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LAOS: Tier 2 Watch List

The Government of Laos does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government made key achievements during the reporting period; therefore Laos was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. These achievements included providing restitution to some victims of trafficking through the criminal justice process; directly providing services to trafficking victims, including male victims for the first time; issuing a decree in July mandating the creation of multi-sectoral anti-trafficking steering committees at the provincial and local levels; and conducting increased trainings and awareness-raising at the local level to assist with the implementation of the decree. Despite these achievements, the government continued to struggle to identify Lao and foreign victims of trafficking within Laos, despite growing concerns regarding vulnerability to trafficking in specialized economic zones, agricultural plantations, and large-scale infrastructure projects. Amid poor inter-ministerial coordination, policies constraining the operations of non-government service providers continued to impede effective protection efforts and the implementation of Laos’ national action plan to combat trafficking.

Increase efforts to disseminate, implement, and train police and border officials on the National Victim Protection Guidelines, with a focus on vulnerable groups. • Screen for trafficking indicators among vulnerable groups, including but not limited to foreign workers and Lao men and boys working on large infrastructure, mining, and agricultural projects and returning from work overseas, and among Lao and foreign women in domestic prostitution. • Strengthen efforts to secure, formalize, and monitor border crossings in remote and mountainous areas commonly used by Lao labor migrants returning from abroad and screen for trafficking indicators among them. • Train law enforcement officials at the national and local level on updates to the Lao Penal Code to improve their ability to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, including complicit officials and child sex tourists. • Collaborate with civil society to update and extend the National Action Plan beyond 2020, taking into account changing trends and trafficking vulnerabilities. • Increase government efforts and resources dedicated to service provision and assistance programs for victims, and expand these services for male victims. • Cease the requirement that victims formally request restitution in order to receive compensation from their traffickers. • 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 nongovernmental stakeholders. • Strengthen efforts at diplomatic missions overseas to identify and assist Lao victims of sex and labor trafficking.

The government increased law enforcement efforts. In November 2018, the government promulgated an updated penal code. Article 215 of the 2018 Penal Code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed increased penalties of five to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million to 100 million Lao kip ($1,170 to $11,720); if the offense involved a child victim, the fine range increased to 100 million to 500 million Lao kip ($11,720 to $58,580). These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2018, the Anti-Trafficking Department (ATD) within the Ministry of Public Security (MOPS) reported investigating 39 incidents (69 in 2017), culminating in the opening of 26 trafficking cases (44 in 2017). At the end of the year, there were 18 ongoing investigations (29 in 2017, 19 in 2016). Authorities initiated prosecutions in 12 cases against an unknown number of suspected traffickers (13 cases in 2017, 11 in 2016) and secured convictions against 27 traffickers in 11 cases (convictions in eight cases in 2017, six in 2016). Convictions included at least one case of sex trafficking of a minor, and at least one case of labor trafficking of Lao citizens abroad. In nine cases it was unclear if they met the definition of human trafficking; eight of these cases involved potential forced or fraudulent marriage of Lao women to Chinese men. Sentences ranged from one year and one month to 15 years and six months of imprisonment and fines ranging from 2 million to 100 million Lao kip ($234 to $11,720). Courts confiscated 70 million Lao kip ($8,200) in assets from traffickers. Courts ordered restitution in six cases, seizing assets ranging from 6 million to 110.25 million Lao kip ($702 to $12,920) and distributing amounts among the victims in each case. The government provided no information on prosecutions of foreign nationals in Laos who engaged in child sex tourism. However, the 2018 Penal Code added Article 262, criminalizing the travel from one country or place to another to engage in child sex tourism. Local village mediation units often handled citizens’ complaints rather than the official judicial system; there were anecdotal reports that these units resolved some complaints of trafficking rather than referring them to law enforcement.

The Lao Anti-Trafficking Secretariat and National Steering Committee continued to provide training to law enforcement officials, and during this reporting period they directly funded trainings while collaborating with international organizations. Officials worked to disseminate the guidelines for management of trafficking cases, developed in partnership with an international organization, and a manual on prosecuting trafficking cases to judges and assistant judges throughout the country. MOPS, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW), and immigration officials organized or participated in trainings on victim identification, interviewing skills, and referral and service provision for victims of trafficking. The Ministry of Justice organized trainings for district level police, the judiciary, and social welfare officials to disseminate information on laws related to trafficking. Lao law enforcement agencies continued to cooperate with multilateral organizations and counterpart agencies in Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam on transnational trafficking investigations and training opportunities. In at least one instance, this cooperation led to the conviction of a trafficker in Thailand who exploited a Lao national in the fishing industry.

Anti-trafficking organizations and media continued to report that some low-level officials may have 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 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 victim protection efforts. In furtherance of its adoption of the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking in 2016, the government reported disseminating and implementing its victim identification manual to authorities beyond ATD officials, including border officials stationed near at-risk communities. For the first time, the government provided official assistance, including shelter, to male victims of trafficking, although the vast majority of services were available only for women. However, the government did not take adequate measures to identify domestic or foreign victims.

