HUMAN RIGHTS AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN LAOS

HUMAN RIGHTS IN LAOS

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Laos is often portrayed in guidebooks and tourist brochures as a gentle land of stilt houses along the Mekong River, smiling and easygoing rice farmers, Buddhist monks and village silk weavers. But the contrast to these placid images is a Communist party, formally called the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, that crushes anything deemed to be a threat to its monopoly on power. “There’s a nostalgic picture of women in their wraparound skirts, a beautiful country with tourist attractions,” said Adisorn Semyaem, an expert on Laos at the Mekong Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “That’s not the total picture. There’s also another side of the coin.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, January 10, 2013]

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is an authoritarian one-party state ruled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The most recent National Assembly (NA) election was held in 2011. The constitution legitimizes only a single party, the LPRP, and almost all candidates in the 2011 election were LPRP members vetted by the party. Security forces reported to civilian authorities. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

The constitution provides for equal treatment under the law for all citizens without regard to sex, social status, education, faith, or ethnicity. The government at times took action when well-documented and obvious cases of discrimination came to the attention of high-level officials, although the legal mechanism whereby citizens may bring charges of discrimination against individuals or organizations was neither well developed nor widely understood among the general population.^^

The central government continued to deny citizens the right to change their government. Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening. Corruption in the police and judiciary persisted. The government infringed on citizens' right to privacy and did not respect the rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, or association. Local officials at times restricted religious freedom and freedom of movement. Trafficking in persons remained a problem. Workers' rights were restricted. ^^

The central government continued to deny citizens the right to change their government. Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening. Corruption in the police and judiciary persisted. The government infringed on citizens' right to privacy and did not respect the rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, or association. Local officials at times restricted religious freedom and freedom of movement. Trafficking in persons remained a problem. Workers' rights were restricted. ^^

Citizens do not have the right to change their government. Although the constitution outlines a system composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the LPRP controlled governance and the leadership at all levels through its constitutionally designated "leading role."^^

There were no domestic human rights NGOs. The government only sporadically responded in writing to requests for information on the human rights situation from international human rights organizations. However, the government maintained human rights dialogues with several foreign governments and continued to receive training in UN human rights conventions from several international donors. The government maintained contacts and cooperated with the ICRC in various activities for the implementation of international humanitarian law.^^

A human rights division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has responsibility for investigating allegations of human rights violations. However, in practice the division apparently had no authority to perform or order other ministries to undertake investigations. The ministry on occasion responded to inquiries from the UN regarding the human rights situation in the country.^^

Human Rights in Laos in the 1980s and 90s

Human rights have been gaining a measure of respect in Laos. In the early years of the LPDR, party authorities arbitrarily sent people labeled as social deviants--"prostitutes, addicts, gamblers, hippies, thieves, and lost children"--to seminar camps. Political opponents associated with the former RLG--perhaps as many as 30,000 to 50,000--were also confined to these camps. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

By the late 1980s, there was a slight liberalization in the granting of human rights. Many, although not all, of the seminar camps had been closed, and some former inmates were assigned to labor and construction units and collective farms near the camps. It became easier for a citizen to travel within the country and gain permission to cross the Mekong River to Thailand or travel abroad. As of April 1994, any Laotian with an identification card and foreigners with valid visas were permitted to travel anywhere in the country--with specific travel papers--except to a few, unspecified, "restricted areas." Restrictions on Buddhist religious practices became more relaxed, and even high-level government officials routinely attended Buddhist functions. The number of Buddhist monks increased, with some 30,000 reported to be practicing in 1991. The agents of state internal security, principally the police and other cadres of the Ministry of Interior, seemed less oppressive. In 1991 twenty-five detainees who had been held at seminar camps since 1975 were released. The number the government was known to be holding as of 1993 had diminished to fewer than twelve, all former officials or military officers of the RLG. The LPDR claimed that the remaining detainees were free to travel in Houaphan Province, where they are confined. *

Nonetheless, many freedoms remain inaccessible. The government controls most large public gatherings, and, except for religious, athletic, and communal events, generally organizes them. Political demonstrations, protest marches, and other "destabilizing subversive activities" are expressly banned by the new penal code. The constitution guarantees the freedoms of speech and the press, but the exercise of these freedoms is subject to a wide range of government controls. *

