Laos is a source, and to a lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women, children, and men who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Lao trafficking victims often are migrants seeking work outside the country—sometimes with the assistance of brokers who charge high fees—who encounter conditions of labor or sexual exploitation after arriving in destination countries, most often Thailand. Many victims, particularly women and girls, are exploited in Thailand’s commercial sex trade and in forced labor in domestic service, factories, or agricultural industries. A small number of these girls are as young as 11 or 12-years-old. Lao men and boys are victims of forced labor in Thailand in the fishing, construction, and agricultural industries such as duck farms. NGOs report that individuals offering transportation services near the Thai border facilitate the placement of economic migrants into forced labor or sex trafficking in Thailand. Many trafficking victims may be among the more than 17,000 migrants deported or “pushed back” from Thailand without official notification, often sent back to Laos in boats across the Mekong River. Mini-van drivers sometimes intercept these migrants when they arrive back in Laos and facilitate their re-trafficking. A small number of women and girls from Laos are sold as brides in China and South Korea and subsequently subjected to sex trafficking. Lao women have been subjected to sex trafficking in Malaysia and possibly Indonesia. A small number of Lao have been subjected to trafficking in Vietnam.
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 large-scale—and often illegal—logging and construction areas along the Lao-Vietnam border may be victims of trafficking. There is little data on the scope of trafficking within Laos, but some Vietnamese and Chinese women and girls, as well as girls and boys from Laos, are subjected to sex trafficking in the country, usually in close proximity to borders, casinos, or Special Economic Zones, or in the country’s larger cities, reportedly to meet the demand of Asian tourists and migrant workers. Some Lao adults and children are subjected to forced labor within Laos in the agricultural sector.
The Government of Laos does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government continued to prosecute trafficking offenses and convict traffickers, and to provide short-term assistance to some victims with a heavy reliance on support from foreign donors. Despite these measures, the Government of Laos did not demonstrate evidence of overall increasing efforts to combat trafficking since the previous reporting period; therefore, Laos is placed on Tier 2 Watch List. It did not provide case details to establish that all reported cases involved trafficking. The government relied almost entirely on local and international organizations to implement anti-trafficking programs in Laos. It did not report identifying any victims of trafficking; its official statistics include only those victims identified by authorities or organizations in Thailand. The government’s continued failure to expeditiously approve Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with anti-trafficking organizations hampered the overall effectiveness of anti-trafficking activities in the country.
Recommendations for Laos:
Include organizations with expertise in drafting anti-trafficking legislation in all stages of the drafting process for the new law; implement formal victim identification procedures and train police and border officials to systematically identify trafficking victims, and refer them to care, particularly among migrants “pushed back” from Thailand and domestic victims; with assistance from international partners, develop a database to collect information on the government’s anti-trafficking activities and share the information with interested stakeholders; increase efforts to address internal trafficking—including children subjected to sex trafficking to meet local and foreign demand, and adults and children subjected to forced labor in the commercial agricultural sector—by identifying and assisting Lao citizens trafficked within the country and prosecuting perpetrators of these offenses; approve MOUs with NGOs and international organizations more quickly to allow them to implement activities to assist victims; increase overall government expenditures on service provision to victims and awareness campaigns to warn of the dangers of human trafficking; in partnership with local and international organizations, increase resources and vocational trainings to support victims, including male victims, in reintegrating into their home communities; reduce the demand for sex tourism by promulgating awareness in targeted locations and enforcing criminal penalties; and demonstrate greater efforts to combat the trafficking complicity of public officials, especially at the local level, through the criminal prosecution of officials involved in trafficking crimes.
The Lao government sustained moderate efforts to prosecute and convict trafficking offenders. The government prohibits all forms of human trafficking through its 2006 revision of penal code Article 134, which prescribes penalties ranging from five years’ to life imprisonment, fines ranging from the equivalent of approximately $1,250 to $12,500, and confiscation of assets; these penalties are sufficiently stringent punishments and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The government reported it began drafting the framework for comprehensive-trafficking-specific legislation, but organizations with anti-trafficking expertise reported concerns that the government did not include them in this process. Within the current reporting period, authorities reported investigating 56 cases of suspected trafficking and submitting 24 of these cases for prosecution. Court cases reportedly resulted in 35 convictions, an increase from 18 convictions in the previous reporting period, but similar to conviction rates in past years. The government did not specify the nature of these cases or provide details on punishments for individual offenders. Media reports and information from international organizations indicate that at least five cases involved Lao victims being exploited in Thailand, and convicted offenders received sentences of 15 or more years’ imprisonment. The government failed to collect data on its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Court proceedings lacked transparency and adequately detailed record-keeping, and the Lao judicial sector remained weak and inefficient. The government led donor-funded anti-trafficking trainings that reached at least 244 local officials. The government reported conducting cooperative investigations with the governments of Malaysia, China, and Thailand. In addition, the general public’s continued reluctance to work with law enforcement and reliance on out-of-court mediation hampered the government’s ability to effectively investigate internal or cross-border trafficking cases. Corruption remained an endemic problem in Laos. Anti-trafficking organizations have reported that some local officials received payment to facilitate the immigration or transportation of girls to Thailand. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials for complicity in human trafficking or trafficking-related activities during the year.
