Human Trafficking in Laos
Human trafficking in Laos, despite its moderate severity relative to other countries, nonetheless remains a critical driver of sexual exploitation and forced labor. The 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, issued by the U.S. Department of State, categorizes Laos as a Tier 2 nation. The Laos government thus falls short of the TVPA’s minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, in spite of efforts to meet such standards.

Targets of Trafficking

Traffickers predominantly deliver adolescent Lao girls and women to Thailand and China, though at times Malaysia and Vietnam, where they then coerce the victims into commercial sex. Otherwise, the women, under coercion, perform domestic, factory and agricultural work. In particular, traffickers frequently sell the women sent to China as brides. Trafficked Lao boys and men, on the other hand, typically enter Thailand’s fishing, construction and agricultural sectors. Traffickers attract victims with promises of reliable job opportunities in neighboring countries.

Lao victims of human trafficking are most often migrants seeking work abroad. Otherwise, they are impoverished students disinterested in continuing education and instead preferring to work to contribute income to their families, according to the U.S. Department of State. Such individuals either voluntarily and legally enter destination countries or traffickers enable them. The lax management at border crossings resulting from the insufficient training of provincial and district level immigration authorities especially enables illegal entry. Additionally, foreign traffickers have begun working with Lao middlemen to facilitate the transit of victims across borders.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, large amounts of both legal and illegal Lao workers have returned home. This created rampant unemployment and dramatically increased demand for work. Such conditions have rendered poverty-stricken Lao workers exceedingly susceptible to trafficking, seeing as they opt for low-paying and ethically-gray work within Laos. For instance, the closure of the Laos-Thailand border, coupled with increased willingness to engage in domestic commercial sex, has led to a surge in sex trafficking, the U.S. Department of State reported.

Existing Legislation

The Laos government gravely punishes any form of trafficking. For instance, Article 215 of the penal code criminalizes trafficking, punishable by five to 15 years of imprisonment. The fine is ranging from 10 million to 100 million Lao kip (equivalent to $1,080 to $10,780), according to the U.S. Department of State. The Article further stipulates that if the crime implicates an underage victim, the fine increases to 500 million Lao kip (equivalent to $53,880) at most.

Nonetheless, such measures prove insufficient for resolutely curbing trafficking. Several gaps exist within the current penal system. For one thing, law enforcement is often reluctant to extend severe punishments to first offenders. Moreover, there is little protocol for investigating potential perpetrators, so as to preemptively stem trafficking. The Anti-Trafficking Department also remains the only authority capable of identifying trafficked victims, according to the U.S. