Laos (Tier 2)

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 demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Laos remained on Tier 2. These efforts included investigating and referring to prosecutors significantly more suspected traffickers and training more law enforcement officers on anti-trafficking laws than in 2020; conducting new awareness-raising activities in areas with high trafficking prevalence; increasing victim repatriation among both Lao and foreign nationals; and initiating and implementing new oversight and protection measures within highly vulnerable special economic zones (SEZs). However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Authorities did not evenly apply victim identification and referral procedures when conducting health screenings for the many thousands of Lao migrant workers who returned from abroad during the pandemic or among vulnerable workers at foreign-owned rubber and banana plantations, foreign-invested infrastructure construction sites, or garment factories known for trafficking indicators. Victim protection services were disproportionately unavailable to male victims of trafficking and members of LGBTQI+ communities. Anti-trafficking awareness and capacity among border officials in key transit areas remained low despite ongoing government training initiatives.

  • Continue to increase efforts to disseminate, implement, and train police and border officials on the national victim protection and referral guidelines.
  • Proactively screen for trafficking indicators among vulnerable groups, including Lao and foreign workers on large infrastructure, mining, and agricultural projects, to include projects affiliated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as Lao communities displaced by these projects; Lao and foreign nationals employed in SEZs; Lao labor migrants returning from work abroad through border crossings; and Lao and foreign women and girls discovered during police raids of nightclubs, karaoke bars, and other establishments that facilitate commercial sex.
  • Increase efforts to proactively identify and provide protection services to men, boys, and LGBTQI+ victims of forced labor and sex trafficking.
  • Train members of the central and provincial COVID-19 Task Forces, especially personnel involved in processing returning migrants, on victim identification and referral procedures.
  • Further train law enforcement officials at the national and local level on the Lao Penal Code to improve their ability to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, including complicit officials, those operating within SEZs, and child sex tourists.
  • Publicize and adequately staff all available government anti-trafficking hotlines and train staff on victim identification and referral.
  • Increase trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.
  • Further reduce barriers to formal labor migration to reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers, including by eliminating worker-paid recruitment fees.
  • Continue to strengthen efforts at diplomatic missions overseas to identify and assist Lao victims of sex and labor trafficking.

The government increased law enforcement efforts. Article 215 of the penal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of five to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million to 100 million Lao kip ($899 to $8,970); if the crime involved a child victim, the fine range increased to 100 million to 500 million Lao kip ($8,970 to $44,850). These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape.

The closure of many courts and judicial offices during a series of national pandemic-related lockdowns constrained the government’s ability to carry out some investigative and enforcement work in 2021. Despite these obstacles, the Anti-Trafficking Department (ATD) within the Ministry of Public Security investigated 39 potential cases of trafficking involving 77 suspected perpetrators from January to December 2021 (compared with 21 cases involving 43 perpetrators in 2020). Of these 39 cases, police completed the investigation of and referred to the Office of the Supreme People’s Prosecutor (OSPP) 25 cases involving an unspecified number of suspected traffickers (compared with 10 cases involving 20 suspected traffickers in 2020). Unlike the previous year, none of these cases appeared to involve fraudulent marriage; authorities did not provide further disaggregated case information on types of trafficking. The OSPP submitted 21 of the 25 cases for prosecution, returned one case to provincial security officials for further investigation, and rejected one case; two cases remained with investigators. Authorities initiated court proceedings in 13 of the cases, seven of which culminated in the conviction of 10 traffickers (compared with 11 traffickers convicted in five cases in 2020); the government did not disaggregate convictions by type of trafficking or provide sentencing data, unlike in 2020.