While the Government of Laos continued to provide modest support to victims identified by the Thai government and repatriated to Laos, it failed to proactively identify victims exploited within the country or among those deported from other countries, and its overall victim protection efforts remained inadequate. During the year, 103 victims identified by Thai authorities were returned to Laos under the official repatriation system between the two countries. These are the only victims officially recognized by the Lao government; the government’s official statistics do not include victims identified through other methods, though an NGO reported providing services to 43 additional victims. Lao authorities did not follow systematic procedures for the identification of victims, and the government did not complete revisions to a previously developed checklist for the identification of victims among vulnerable groups. Deportees from Thailand were not systematically screened, and front-line officers’ lack of awareness often led to a conflation between trafficking and involuntary migration. The Lao embassy in Bangkok worked with an international organization to repatriate victims identified in Thailand, but Lao diplomatic missions did not provide additional support for victims of trafficking abroad.
The government continued to rely almost entirely on NGOs and international organizations to provide or fund victim services, though it cooperated with an NGO to run a transit center in Vientiane. Upon their return from Thailand, victims stayed in the transit center for approximately one week while assessments for longer-term arrangements were conducted by the authorities, or were referred directly to shelters or other providers of medical care, counseling services, and vocational training. Government and non-governmental stakeholders reported that a project implemented by an international organization to improve coordination among public and private shelter facilities strengthened the effectiveness of the referral network during the year. The quasi-governmental Lao Women’s Union operated a shelter (for victims of a number of forms of abuse) that cared for 20 female and 12 male victims, the majority of whom were subsequently returned to their home communities after a short stay.
NGOs provided all of the limited long-term support and vocational training that was available to victims during the reporting period. The lack of adequate long-term support available in the country made victims vulnerable to re-trafficking. The government’s internal inefficiencies led to lengthy delays in granting approvals to NGOs and international organizations to implement anti-trafficking efforts in Laos. Some organizations remained waiting for almost two years for MOU approval to conduct certain anti-trafficking activities. During the year, due in part to insufficient cooperation from local police, operations to rescue child sex trafficking victims and women in prostitution—a population vulnerable to trafficking—were suspended.
Anti-trafficking organizations identified northern Laos as a region that lacks much-needed victim assistance services. Although Lao men and boys were subjected to trafficking, the vast majority of services in the country were only available to women. There were no reports of identified victims being subjected to penalties for acts committed as a result of being trafficked, and central government officials instructed provincial authorities that they could not fine repatriated victims for immigration violations. A lack of proactive victim identification may have led to some victims being treated as law violators. Lawyers did not always have formal training and victims were not always made sufficiently aware of their legal rights. The government reported encouraging victims to cooperate with prosecutions, and the Lao Women’s Union made efforts to familiarize individual victims with the court process, but cultural preferences and an overall lack of incentives for participation in formal legal proceedings, which can be lengthy and costly, led many victims to choose traditional out-of-court mediation for redress. Reports from international organizations and media outlets indicated that in at least two court cases, convicted offenders were ordered to pay restitution to victims as part of their sentences. The government did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face retribution or hardship.
With assistance from international organizations and NGOs, the Lao government continued modest prevention efforts. Implementation of the government’s national action plan began during the year; however, international organizations implemented the vast majority of the activities. The 2013 work plan was deferred, and became part of the 2014 work plan. In December 2013, the government and partner organizations conducted a 10-day public awareness campaign in three provinces that included public talks, a media campaign, and a walk with more than 700 participants. Government-controlled print media published a variety of articles on human trafficking in 2013, covering topics such as safe migration and anti-trafficking training events. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs distributed materials about safe migration and the risks of human trafficking to Lao citizens applying for passports. The government continued to lead or co-lead training for officials funded by civil society organizations; such trainings reached at least 445 officials covering topics such as victim protection and safe migration. During the year, the government deported a group of nine young asylum seekers to North Korea and publicly characterized this action as anti-trafficking. By failing to make efforts to protect this vulnerable group of children and young adults, it directly increased their vulnerability to trafficking by the North Korean government, which is known to imprison returning defectors and subject them to various forms of abuse, including forced labor. Furthermore, these actions demonstrated the government’s willingness to exploit the issue of human trafficking for political reasons and called into question government officials’ understanding of human trafficking. The Department of Tourism continued to distribute materials produced by an international organization on the protection of children during travel and the illegality of sex tourism. The government reportedly fined an unknown number of owners and operators of venues and shut down some venues where commercial sex acts occurred. At times, it conducted raids on these establishments; inadequate efforts to identify sex trafficking victims may have made some victims vulnerable to arrest. The government took no discernible measures to reduce the demand for forced labor or commercial sex acts. The government continued to block the release of a study by an international organization on the commercial sexual exploitation of children.