Laos Backsliding on Human Rights

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Laos “has taken halting steps to modernize its one-party system in recent years but has also cracked down on dissent, and its security services have been linked to a series of politically motivated assassinations in neighboring Thailand. A precise accounting of repression in Laos is difficult to obtain because the news media are controlled by the government and communication is poor across the impoverished countryside. But one measure of politically related violence can be found when it spills over into the country’s freewheeling neighbor, Thailand, where it is recorded by the police and reported in the news media. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, January 10, 2013 +++]

“Adisorn Semyaem, an expert on Laos at the Mekong Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, who has researched Lao politics for the past two decades, has compiled a list of more than 20 Lao citizens assassinated in Thailand over what appear to be political reasons, including a Buddhist monk who opposed the government and a member of the former Lao royal family. The crimes all remain unresolved. Inside Laos, the government periodically arrests members of Protestant Christian religious groups, farmers who complain that their land had been taken away and anyone else whom they judge to “have political agendas,” Mr. Adisorn said. +++

“If Laos has avoided the same level of scrutiny of other authoritarian countries in the region, it is partly because the political oppression is hardly visible to outsiders when they visit. The center of Vientiane has lively, outdoor restaurants and countless small hotels and tourist shops. But as the country opens up and embraces capitalism more vigorously, there are tensions between the old and new Laos, between a more transparent government and the more cloistered system that fought off U.S.-backed militias during what is known as the Secret War of the 1960s and 1970s. “There’s not total, 100 percent agreement or understanding about how to manage a market economy, a more globally oriented rule-of-law state and yet maintain the kind of political system they have,” said Ms. Stewart, the U.S. ambassador. +++

“The country’s National Assembly has taken a more assertive role in debating government policies that were previously dictated by the top leaders. Last year, Laos completed negotiations to join the World Trade Organization and was the host of a major meeting between the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the grouping of 10 countries in which Laos is seeking a more active role. At the same time, the Lao government cracked down on budding signs of free expression. In January 2012, the authorities shut down a radio program that discussed the issue of land seizures — a hot topic with the increasing number of projects in rural areas led by Chinese and Vietnamese companies. The host of that radio program, Ounkeo Souksavanh, said that farmers who appeared on the program were arrested several months later. In December, the government expelled Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the head of the Lao chapter of the Swiss charity Helvetas, citing her “explicit rejection” of the Lao political system. +++

Freedom of Speech and Press in Laos

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, in practice the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism that it deemed harmful to its reputation. The law forbids slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Authorities prohibited the dissemination of materials deemed by the Ministry of Information and Culture to be indecent, subversive of "national culture," or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to the national culture faced a fine or imprisonment up to one year.^^

The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news in all media reflected government policy. Although domestic television and radio broadcasts were closely controlled, the government did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Many citizens routinely watched Thai television or listened to Thai radio, including news broadcasts from international news sources. Citizens had 24-hour access to international stations via satellite and cable television. The government required registration of receiving satellite dishes and payment of a one-time licensing fee, largely as a revenue-generating measure, but otherwise made no effort to restrict use.^^

The government permitted the publication of several privately owned periodicals of a nonpolitical nature, including those specializing in business, society, and trade. While officials did not review in advance all articles in these periodicals, they reviewed them after publication and could penalize periodicals whose articles did not meet government approval. A few foreign newspapers and magazines were available through private outlets that had government permission to sell them.^^

The government required foreign journalists to apply for special visas and restricted their activities. Authorities did not allow journalists free access to information sources, but often allowed them to travel without official escorts. When escorts were required, they reportedly were at journalists' expense.^^

Freedom of Assembly and Association in Laos

The law provides for freedom of assembly; however, the government restricted this right in practice. The law prohibits participation in demonstrations, protest marches, or other acts that cause "turmoil or social instability." Participation in such acts is punishable by prison terms of one to five years. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

The law provides citizens the right to organize and join associations, but the government restricted this right in practice. For example, political groups other than popular-front organizations approved by the LPRP are forbidden. A new decree that the government began implementing in 2009 allows the registration of nonprofit civil society organizations--including economic, social-welfare, professional, technical, and creative associations--at the district, provincial, or national level, depending on the scope of work and membership. Only one organization completed the application process by year's end.^^

