. Traffickers take advantage of this migration—and the steady movement of Lao population through the country’s 50 unofficial and infrequently-monitored border crossings—to facilitate the trafficking of Lao individuals in neighboring countries. Traffickers in rural communities often lure acquaintances and relatives with false promises of legitimate work opportunities in neighboring countries, then subject them to sex or labor trafficking.
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 thousands of migrants deported or “pushed back” annually from Thailand without official notification, often by way of boats across the Mekong River. Recent changes in Thai immigration policy are reportedly driving many among the 100,000 Lao migrant workers in Thailand to cross back into remote, mountainous regions of the country via porous or unsupervised portions of the shared border. Vehicle drivers sometimes intercept these migrants when they return to Laos and facilitate their re-trafficking. Some number of women and girls from Laos are sold as brides in China and subjected to sex trafficking or forced domestic servitude. Some local officials reportedly contributed to trafficking vulnerabilities by accepting payments to facilitate the immigration 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. Chinese women and girls are also subjected to sex trafficking within Laos. 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. Burmese nationals work as manual laborers or are involved in prostitution near the Lao portion of the “Golden Triangle”—the geographic area marked by the intersection of the Lao, Burmese, and Thai borders.
Some of the 20,000 registered migrant workers in Lao Special or Specific Economic Zones, along with a high number of undocumented workers in these areas, are reportedly vulnerable to trafficking or other labor abuses. An increasing number of Chinese- and Vietnamese-owned companies reportedly facilitate the unregistered entry of labor migrants from their respective countries into Laos—including with possible assistance from corrupt Lao immigration officials—and subject them to forced labor in mines, hydropower plants, and agricultural plantations. Some Lao adults are subjected to forced labor in these sectors within Laos; children in particular are subjected to forced labor in agriculture—often by their families. Other Lao communities may be vulnerable to forced labor in the ongoing construction of a major railway connecting China and Laos, along with a high number of Chinese migrant workers brought to Laos for the project. Some Vietnamese, Chinese, and Lao women and children are subjected to sex trafficking in larger cities and in close proximity to national borders, casinos, and special economic zones—especially those with heavy Chinese investment—reportedly to meet the demand of Asian tourists and migrant workers. NGOs estimate 13,000 individuals are in prostitution in Lao commercial establishments, with as many as three times that figure operating independently throughout the country. International organizations note insufficient or informal birth registration procedures leave as much as 30 percent of the Lao population without identity documentation, significantly increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. Communities resettled due to the construction of dams and other large infrastructure projects may be especially vulnerable to trafficking. Reports indicate child sex tourists from the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States have traveled to Laos for the purpose of exploiting child sex trafficking victims.