Authorities noted difficulties conducting investigations at worksites affiliated with the BRI, under which many Lao workers remained vulnerable to forced labor in 2021. However, the government took some initial steps to hold potential traffickers accountable in response to public outcry over working conditions in at least one such site. In April 2021, authorities arrested and charged the absconded PRC national owner of a local cement plant for refusing to pay months’ worth of contractual wages to hundreds of Lao employees—a common forced labor indicator among BRI employees. Further information on specific charges or the status of his case were unavailable. The government increased oversight of some SEZs and cooperated with foreign governments on removing potential trafficking victims from exploitative conditions therein. Unlike in 2020, and despite ongoing jurisdictional challenges, provincial officials reported initiating an investigation into labor trafficking allegations in the Golden Triangle SEZ in Bokeo in early 2022; however, they did not report whether the investigation was criminal in nature. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials for complicity in trafficking or trafficking-adjacent crimes during the year.

Authorities provided training on anti-trafficking laws to at least 300 police officers in 2021, along with regional workshops on transnational crime and trafficking, in several provinces nationwide (compared with 129 officers trained in 2020). They also maintained Anti-Trafficking Units within provincial and district police departments to coordinate with the ATD, which disseminated National Plan of Action implementation guidelines tailored for provincial- and district-level anti-trafficking law enforcement activities in early 2022. The government continued to cooperate with the PRC, Thailand, Vietnam, and international organizations pursuant to existing bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding (MOUs) on information sharing, case investigation and prosecution, and victim repatriation. Several provinces and districts maintained and at times updated formal anti-trafficking cooperation agreements with Thai counterparts. However, pandemic-related border closures often impeded Laos’ international anti-trafficking law enforcement cooperation; Thai authorities cancelled at least one pending court case involving an alleged Lao victim during the year.

The government increased some victim protection efforts, including by taking unprecedented action to work with international partners to remove Lao and foreign nationals from exploitation in sex trafficking and forced labor in jurisdictionally complex SEZs. The government continued to disseminate among officials victim identification and referral guidelines created in consultation with civil society groups in the prior reporting period, and officials continued to identify and refer trafficking victims to protection services in 2021; however, the lack of consistent identification and referral practices throughout the country remained an obstacle to providing sufficient protection services to all victims, particularly amid pandemic-related challenges. The government identified 110 trafficking victims in 2021, including 30 adult women, 62 girls, five adult men, and 13 boys. Unlike in prior years, authorities did not further disaggregate this data by type of trafficking; given the government’s tendency to include forced and fraudulent marriage cases with victim identification data in past years, this figure likely included forced and/or fraudulent marriage cases that featured corollary sex or labor trafficking indicators. Traffickers exploited the majority of these victims abroad, mostly in the PRC and Thailand. Eighteen of the identified victims were foreign nationals (compared with no foreign nationals identified in 2020). The total marked a slight decrease from 142 victims identified in 2020 (21 victims of sex trafficking, 39 victims of labor trafficking, 66 victims of fraudulent marriage, and 16 victims of other forms of exploitation), likely attributable to the pandemic-related closure of international borders, bars, restaurants, and other entertainment sites known for trafficking vulnerabilities and a downturn in some domestic and joint bilateral law enforcement activities. The central ATD was the sole authority able to formally identify trafficking victims. In practice, provincial police, immigration police, village-level authorities, the government-funded Lao Women’s Union (LWU), and NGOs could also screen for and identify victims and refer them to the ATD for formal identification. ATD and other police and border officials—including those stationed near or in at-risk communities, the LWU, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)—continued to use a victim identification manual created in a prior year in conjunction with an international organization. The government identified numerous cases of forced labor within SEZs after formal victim data collection had concluded; as such, the true number of victims identified was higher than reported. The ATD did not report if it counted or tracked victims who declined official assistance. The government maintained a series of hotlines for incidents of trafficking, domestic abuse, gender-based violence, child protection, and various forms of labor exploitation; these connected more than 4,000 individuals with assistance in 2021, but authorities did not provide disaggregated information on trafficking victims identified or referred through these hotlines (unreported in 2020). All hotlines experienced staffing shortages during the pandemic, and public awareness of their existence remained limited. Officials and NGO experts noted authorities were less likely to identify men and LGBTQI+ individuals as victims of trafficking.