Torture and Arbitrary Arrest in Laos

The law prohibits the beating or torture of an arrested person. In practice, members of the police and security forces sometimes abused prisoners. Detainees occasionally were subjected to beatings and long-term solitary confinement in completely darkened rooms, and in many cases they were detained in leg chains or wooden stocks for long periods. Former inmates reported that degrading treatment, the chaining and manacling of prisoners, and solitary confinement in small unlit rooms were standard punishments in larger prisons, while smaller provincial or district prisons employed manacles and chains to prevent prisoners from escaping. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, in practice, the government did not respect these provisions and arbitrary arrest and detention persisted. Authorities at times continued to detain prisoners after they completed their sentences, particularly in cases where prisoners were unable to pay court fines. In other cases prisoners were released contingent upon their agreement to pay fines at a later date.^^

There is a one-year statutory limit for detention without trial. The length of detention without a pretrial hearing or formal charges is also limited to one year. The Office of the Prosecutor General (OPG) reportedly made efforts to ensure that all prisoners were brought to trial within the one-year limit, but the limit occasionally was ignored. The OPG must authorize police to hold a suspect pending investigation. Authorization is given in three-month increments, and a suspect must be released after a maximum of one year if police do not have sufficient evidence to bring charges. There is a bail system, but its implementation was arbitrary. Prisoner access to family members and a lawyer was not assured, and incommunicado detention remained a problem.^^

Arbitrary Interference with Privacy in Laos

The law generally protects privacy, including that of mail, telephone, and electronic correspondence, but the government reportedly violated these legal protections when there was a perceived security threat. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

The law prohibits unlawful searches and seizures. By law police must obtain search authorization from a prosecutor or a panel of judges, but in practice police did not always obtain prior approval, especially in rural areas. Security laws allow the government to monitor individuals' movements and private communications, including via cell phones and e-mail.^^

The MoPS regularly monitored citizen activities through a surveillance network that included a secret police element. A militia in urban and rural areas, operating under the aegis of the armed forces, shared responsibility for maintaining public order and reported "undesirable elements" to police. Members of the LPRP's front organizations, including the Lao Women's Union (LWU), the Youth Union, and the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), also played a role in monitoring citizens at all societal levels.^^

The government relocated some villagers for land concessions given to development projects and continued to relocate highland farmers, most of whom belonged to ethnic minority groups, to lowland areas under its plan to end opium production and slash-and-burn agriculture. In some areas, officials persuaded villagers to move; in others, villagers relocated spontaneously to be closer to roads, markets, and government services. While there were no reports of the government forcibly relocating villagers, there were reports of individuals displaced by government projects. Although the resettlement plan called for compensating farmers for lost land and providing resettlement assistance, this assistance was not available in many cases or was insufficient to give relocated farmers the means to adjust. Moreover, in some areas farmland allotted to relocated villagers was poor and unsuited for intensive rice farming, resulting in some relocated villagers experiencing increased poverty, hunger, malnourishment, and disease. The government relied on assistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), bilateral donors, and international organizations to cover the needs of those recently resettled, but such aid was not available in all areas.^^

The law allows citizens to marry foreigners only with prior government approval; marriages without it may be annulled, with both parties subject to arrest and fines. Premarital cohabitation with foreigners is illegal. The government routinely granted permission to marry, but the process was lengthy and burdensome, offering officials the opportunity to solicit bribes.^^

Censorship and Freedom of the Press, See Media.

