[ Country-by-Country Reports ]

LAOS (TIER 2)   [Extracted from U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2009]

Laos is primarily a source country for women and girls trafficked primarily to Thailand for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor as domestic or factory workers. Some Lao men, women, and children migrate to neighboring countries in search of better economic opportunities but are subjected to conditions of forced or bonded labor or forced prostitution after their arrival. Lao men who migrate willingly to Thailand are sometimes subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude in the Thai fishing and construction industry. Women who migrate to Thailand are more likely to rely on recruitment agents and incur debt, increasing their likelihood of becoming trafficking victims. A small number of female citizens were also reportedly trafficked to China to become brides for Chinese men. Ethnic minority populations in Laos are particularly vulnerable to trafficking because of their lack of Thai language skills and unfamiliarity with Thai society. Laos is increasingly a country of transit for Vietnamese, Chinese, and Burmese women destined for Thailand – including trafficked women – due to the construction of new highways and the acceleration of infrastructure projects linking the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia through. There were new reports of Vietnamese women trafficked to Laos by Vietnamese organized crime gangs for forced prostitution in the Vietnamese community. Internal trafficking is also a problem that affects young women and girls who are forced into prostitution in urban areas.

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.

During the last year, the government increased efforts to investigate trafficking offenses and prosecute and punish trafficking offenders. It also sustained collaboration with international organizations and NGOs to provide training for government and law enforcement officials, repatriate and reintegrate Lao victims, and conducting public awareness campaigns. A severe lack of resources, poor training of officials, and an ongoing corruption problem remain key impediments to the government’s ability to combat trafficking in persons. The government continued to be largely dependent upon the international donor community to fund anti-trafficking activities in the country, though it continued to restrict greatly the activities of NGOs, which impeded progress in anti-trafficking efforts.

Recommendations for Laos: Increase efforts to combat internal trafficking, including the prosecution of traffickers and identification of Lao citizens trafficked within the country; create and implement formal victim identification procedures and train police and border officials to identify trafficking victims; increase efforts to combat trafficking-related complicity; implement and support a visible anti-trafficking awareness campaign directed at clients of the sex trade; and improve collaboration with international organizations and civil society to build capacity to combat trafficking in persons.

The Lao government demonstrated some progress in its anti-trafficking law enforcement during the reporting period. Laos prohibits all forms of human trafficking through Penal Code Article 134, which was revised in 2006. The prescribed penalties under Article 134, which are five years to life imprisonment, are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those punishments prescribed for rape. In 2008, Lao judicial authorities convicted 15 individuals of trafficking. Several sentences imposed on convicted traffickers during 2008 consisted of one year’s imprisonment. An additional 53 cases are currently under investigation. Police corruption, a weak judicial sector and the population’s general distrust of the court system impede anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Corruption remains a problem with government officials susceptible to involvement or collusion in trafficking in persons. Observers of trafficking in Laos believe that at the local level, it is almost certain that some officials are involved in facilitating human trafficking, sometimes in collusion with their Thai counterparts. There is also evidence that border officials permit smuggling of all kinds, including of humans. However, no government or law enforcement officials have ever been disciplined or punished for involvement in trafficking in persons. The Lao government collaborated with international organizations and NGOs to increase law enforcement capacity through training for police, investigators, prosecutors, and customs and border officials. Through legal aid clinics, the Lao Bar Association is currently assisting ten victims of trafficking.

The Lao government demonstrated a mixed record in ensuring trafficking victims’ access to protective services during the year. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW) and Immigration Department continued to cooperate with IOM, UNIAP, and a local NGO to provide victim assistance. The MLSW, with NGO funding, also continued operating a small transit center in Vientiane, where identified victims returning from Thailand remain for one week before returning home. Victims not wanting to return home are referred to a long-term shelter run by the Lao Women’s Union or to a local NGO. Victims repatriated to Laos by Thai authorities are accompanied by case files written in Thai, which Lao officials are sometimes unable to read. The government does not penalize victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of their being trafficked. During 2008, 235 formally identified victims of cross-border trafficking were identified in Thailand and repatriated to Laos. The government did not identify any victims of internal trafficking. The government provides medical services, counseling, vocational training, and employment services for victims in its transit shelter in Vientiane. While domestic trafficking victims can also be referred to the transit shelter, there were no victims identified by Lao authorities who stayed in the shelter. During the reporting period, at least two Vietnamese womenwho were sex trafficking victims were identified by Savannakhet provincial units of the anti-trafficking police, and referred to NGOs for assistance and shelter after being housed in a local prison clinic for two weeks The government subsequently – returned seven Vietnamese sex trafficking victims, including one minor, to the establishment where they had been exploited and government officials withheld their passports after the victims told authorities they did not want to be repatriated to Vietnam. Four of the victims later returned to the police, requesting repatriation assistance. They were repatriated, but Lao authorities refused to follow established Vietnamese procedures meant to ensure the safe and voluntary returns of Vietnamese victims. The government did not prosecute or convict any traffickers in this case and the victims did not agree to testify. Although the government encouraged victims to participate in investigations and prosecutions of trafficking offenders, it did not provide foreign victims legal alternatives for their removal to countries where they may face hardship or retribution (e.g., Vietnam) if they testify, and the Lao government did not offer incentives for foreign victims to participate in court proceedings. The Lao government occasionally provides office space, land for shelters, and staff to assist in monitoring assistance programs run by NGOs and international organizations.

The Lao government continued efforts to prevent trafficking in persons with assistance from international organizations and NGOs. With foreign funding, the government has sponsored media messages on the dangers of trafficking. Also, in December 2008, the Lao Youth Union held a day-long event with workshops, puppet shows, and plays to address child trafficking. The event was led by the Deputy Prime Minister/Minister of National Defense who spoke about the dangers of trafficking. The Government of Laos demonstrated limited efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex acts through periodic raids of nightclubs and discos used as fronts for commercial sex. Due to the rise in tourism in Laos and the efforts in neighboring countries to crackdown on foreign pedophiles’ sexual exploitation of local children, Lao government officials and NGOs estimate that child sex tourism is likely to grow in Laos. Laos continued a national campaign to publicize the dangers of child sex tourism in the country, which included the training of tourism sector employees to report suspicious behavior and the display of NGO-created public awareness posters in international hotels.