LAOS: Tier 2 Watch List
Laos is a source and, to a much lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women, children, and men subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Lao trafficking victims often are migrants seeking better opportunities outside the country who experience labor or sexual exploitation after arriving in destination countries, most often Thailand, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, and Japan. Some migrate with the assistance of brokers charging fees, but many also cross borders independently with valid travel documents. Traffickers, including victims’ family members, are often known to those in the rural communities where they lure victims with false promises of legitimate work abroad. Many victims, particularly women and girls, many younger than 18 years old, 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. The government reports foreign traffickers increasingly collaborate with local Lao middlemen to facilitate trafficking. Many trafficking victims may be among the more than 10,000 migrants deported or “pushed back” annually from Thailand without official notification, often sent back to Laos in boats across the Mekong River. Vehicle drivers sometimes intercept these migrants when they arrive back in Laos and facilitate their re-trafficking. A small, possibly increasing, number of women and girls from Laos are sold as brides in China and subjected to sex trafficking. Some local officials may contribute to trafficking by accepting payments to facilitate the immigration or transportation of girls to Thailand.
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 (often illegal) logging and construction areas along the Laos-Vietnam border may be victims of trafficking. They reported similar concerns about Burmese nationals working as manual laborers or involved in the sex trade near the “golden triangle” tri-border area with Burma and Thailand.
There is little data on the scope of trafficking within Laos. Some Vietnamese, Chinese and Lao women and children are subjected to sex trafficking in the country, usually in larger cities or in close proximity to borders, casinos, or special economic zones, reportedly to meet the demand of Asian tourists and migrant workers. Some Lao adults and children are subjected to forced labor in the agricultural sector within Laos. Reports indicate child sex tourists from the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States travel to Laos intending to exploit child sex trafficking victims.
The Government of Laos does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. In December 2015, the Lao National Assembly approved the Law on Anti-Trafficking in Persons, which was promulgated in February 2016. The government completed its 2016-2020 national action plan. Despite these measures, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Laos is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for a third consecutive year. Per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Laos was granted a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3 because its government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards. The number of victims identified declined significantly, and prosecutions and convictions declined for a second consecutive year. The government investigated some foreign tourists suspected of exploiting child sex trafficking victims, but did not initiate any prosecutions in these cases.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR LAOS:
Disseminate and implement formal victim identification procedures and train police and border officials to identify trafficking victims; differentiate between different types of trafficking (i.e. labor and sex), and refer them to care systematically, particularly among migrants “pushed back” from Thailand and domestic victims; increase efforts to identify and combat internal trafficking—including children subjected to sex trafficking and adults and children subjected to forced labor in the commercial agricultural sector—by identifying and assisting Lao citizens subjected to trafficking within the country and prosecuting their traffickers, including complicit officials; implement the new anti-trafficking law and train government officials on its provisions and victim identification guidelines; provide incentives for victims to participate in formal legal proceedings, including through restitution awards from the courts; increase expenditures from the government anti-trafficking budget on service provisions and assistance programs for victims; work with civil society organizations to deliver assistance to victims; in partnership with local and international organizations, increase resources and vocational trainings to support victims, including male victims, to reintegrate into their home communities; increase efforts to prosecute and punish child sex tourists and public officials complicit in trafficking; 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; and collaborate with civil society and across ministries to implement the 2016-2020 national action plan.