Political Prisoners and Detainees in Laos

There were three well-known political prisoners. Colonel Sing Chanthakoumane, an official of the pre-1975 government, was serving a life sentence after a 1990 trial that was not conducted according to international standards. The government continued to prevent access to him and ignored requests to release him on humanitarian grounds. At least two persons, Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Seng-aloun Phengboun, arrested in 1999 for attempting to organize a prodemocracy demonstration, continued to serve 15-year sentences for antigovernment activities. Authorities allowed families to visit them, but no humanitarian organization had regular access to them. The government declared the prisoners would not be released despite an international call for their release. The government also denied having any information about nine individuals allegedly detained in November 2009 while traveling to the capital for a protest. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

According to some Internet reports, authorities continued to detain a small but unknown number of persons, particularly members of the Hmong ethnic group suspected of insurgent activities, for allegedly violating criminal laws concerning national security. There were no credible reports during the year of persons arrested, tried, and convicted under laws relating to national security that prevent public court trials.^^

In 1999, five students taking part in the first anti-government protests since the fall of the monarchy were arrested and "the Lao Government has refused to reveal their fate, or publicly acknowledge that they have been detained." [Source:Patrick Cullen, Newcastle Herald, December 13, 2003]

Disappearance of Prominent Aid Worker in Laos

In mid December 2012, 60-year-old Sombath Somphone—a prominent social activist who received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005 for his social and environmental work— disappeared. Closed-circuit TV footage showed Sombath being taken to a roadside police station in the capital city Vientiane after he was stopped by traffic police. Thursday, Human Rights Watch said the footage and other accounts “indicate that Lao authorities took him into custody, raising concerns for his safety.” But Lao authorities quickly rejected the charge, asserting that Sombath had been kidnapped as a result of "a personal conflict or a conflict in business." The Lao government did not provide any evidence to support their statement, but said it was investigating the disappearance.[Source: mongabay.com, December 23, 2012 \*\]

Sombath's work focused on sustainable development in Laos. According to UNESCO, Sombath has pushed "eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises and to enhance education by introducing fuel-efficient stoves, promoting locally-produced organic fertilizer, devising new processing techniques and marketing strategies for small businesses, initiating garbage recycling in the capital city, and organizing extra curricular programs for the youth." \*\

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “He was last seen driving home in his old, rusty jeep. And then he vanished. The disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a United States-trained agriculture specialist who led one of the most successful nonprofit organizations in Laos, has baffled his family and friends and raised alarms that a nascent liberalization of the Communist-ruled country could be sliding backward. Mr. Sombath, who won many awards for his public service, was known to be nonconfrontational and adept at forging compromises with the authoritarian government of Laos. “We have no malice against the government,” said Ng Shui Meng, Mr. Sombath’s wife, who is from Singapore and met Mr. Sombath while they both studied in the United States. “We want to live our lives quietly.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, January 10, 2013 +++]

“The disappearance has set off an enormous campaign by Mr. Sombath’s large network of friends and aid workers across Southeast Asia who know him from his development work. The campaign has put Laos, an obscure country run by an opaque Communist party, under increasing pressure to provide answers. Paradoxically for the Lao government, it is a network of cameras that the municipal police installed over the past three years to monitor “anti-social behavior” that have pointed to signs of the government’s involvement in Mr. Sombath’s disappearance. +++

Helpful workers at a local police station initially showed the family images of Mr. Sombath’s jeep stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15. Mr. Sombath then appeared to be driven off in a white vehicle.Family members had the presence of mind to record the footage with their own digital devices — crucial because the government now refuses to let them view the video again despite pleas by diplomats who would like to analyze it for clues like license plates. (The video is now circulating on YouTube and is also available at sombath.org, a site put up by Mr. Sombath’s friends and dedicated to tracing his whereabouts). +++

“Since the search for Mr. Sombath began, the Lao government has issued only short statements that suggest, without offering details, that he may have been involved in a personal dispute. But those following the case closely remain unconvinced. “The bottom line is that we haven’t heard anything beyond a brief statement that doesn’t clarify anything,” Karen B. Stewart, the U.S. ambassador to Laos, said in an interview. “There’s been no full report about the status of the investigation or whatever is going on.” +++