Government officials continued conducting and participating in victim protection training despite pandemic-related challenges, although some activities were delayed. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW) reported providing training on child protection, including with anti-trafficking equities, to district- and village-level authorities. The LWU trained at least 318 provincial- and district-level officials in six provinces on victim identification, referral, and other protection-related topics. Ministry of Justice officials held multiple training sessions on legal aid provision for trafficking victims. Officials from health, education, defense, and tourism ministries also conducted provincial- and national-level symposia on victim identification. However, the government continued to demonstrate inconsistent victim identification measures in certain parts of the country and within specific sectors. Citing jurisdictional and public health-related challenges, authorities did not proactively screen for or identify trafficking victims in foreign-owned rubber and banana plantations, garment factories, or foreign-funded infrastructure projects—all locations that presented some indicators of trafficking. Officials reported plans to establish victim screening checkpoints along the recently completed Lao-China Railway by December 2021 but did not provide updates to the process. Authorities did not report conducting raids of establishments facilitating commercial sex in 2021; most of these sites were closed as a public health measure during the pandemic. There were limited media reports of police intervening in unsanctioned social gatherings in violation of lockdown orders and placing some individuals in quarantine centers, but information on potential victim screenings was unavailable. In prior years, central and provincial-level police often failed to proactively screen for trafficking indicators during these raids and therefore may have arrested some adult and child sex trafficking victims for “prostitution” violations. The government’s National Task Force for COVID-19—a multi-sector committee led by the Ministry of Health (MOH)—screened all Lao migrants returning to the country through formal border checkpoints and oversaw quarantine centers; however, the task force focused primarily on health examinations for the large volume of returnees and did not consistently screen this vulnerable population for trafficking. The LWU reported some Lao nationals were screened for trafficking indicators when returning through formal checkpoints, including through close coordination between NGO service providers and the ATD. Border officials continued to demonstrate low capacity to detect incidents of trafficking. Authorities trained Lao diplomatic officials to identify victims and report cases to the ATD or MOFA; however, the government did not report if these officials continued to employ victim identification measures during the reporting period. In 2021, the government established a committee to revise the country’s primary child rights law, but authorities did not report whether pending changes would include specific anti-trafficking equities.

The government reported directly providing only 15 of 110 victims identified—including eight girls and six boys—with shelter, medical care, education, vocational training, financial assistance, and community reintegration support through the LWU’s Counseling and Protection Center for Women and Children (compared with 60 referrals to unspecified LWU services in 2020). This indicated a slight improvement in the referral and protection of male victims, but officials continued to acknowledge male and LGBTQI+ survivors of trafficking faced relative difficulties accessing protection services. Only one adult victim benefitted from government protection services during the reporting period. Observers ascribed the overall decrease in victim referrals to the closure of the government-run shelter for much of the year as a public health measure; quarantine centers provided protection services to trafficking victims among returning migrants during the reporting period, but official statistics were unavailable. The provision of shelter or other protective services was not contingent upon victims’ cooperation with law enforcement or testimony in court. LWU officials reported finalizing construction of a new shelter in Luang Namtha—a border area known for high incidence of trafficking via forced and fraudulent marriage—that included designated space for men, women, and transgender survivors; it was not yet fully operational by the end of the reporting period.

The OSPP reported victims could testify behind a curtain to protect their privacy and ensure their safety, and that it was working to expand availability of this service nationwide, but it did not report how many victims benefitted from the option while testifying against traffickers in 2021. The OSPP reportedly collaborated with an international organization to provide judges and prosecutors with new victim-centered trial guidelines, which were under judicial review at the end of the reporting period. The government reported victims could request civil compensation, including in conjunction with a criminal trial. Despite widespread closures during the pandemic, courts ordered nine defendants to pay 65.5 million Lao kip ($5,880) to 11 victims in 2021 (compared with nine defendants ordered to pay 78 million Lao kip ($7,000) to four victims in 2020). Observers noted a trend in which Thai authorities were increasingly prosecuting forced labor crimes under lesser “labor exploitation” charges, thereby constraining Lao victims’ access to compensation in many transnational cases.

