The government increased prevention efforts. For the first time, the government reported its budget for anti-trafficking activities pursuant to the national action plan, reporting a three-fold increase since 2017 to 300 million Lao kip ($33,840) provided to each ministry during 2018-2019, which included foreign assistance. Ministries could apply to receive more than this amount; however, the government did not report its total anti-trafficking budget. The ministerial level National Steering Committee on Anti-Human Trafficking and the working-level National Secretariat on Anti-Human Trafficking met regularly and led Laos’ anti-trafficking response. The Prime Minister’s 2018 decree on 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 remained a priority. The government newly reported during this reporting period that all 18 provinces had established a committee, and in 12 of those provinces, so had every district. The government also assigned personnel with experience working on human trafficking to steering committees. In practice, coordination between central and local authorities remained a challenge; however, coordination with civil society organizations improved, through joint trainings and formal consultations and partnerships at national and sub-national levels. This collaboration with civil society was evident in the government’s formulation of its next national action plan and of the national victim protection and referral guidelines, as well as in its screening of Lao migrants returning from Thailand via southern border crossings. This was despite government-imposed burdensome reporting requirements, required prior approval for planned activities, and constraints on the receipt of funding from international donors.
State-controlled media highlighted human trafficking cases and government anti-trafficking efforts, and the government—at central and provincial levels—conducted multiple awareness campaigns designed to reach tens of thousands of participants. The government also funded other awareness mechanisms, including a manual on preventing child sex tourism and a workshop on safe migration for some district-level officials. The Ministry of Education and Sports incorporated a human trafficking component into the primary school curriculum. Three government entities—including the LWU—operated hotlines that each reportedly received an average of two calls per day; however, not all hotline staff provided effective assistance or follow-up, and public awareness of these hotlines appeared limited. The government began evaluating implementation of its 2016-2020 national action plan and considered, in consultation with civil society organizations, ideas for a new plan for 2021-2025. However, the government’s annual progress reports on implementation of the existing plan were not publicly available.
Regulations for Lao workers migrating abroad are designed to prevent trafficking but may in fact exacerbate vulnerability to it. A Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW) regulation continued to ban certain unskilled employment categories overseas (e.g., domestic work), which created the risk that some workers would migrate through informal channels, increasing their vulnerability to unscrupulous agents and traffickers. MLSW continued to oversee 24 recruitment agencies authorized to recruit for jobs abroad. These agencies acted as gatekeepers to the formal migration process in Laos. Lao law allowed these agencies to charge workers various recruitment fees. A 2002 MOU on employment cooperation with the Government of Thailand, still in force, provided for a formal labor migration process, but it was costly to workers (requiring forced savings for repatriation and payment of other fees), complex, and time-consuming. As a result, the MOU process has not dissuaded migrants from utilizing irregular migration schemes, though the MOU process led to higher wages and fewer hours of work. A 2018 study by an international organization found formal recruitment centers passed on fees to workers, many workers did not understand the contracts they signed with the recruitment centers, and some Thai employers withheld workers’ passports, all of which increased workers’ vulnerability to trafficking. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel during the reporting period, though it provided trainings on fraudulent marriage and potential sex trafficking for its personnel in China the prior year. The MLSW’s labor attaché in Thailand continued to monitor worksites, but the government did not report that the attaché received training on identifying and referring trafficking cases. Government capacity to register births and issue family books and other civil documents, particularly in remote areas of the country, remained limited and contributed to vulnerability.