Possible Reason for Disappearance of Prominent Aid Worker in Laos

While his activities aren't thought to have posed a direct threat to Lao PDR's notoriously authoritarian government, his participation in a recent NGO gathering may be linked to his disappearance, According to Associated Press: “As the senior NGO figure in Laos, Sombath had a high profile at the Asian-Europe People’s Forum, which is held on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting of ministerial-level leaders from both continents. The people’s forum highlighted the concerns of NGOs, whose priorities—such as safeguarding the environment and ensuring fair use of land for small farmers—are often at odds with those of the government, which emphasizes rapid economic growth. Harassing Sombath would send a message to the NGO community not to challenge the government. In a similar fashion, Laos earlier this month expelled the head representative of the Swiss NGO Helvetas for criticizing the government. [Source: mongabay.com, December 23, 2012 \*\]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “The possible motives for his disappearance remain unclear. He retired last year from his organization, the Participatory Development Training Center, but continued to be engaged with nonprofit organizations in Laos. Some speculate that going after such a high-profile personality was a warning to other private groups. “To this day I am baffled,” Mr. Sombath’s wife said. She rejects the term “activist” that many news organizations have used in describing him. “We have lived here for a long time, during periods when Laos was less open than now, when people were afraid to talk openly. We survived that period without something like this happening.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, January 10, 2013 +++]

“Mr. Sombath’s U.S. connections may have made some old-guard officials suspicious, friends and old acquaintances say. He was an exchange student in Wisconsin in high school and went to college in Hawaii. But his farming roots — both his parents were rice farmers in Laos — and his three decades of carrying out programs to help the poor won over many people. In 2005, he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, which honors public service in Asia. Ms. Ng frets for her husband’s health and safety at the couple’s home overlooking the Mekong River. Mr. Sombath has a prostate condition and had been prescribed daily medication. “I don’t know where he is,” she said. “I hope he is safe.” Mr. Adisorn has an extensive network of contacts inside the Lao government and has been asking about Mr. Sombath’s case. Adisorn Semyaem, an expert on Laos at the Mekong Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok said, “I assume that he is still alive but that the government is finding it very difficult to find a way out of the situation.” +++

“There is a troubling precedent for a politically linked disappearance. In 2007, Sompawn Khantisouk, the manager of an ecotourism guesthouse who was outspoken in his criticism of Chinese-owned plantations in the north of the country, disappeared and has not been seen since. +++

Human Trafficking in Laos

Laos is a source, and to a much lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women and girls subjected to sex trafficking, and men, women, and children in conditions of forced labor in factory work, domestic labor, agriculture, and the fishing industry. Lao men, women, and children are found in conditions of forced labor in Thailand, Malaysia, and China. Many Laotian migrants, particularly women, pay broker fees to obtain jobs in Thailand, normally ranging from $70 to $200, but are subsequently subjected to conditions of sexual servitude and forced labor in Thailand’s commercial sex trade or in domestic service, garment factories, or agricultural industries subsequent to their arrival. Lao men are subjected to conditions of forced labor in the Thai fishing and construction industry. Many Lao nationals formally identified as victims trafficked in Thailand choose to take the risk of attempting migration to Thailand again after being repatriated to Laos. [Source: Embassy of the United States , June 27, 2011 <^>]

A small number of Lao women and girls reportedly are subjected to conditions of trafficking in China, where some are forced to marry Chinese men. Ethnic minority populations are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in Thailand, due to their lack of Thai language skills and unfamiliarity with Thai society. Laos is increasingly a transit country for Vietnamese, Chinese, and Burmese women who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor in Thailand. Some Vietnamese women are subjected to forced prostitution in Laos. Although there are fewer reported instances, trafficking within Laos also remains a problem, affecting young women and girls forced into prostitution. Lao men and boys are victims of forced labor in the country on agricultural plantations, including rubber plantations. Laos may be increasingly a destination for sex tourists from Asia. <^>

Human Trafficking Between China and Laos

Sexual exploitation and forced labor are among the most common forms of human trafficking between Laos and China. Some girls and young women are kidnaped in Laos and taken to China and sold as brides. In November 2009, Ma Guihua wrote in the China Daily, “Zhao Xianming, a narcotics control officer for Mengla county in Southwest China's Yunnan province, remembers July 25 clearly.Around midday, he received a call from a senior police officer of Phongsaly province, northern Laos, urging him to stop a bus going from Lao to Mengla. "I was told that a Laotian woman suspected of trafficking two girls was trying to bypass border check points," recalls Zhao.The two victims, cousins aged 14 and 15, had been excited about the prospects of working at a restaurant in a neighboring county in Laos promised by the Laotian woman, who was married to a Chinese man. They never imagined that they were actually heading for China. "Thanks to timely communication, the two girls were rescued at the border crossing and handed to the Lao police the same day," says Zhao. [Source: Ma Guihua, China Daily, November 2, 2009 />/]