Authorities did not report a clear number of officially identified victims (86 in 2017, 184 in 2016). However, the Lao Women’s Union (LWU) reported providing services, including shelter, to 52 victims of trafficking during 2018, including 47 victims of sex and labor trafficking abroad and five victims identified in Laos; all victims provided services were Lao citizens. Officials reported implementing National Victim Protection Guidelines, including in border areas with significant vulnerability to trafficking. The 2016 Anti-Trafficking Law entitles victims to temporary accommodation, legal advice, health care, education or vocational training, and financial assistance for reintegration. The LWU, which was responsible for government-provided services, operated a single shelter in Vientiane for victims of abuse that also offered services to trafficking victims. During a large operation against prostitution in Vientiane in October 2018, police detained 128 women including 35 foreigners; police did not screen these individuals to determine if they were victims of trafficking. Police reportedly identified four victims of sex trafficking, who they returned home without referring to services. Some victims received restitution through the criminal justice process; however, courts did not provide restitution or compensation unless the victim specifically requested it. Border authorities did not adequately screen returning migrants for trafficking indicators, especially those returning from Thailand.

Authorities in neighboring countries identified most Lao victims exploited abroad. Despite allegations of potential 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. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted trainings for consular officers in China on how to handle claims of fraudulent marriage that could contain trafficking and how to repatriate victims; however, the Ministry did not report whether it trained officers in other countries on how to identify and assist victims. The MLSW provided a labor attaché in Thailand who monitored worksites, but it was not clear if they were trained to identify and refer trafficking cases.

The government increased prevention efforts. In July 2018, the Prime Minister issued a decree mandating the creation of multi-sectoral anti-trafficking steering committees at the provincial and district levels to implement the 2016 Anti-Trafficking Law and National Action Plan. In furtherance of this decree, the government supported awareness campaigns and workshops to support sub-national jurisdictions to form their own anti-trafficking commissions. In an effort to implement the National Action Plan MLSW and the LWU held awareness-raising workshops on safe migration and the protection of victims of trafficking throughout the country, reaching 1,080 people. Trainings targeted district officials, public security, the labor and social welfare departments, the LWU, school administrators, and youth unions. MOFA held trainings to increase the understanding of regional and international conventions on transnational crime, including human trafficking, with a total of 352 participants. The Ministry of Education and Sports hosted awareness-raising seminars on human trafficking targeting education and sports administrators throughout the year, reaching 3,710 participants.

Regulations designed to prevent trafficking may in fact exacerbate vulnerability to trafficking for Lao workers migrating abroad. An MLSW regulation limiting the types of employment for Lao workers abroad potentially drove some workers to migrate through informal channels, increasing their vulnerability to unscrupulous agents and traffickers. MLSW oversaw 24 recruitment agencies authorized to recruit for jobs abroad; a study by an international organization found formal recruitment centers pass on fees to workers, increasing their vulnerability to trafficking.

In practice, inter-ministerial efforts on trafficking prevention remained uncoordinated amid resource constraints and restrictions on operating space for civil society. NGOs reported increased cooperation with the government; however, the 2017 Decree on Non-Profit Associations hampered cooperation, as it 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 funding levels or how it allocated this funding. In December 2018, the National Assembly approved a draft law on Lao Government Representative Offices Overseas that stipulated penal measures for the members and staff in Lao diplomatic offices who engage in human trafficking; the law was pending promulgation at the close of the reporting period.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit victims from Laos abroad, and to a lesser extent, traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Laos. Lao trafficking victims, especially from the southern region of the country, are often migrants seeking opportunities abroad whom traffickers exploit in labor or sex trafficking in destination countries—most often Thailand and China, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Japan. Some victims migrate with the assistance of legal or illegal brokers charging fees, while others move independently through Laos’ 101 official border crossings using valid travel documents. Many of these border crossing are managed by provincial or district level immigration authorities with less formal training and have more limited hours of operation, making them easier transit points for traffickers to facilitate the movement of Lao victims into neighboring countries. 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. Vehicle drivers sometimes intercept migrants when they return to Laos and facilitate their re-trafficking. Traffickers in rural communities often lure acquaintances and relatives with false promises of legitimate work opportunities or promises of marriage in neighboring countries then subject them to sex or labor trafficking.

Traffickers exploit a large number of Lao victims, particularly women and girls, in Thailand in commercial sex and in forced labor in domestic service, factories, or agriculture. Traffickers exploit Lao men and boys in forced labor in Thailand’s fishing, construction, and agricultural industries. Some 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. Sex traffickers also exploit Chinese women and girls in 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. There are reports that Burmese nationals working as manual laborers or 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—may be victims of trafficking, and are at significant risk of trafficking due to low pay and few legal protections within Laos.

Agricultural plantations and special economic zones continue to draw workers from outside Laos, with Chinese firms bringing in thousands of foreign nationals to work on project sites. 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. With insufficient oversight by local authorities, these workers are vulnerable to forced labor in mines, hydropower plants, and agricultural plantations. Other Lao communities may be vulnerable to labor exploitation, including 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. Lao workers are increasingly vulnerable to forced labor within Laos as they migrate internally for work opportunities on foreign investment projects; citizens receive government services based on their registration within their home province, and are often essentially undocumented and unable to obtain services for themselves or their family in another province within Laos without formal assistance from their employer to re-register, potentially leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. Traffickers exploit Vietnamese, Chinese, and Lao women and children in 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 and potentially vulnerable to sex trafficking, 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 and the July 2018 collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy saddle dam 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.

U.S. Department of State

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