Unlike the previous year, in 2021, Lao authorities reported working with international counterparts to repatriate 37 Thai, 12 Vietnamese, and six Russian workers from the Golden Triangle SEZ following allegations of forced labor and sex trafficking; this work continued into 2022, particularly through cooperation with the Thai government. Authorities separately repatriated 14 Vietnamese victims from Vientiane with cooperation from the Vietnamese government. Notably, authorities reported repatriating and providing reintegration services to 220 Lao women and girls whom PRC nationals had subjected to forced or fraudulent marriage—which often included corollary sex trafficking and/or forced labor indicators—in the PRC (unreported in 2020). They also worked with the Governments of Malaysia and Thailand to return at least seven Lao survivors (five victims of forced labor and at least two victims of unspecified trafficking crimes, respectively) but did not provide further information on their cases or status, including whether they received protection services. The LWU and the MLSW were responsible for providing reintegration services for trafficking victims but relied heavily on NGOs to offer such assistance. The government did not report providing legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution.

The government increased prevention efforts, including by taking steps to improve oversight of labor recruitment and conditions within highly vulnerable SEZs. The government provided an unspecified amount of funding for anti-trafficking activities on a case-by-case basis, rather than allocating a set budget to each ministry (compared with 300 million Lao kip ($26,910) allocated to each ministry during the previous reporting period). The ministerial-level National Steering Committee on Anti-Human Trafficking and the working-level National Secretariat on Anti-Human Trafficking continued to meet virtually during the pandemic to coordinate Laos’ trafficking prevention activities. Government coordination with civil society organizations also continued in 2021 through the multisector Human Trafficking Working Group, which convened virtually to share best practices and maintain partnerships at national and sub-national levels, including as related to challenges and opportunities in anti-trafficking enforcement in the SEZs. In May 2021, the government approved a new national action plan for the 2021-2025 period. The government did not make publicly available its annual progress report on implementation of the action plan.

The government continued to conduct a range of anti-trafficking education and outreach efforts for officials, tourism industry representatives, and local communities through public posters, radio segments, and television, including a nationally broadcast weekly television program on trafficking issues. This also included training sessions targeting migrant workers, communities in areas with foreign agricultural land concessions, and vulnerable border areas with a high prevalence of trafficking via forced and fraudulent marriage in the PRC. MLSW continued to conduct some skills training and job placement services for Lao workers in an effort to discourage returned migrants from illegally seeking employment abroad, but some of this work suffered pandemic-related delays. In 2021, authorities also initiated efforts to train local communities in new agricultural techniques in an attempt to reduce their income dependence on vulnerable foreign-owned banana plantations. Officials reported consulting with civil society groups to establish COVID-19 mitigation strategies in order to continue anti-trafficking training activities during the pandemic.

The formal migration process remained insufficient to prevent exploitation in sex trafficking or forced labor for many Lao migrant workers. However, the government slightly improved its oversight and regulation of labor recruitment in 2021. MLSW continued to oversee 34 recruitment agencies authorized to recruit for jobs abroad, although most of these agencies were closed during the reporting period. These agencies acted as gatekeepers to the formal migration process in Laos, and the law allowed them to charge workers various recruitment fees, some of which continued to contribute to indebtedness that placed Lao workers at risk of trafficking abroad. In early 2022, officials reportedly began consultations with an international organization to reduce recruitment brokerage fees; authorities did not provide further information on the status of this process. The government also opened two new recruitment centers in Bokeo to support legal and regulated employment in the Golden Triangle SEZ. Following forced labor allegations in the SEZ, its leadership released new rules guaranteeing specific labor conditions and other preventative measures in contracts between workers and companies therein; the quasi-governmental Lao Federation of Trade Unions also began negotiating MOUs with the central government to establish labor advocacy representation in all companies employing more than 10 workers within Laos, including in the SEZs. Officials and NGO representatives reportedly worked throughout 2021 to terminate work contracts for SEZ employees who filed formal and informal complaints of labor abuses. No further information on these initiatives was available at the end of the reporting period, and some observers predicted difficulties in implementation; others considered them a significant improvement to legacy shortcomings in oversight measures for the highly vulnerable areas, given the widespread fraudulent recruitment of Lao and foreign nationals into sex and labor trafficking there.