“Mengla is Yunnan's southernmost county and shares a 677.8-km border with Laos in the south and east. It is separated from Myanmar on the west by just a river. With 46 land crossings, 14 market places for border residents, as well as five motorways to the Lao and Myanmar border, it is regarded a major passageway to Southeast Asia. People living on the Lao-China border tend to share the same customs and speak the same language. But differences in economic levels on either side of the border have sparked cross-border migration, and with this has emerged human trafficking. />/

“In the 10 years that he has worked in narcotics control in Mengla, Zhao has been involved in rescuing and returning more than 10 victims of trafficking from Laos. "Most victims are teenage girls from mountainous areas in northern Lao, who were lured by job or marriage prospects on the other side of the border," says the Kunming Army Academy graduate who is fluent in the Lao language. Although economic factors are the driving force in cross-border migration, Zhao also cites the gender ratio that is skewed in favor of men, as a reason. />/

“With more Chinese farmers engaged in growing rubber trees or other cash crops to help the locals weed out poppy production in Laos - which is part of the notorious Golden Triangle for drugs - a clandestine cross-border match-making service has emerged. This is reinforced by the growing demand for brides smuggled from Laos, according to Zhao. Says Wang Wei, police chief in Mengla, since 2000 the police have received 31 reports of trafficking from Laos. Of these, 19 were tracked down to Hunan, Shanxi, Henan and Shandong. Some were even found as far as Suzhou in East China's Jiangsu province. />/

“Although trafficking along the China-Lao border is not as bad as along the China-Myanmar and China-Vietnam border, the opening of the Kunming-Bangkok highway (via Mengla) last year is cause for concern. "We have to brace ourselves for more cases," says Hang Lintao, of the Yunnan Public Security Bureau. A Global Report on Trafficking in Persons released this February by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that almost 20 percent of all trafficking victims were children. In some parts of the Mekong region including China, it noted, children formed the majority. Sexual exploitation and forced labor are the most common forms of human trafficking, it noted. />/

“The latest report by the United Nations Children's Fund titled Child Trafficking in East and Southeast Asia: Reversing the Trend warns that child trafficking continues in East and Southeast Asia. "Poverty does not cause trafficking. The demand for cheap or exploitable labor, sex with children, adoption outside the legal channels, women or girls for marriage, all contribute to the trafficking phenomenon," it said. />/

“He Ye, a Yunnan-based anti-trafficking project manager for Save the Children, an international charity for children, sees changes in cross-border trafficking patterns. Since 2002, Chinese girls from Yunnan looking for jobs or visiting relatives across the border have been increasingly trafficked to Malaysia or Thailand and have ended up being sexually exploited. Meanwhile, girls from Laos and Vietnam were trafficked to China and sold as brides. Since 2004, says He, Save the Children has rescued 50 Chinese girls from Thailand and Malaysia, with the help of police and the women's federation in Yunnan province. />/

“Says Li Ping, director for communications at Save the Children (China): "As child trafficking is taking on varying forms, such as a shift of boys trafficked for adoption to sexual exploitation, a holistic view of rights protection should be taken to address the root cause. No link in the trafficking chain should be missing." With rapid economic development in the border region, there is an increased risk of trafficking as a result of migration and improved transportation, making children and women more vulnerable. According to Kirsten di Martino, chief of Child Protection Section with UNICEF-China, although media figures of cross-border cases appear quite low, "it is in fact only the tip of the iceberg", as there isn't a good mechanism in place to report and follow any trafficking incidences when they unfold. />/

Combating Human Trafficking in Laos

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 reporting period, the government reported investigating 20 trafficking cases and convicting 33 trafficking offenders, a dramatic increase from zero convictions during the previous reporting period. However, the government has never administratively or criminally punished any public official for complicity in trafficking in persons. The government also began efforts to identify and assist trafficking victims who were deported by Thai authorities for immigration violations. The government continued to rely almost completely on NGOs and international organizations to provide victim assistance. [Source: Embassy of the United States , June 27, 2011 <^>]