The government promulgated new anti-trafficking legislation but made decreased law enforcement efforts. Under article 134 of the penal code, Lao law generally prohibits all forms of human trafficking and prescribes penalties ranging from five years’ to life imprisonment, fines ranging from 10 to 100 million kip ($1,230 to $12,300), and confiscation of assets; these penalties are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In December 2015, the National Assembly approved Laos’ first trafficking-specific law, which was promulgated in February 2016. In 2015, authorities reported investigating 41 individuals and prosecuting nine for suspected trafficking offenses, and convicting 13 traffickers, a decrease from 31 prosecutions and 21 convictions in 2014 and 24 prosecutions and 35 convictions in 2013. Officials reported convicted traffickers received punishments from five to 15 years’ imprisonment and fines ranging from 10 to 100 million kip ($1,230 to $12,300). The government did not provide specific details about these cases, but reported all convictions were achieved under article 134 of its penal code. Foreign donors provided trainings that reached immigration officers, police, and justice officials. Many individuals still relied on out-of-court mediation due to a limited number of trained lawyers or investigative tools necessary to prosecute cases through the courts. Anti-trafficking organizations reported some low-level local officials may have contributed to trafficking by accepting payments to facilitate the immigration or transportation of girls to Thailand. The government did not report any prosecutions or convictions of officials for complicity in human trafficking or trafficking-related activities during the year.
The government maintained inadequate victim identification efforts among those exploited within the country and deported from other countries, and it assisted fewer victims than the previous year. The government did not follow standard procedures for the identification of victims among vulnerable groups. During the reporting period, the government partnered with an international organization to complete nationwide victim identification guidelines for authorities, though these were not implemented. Authorities did not systematically screen deportees from Thailand, leaving some victims unidentified, and front-line officers’ lack of awareness often led to conflation between trafficking and involuntary migration, which may have resulted in victim penalization. Local experts reported provincial authorities did not employ victim identification procedures, leaving victims of internal trafficking largely unidentified. The government continued to provide modest support to some victims, primarily those identified by the Thai government and repatriated to Laos. It reported receiving 143 victims returned from abroad and identifying 46 victims within the country; of these, it provided assistance to all 189 victims, a decrease from 253 victims identified and assisted in 2014.
Victim assistance could include temporary accommodation, legal advice, health care, education, or job training, with most of these services provided and funded by NGOs and international organizations. The government cooperated with several international organizations to run transit centers in Vientiane, where victims returned from Thailand could stay for approximately one week before being returned to their home communities, and a quasi-governmental women’s union operated a short-term shelter for victims of abuse; authorities conducted victim interviews to identify trafficking victims among those referred to these facilities, although an unknown number of victims received services from these centers. In addition, the government referred an unknown number of victims to non-governmental shelters or other providers of medical care, counseling services, and vocational training. The government reported training health professionals on providing assistance to human trafficking victims. A lack of adequate long-term support due to limited resources available made victims vulnerable to re-trafficking. A significant number of identified victims in 2015 were male, but the vast majority of services were only available for women. Several international organizations operate a male and female vocational training and rehabilitation center in southern Laos without support from the government. There are no shelters in northern Laos, where many victims originate.
Central government officials instructed provincial authorities they could not fine repatriated victims for immigration violations. However, a lack of proactive victim identification may have resulted in authorities treating some unidentified victims 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. However, an overall lack of incentives, resources, and lawyers made it difficult to fully participate in formal legal proceedings, which can be lengthy and unlikely to include restitution awards. This situation led some victims to choose traditional out-of-court mediation for quicker and more lucrative redress. The government did not establish formal legal alternatives to the removal of foreign trafficking victims to countries where they may face retribution or hardship, but reported it would consider such options on a case-by-case basis.
The government continued prevention efforts. Government-controlled print, television, and radio media continued to promote anti-trafficking awareness, and public officials distributed materials to provincial leaders and local community members on the dangers of human trafficking. The government continued implementation of its 2012-2015 national action plan. It completed an action plan for 2016-2020 to which it designated personnel resources and for which ministries will use their funding to support their required tasks. The government reported increasing funding for anti-trafficking activities. The government’s national steering committee for anti-trafficking efforts continued to coordinate activities; however, the lack of transparency, active planning, and resources, made it difficult to coordinate activities with all ministries and international partners. Civil society organizations with trafficking expertise report a lack of transparency from the government; at times, authorities may have impeded the work of NGOs by requiring prior government approval of all anti-trafficking activities. The government organized training sessions to raise awareness of human trafficking for the tourism sector and investigated several cases, but did not prosecute or convict any sex tourists. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel. The government took no discernible measures to reduce the demand for forced labor or commercial sex acts.