The government maintained bilateral labor agreements with several common destination countries, including the PRC, Cambodia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Lao authorities renegotiated their bilateral anti-trafficking agreement with the Government of Thailand in 2021 and reported a series of unspecified improvements on prior insufficiencies, but they did not provide further information. The prior agreement outlined a formal labor migration process that was costly to workers, overly complex, and dissuasively time-consuming in a manner that reportedly caused many Lao migrants to opt for irregular and far more vulnerable migratory channels. Once in Thailand, these workers were further vulnerable to passport retention, wage and contract irregularities, physical abuse, and many other forced labor indicators. The MLSW continued to employ a labor attaché in Thailand who could register employment grievances of Lao workers in the country. The labor attaché received training from international organizations and the Government of Thailand before and during his assignment, but authorities did not report if the attaché formally identified any trafficking victims there during the reporting period. 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 general trafficking vulnerability. The government began to modernize civil registration systems in 2021 but did not provide updates to this process, which likely suffered delays during the pandemic. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex, although the enforced closure of entertainment sites as a pandemic mitigation measure significantly impeded the commission of commercial sex acts in 2021.

As reported over the last five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims within Laos, and traffickers exploit victims from Laos abroad; traffickers also make use of Lao territory to transport foreign victims to other countries in the region. Laos is primarily a source country for human trafficking. NGOs estimated in 2018 that 13,000 individuals in Laos are in commercial sex in established businesses and are potentially vulnerable to sex trafficking, with as many as three times that figure operating independently throughout the country. Lao farmers growing maize and cassava are reportedly more vulnerable to forced labor through indebtedness to local community leaders. With no oversight by local authorities, foreign and Lao workers at or near foreign-owned or foreign-operated agricultural operations, including banana and rubber plantations; transportation infrastructure construction sites, including those affiliated with the PRC’s BRI; and SEZs are extremely vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking. Pandemic-related restrictions on freedom of movement have significantly compounded these vulnerabilities, particularly in remote agricultural areas. A study conducted by an international organization in 2019 reported the presence of women in commercial sex and children in sex trafficking near PRC-financed railway construction sites affiliated with the BRI. Lao communities displaced by frequent natural disasters; foreign-invested mining and construction operations, including those affiliated with the BRI; and foreign agricultural land concessions may be vulnerable to trafficking amid ensuing economic hardships.

Since March 2020, hundreds of thousands of Lao migrants formally and informally working in Thailand and other countries, including Malaysia and the PRC, have returned to Laos, culminating in widespread unemployment within the country and increased economic hardship for families dependent on foreign remittances. These conditions have placed many Lao workers in potentially exploitative situations as they travel domestically within Laos in search of low-salary jobs—including at PRC-managed land concessions and SEZs—or illegally migrate for work abroad, particularly back to Thailand. Police observed that the closure of the Laos-Thailand border created a local demand for commercial sex, which, following the closure of bars and nightclubs as a pandemic mitigation measure, in turn may have led to a spike in sex trafficking in hotels and private residences.