The Lao government continued limited efforts to prevent trafficking in persons with assistance from international organizations and NGOs. The MLSW continued work with UNICEF and NGOs on public awareness efforts on the risks of child trafficking. Government-controlled media continued to report on human trafficking in newspapers. Authorities continued to publicize warnings about child sex tourism during the year. In September 2010, the Lao Youth Union hosted a seminar on human trafficking prevention. During the year, the Ministerial Committee on Trafficking continued to meet on a quarterly basis. The National Assembly approved a National Plan of Action on human trafficking in 2007 that has yet to be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office. In April 2010, the government signed an MOU on victim repatriation with the Government of Vietnam. Authorities did not employ screening procedures to identify trafficking victims among persons found in prostitution during raids of nightclubs used as fronts for commercial sex. The government did not make efforts during the year to reduce the demand for commercial sex. <^>

Recommendations for Laos: Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute both sex and labor trafficking offenders, including through cooperation with Thai authorities on cross-border trafficking cases; make efforts to address internal trafficking, including by identifying and assisting Lao citizens trafficked within the country and prosecuting their traffickers; increase efforts to combat trafficking complicity of public officials, including through the criminal prosecution of officials involved in trafficking crimes; regulate labor recruitment agencies tasked with processing work permits and contracts to prevent the trafficking of migrant workers; create and implement formal victim identification procedures and train police and border officials to systematically identify trafficking victims, particularly victims returning from Thailand; improve coordination between Thai authorities and the central government regarding victim assistance and between the Vientiane transit center and local communities regarding victims’ return and reintegration; make greater efforts to conduct family assessments to determine whether it is in the best interest of victims to return to their families; consider opening a transit center in Savannakhet for victims repatriated from Thailand; increase resources to support victims in reintegration after returning to their home communities; expedite the processing of NGO memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to implement anti-trafficking projects; implement and support a visible anti-trafficking awareness campaign directed at clients of the sex trade; and increase collaboration with international organizations and civil society to build capacity to combat trafficking in persons. <^>

Anti-Human-Trafficking Laws and Protection in Laos

The Lao government made progress in its anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts during the year. Laos 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, which are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Authorities reported investigating 20 trafficking cases involving 47 alleged offenders, and convicting 33 trafficking offenders in 2010, compared with zero convictions during the previous year. However, court proceedings lacked due process and transparency, the Lao judicial sector remained weak and inefficient, and prison conditions raised serious human rights concerns. [Source: Embassy of the United States , June 27, 2011 <^>]

The general public’s reluctance to use the court system hampers the government’s ability to effectively pursue trafficking cases; most Lao prefer to rely on village mediation to resolve conflicts. In at least seven of the 33 convictions, sentences ranged from six years’ to over 16 years’ imprisonment. International organizations and NGOs were not able to verify data provided by the government. The government did not report prosecuting any cases of internal trafficking. Impunity of corrupt government officials remained a problem throughout the Lao justice system. Corruption is endemic in Laos, and observers of trafficking in Laos believe that some public officials – particularly at local levels – are involved in facilitating human trafficking, sometimes in collusion with their Thai counterparts. Nevertheless, the government has never reported any officials investigated, prosecuted, or punished for involvement in trafficking in persons. The government continued to partner with international organizations and NGOs on law enforcement capacity building. <^>

The Government of Laos made increased efforts to identify and assist trafficking victims during the reporting period. While the government did not create or implement formal victim identification procedures to proactively identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups, such as migrants returning from Thailand and girls and women detained for involvement in prostitution, authorities reported efforts to identify trafficking victims among the tens of thousands of Lao citizens deported by Thai authorities during the year. Victims were provided with medical care and some were referred to shelters. The government was unable to provide the number of victims identified among deported migrants, but reported that in some groups of deportees, 50 to 100 sex and labor trafficking victims were identified and referred to the police for investigations. The government continued to rely almost completely on NGOs and international organizations to provide victim services. Lao authorities did not report identifying any foreign victims of trafficking during the year. <^>