The pandemic-related closure of garment factories in 2021 and a significant downturn in the tourism industry led to widespread disproportionate unemployment among Lao women, who are increasingly vulnerable to predatory recruitment practices as a result. Against this backdrop, SEZ casinos have used social media to lure hundreds of Lao women to work as “chat girls”—online representatives selling casino stock to male customers—with false promises of high salaries, free meals, and free accommodations. Many of these women do not meet the unattainably high sales quotas set by the casino managers and are forced to incur debt to pay the difference, as well as to pay for meals and accommodations; casino managers then leverage this debt to confine them and subject them to forced labor and sex trafficking. Traffickers operating in Laos and Dubai lure young Lao men and women into fraudulent online cryptocurrency sales operations and “resell” those who cannot meet their quotas to other criminal networks for forced labor in similar fraud schemes, domestic servitude, or sex 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.

Some Burmese, PRC, Russian, Thai, and Vietnamese nationals are reportedly subjected to sex trafficking in the Golden Triangle SEZ located at the intersection of the Lao, Burmese, and Thai borders, where thousands of undocumented migrant workers are also vulnerable to forced labor in debt-based coercion. Other reports indicate Burmese nationals working as manual laborers or involved in commercial sex near the Lao portion of the Golden Triangle may be victims of trafficking. Lao and foreign nationals, including migrant workers from the PRC, experience conditions indicative of forced labor at PRC-owned mining companies. Traffickers also exploit Vietnamese, PRC national, and Lao women and children in sex trafficking in larger Lao cities and in close proximity to national borders, casinos, and other SEZs, reportedly to meet the demand of international tourists and migrant workers.

Observers report new costs related to COVID-19 testing required by formal labor agreements with key destination countries have catalyzed an increase in the irregular migration of Lao nationals through informal channels known for trafficking vulnerabilities. During pandemic-related border closures, traffickers have deceived some local communities into believing that Laos’ international borders had reopened in order to lure them into sex trafficking and forced labor abroad. Traffickers have targeted Lao labor migrants from the southern part of the country in particular. Some victims migrate with the assistance of legal or illegal brokers charging fees; this is increasingly occurring under the direction of Lao intermediaries working with foreign traffickers. Others move independently through Laos’ 27 official border crossings using valid travel documents. Many of these border crossings are managed by provincial- or district-level immigration authorities with less formal training and limited hours of operation, making them easier transit points for traffickers to facilitate the movement of Lao victims into neighboring countries. Traffickers in rural communities often lure Lao women and girls with false promises of legitimate work opportunities or promises of marriage—typically through the use of marriage brokers—to nationals in neighboring countries, primarily the PRC, and then subject them to sex trafficking, forced labor, and forced concubinage leading to forced childbearing. This trend reportedly increased following completion of the Lao-China Railway but fluctuated during pandemic-related travel restrictions and border closures; traffickers also use other methods to transport Lao victims overland through Thailand en route to the PRC for these purposes. Brokered marriages between rural Lao women and PRC men employed at SEZs known for trafficking vulnerabilities also increased during the pandemic. Children from economically disadvantaged rural areas are especially vulnerable to trafficking, given the legal work age of 14, the widespread closure of schools during the pandemic, and the lure of higher wages abroad. Traffickers exploit a large number of Lao women and girls in Thailand in commercial sex and forced labor in domestic service, factories, or agriculture. According to Thailand-based public health organizations, traffickers take advantage of the undocumented immigration status of some Lao men and boys to subject them to sex trafficking. Traffickers exploit Lao men and boys in forced labor in Thailand’s fishing, construction, and agricultural industries. Lao men are also subjected to forced labor on fishing vessels operating in Indonesian territorial waters. Companies operating under the auspices of the Japanese government’s “Technical Intern Training Program” have exploited Lao nationals in forced labor in agriculture and several other sectors. Lao women and girls are reportedly vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking at “girl bars”—entertainment sites advertising paid “accompaniment” services often involving sex acts with young women and girls—in urban areas in Japan.

U.S. Department of State

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