In 2010, Thai authorities identified and repatriated approximately 145 Lao victims under an official repatriation mechanism, almost all of whom were underage girls. The Lao Embassy in Bangkok assisted in coordinating repatriation of Lao nationals who were identified as trafficking victims in Thailand. The Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW), with support from an international organization, continued to operate a small transit center in Vientiane for victims identified and repatriated by Thai authorities; the victims remained in the shelter for one week while authorities conducted medical check-ups and family tracing. However, while most repatriated victims were from southern Laos, all victims were required to be processed through the Vientiane transit center in central Laos. Female victims who were interested in receiving greater assistance were referred to one of three NGO shelters or a Lao Women’s Union (LWU) shelter that assists victims of domestic violence or trafficking that provided longer term care and vocational training. There were no such shelters available for male victims of trafficking. The transit center also received victims referred from local law enforcement officials, but authorities did not report how many domestic or foreign victims were referred to the transit center or shelters. The LWU operates counseling centers in six provinces to provide information about trafficking prevention and, with the assistance of international NGOs and foreign donors, helped to run a shelter in Vientiane to assist victims and help reintegrate them into society. <^>

Women and children who are identified as trafficking victims are exempted from criminal prosecution for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of trafficking, but the law does not protect men from prosecution. The government reported encouraging victims to cooperate with prosecutions, but did not provide witness protection to victims. While the government depended on NGOs to provide resources for many trafficking initiatives, inefficiency within the government in the signing of NGO MOUs has caused lengthy delays in implementing anti-trafficking efforts in Laos. The Law on Development and Protection of Women includes protection provisions for victims of trafficking, but these provisions do not apply to men. Victim protection guidelines were drafted with support from the UN and NGOs, but are awaiting government approval. Victim access to legal redress is hampered by a lack of resources on the part of victims and the legal community. Trafficking victims are allowed to file civil suits against their traffickers, though this has never been done in practice. Victims are not made aware of legal resources available, even if local officials in their areas received training on human trafficking. Laos does not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face retribution or hardship. <^>

Cracking Down on Human Trafficking Between China and Laos

Ma Guihua wrote in the China Daily, “The recently-inaugurated liaison office in Mengla is one of a series of steps taken along China's southwest border to fight cross-border trafficking through the sharing of information and investigating, as well as repatriating the victims. Over the years, child trafficking within China has penetrated almost all provinces. In the six-month special anti-trafficking operation this year leading up to mid-October, Chinese police cracked 1,717 cases, rescuing 2,008 trafficked children. In the meantime, cross-border trafficking is also on the rise. [Source: Ma Guihua, China Daily, November 2, 2009 />/]

“The China office of UNICEF started its pilot project on China-Vietnam cross-border trafficking in 2001 and since then it has supported the Chinese government in setting up border liaison offices in Dongxing, Pingxiang, Jingxi in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, and Ruili, Hekou, Longchuan and Mohan in Yunnan province. Two ad hoc anti-trafficking operations between Chinese and Vietnamese police in 2005 and 2006 have resulted in the rescue and return of hundreds of victims. Rehabilitation centers were also established in Dongxing and Ningming in Guangxi, and Kunming in Yunnan, where victims of trafficking are attended to and healed physically and mentally before their transfer back home. "Trafficking victims used to be regarded as criminal suspects, having crossed borders illegally," says Wang Daming, child protection specialist with UNICEF-China. Now, child protection has been placed at the heart of anti-trafficking efforts. />/

In 2004, six countries sharing the Mekong River - China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand - signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. To better coordinate anti-trafficking efforts, the Chinese police have over the years signed memorandums of understanding with its counterparts in Vietnam and Myanmar. Last year, China's State Council unveiled a four-year National Plan of Action on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children, mobilizing the involvement of more than 30 government departments. Meanwhile, an anti-trafficking office has been set up in the Ministry of Public Security. />/

In May 2009, the Ministry of Public Security launched a DNA database for trafficked or missing children, linking 236 DNA laboratories across the country to fight trafficking. But, says Zhao Xianming, the police officer from Mengla county, it's crucial to incorporate the DNA information of cross-border trafficking victims into the national database. He also calls for a clear legal clarification of trafficking and marriages among border residents. "Rescue efforts would be pointless if the victims choose to reunite with their 'buyer husbands'," he says. />/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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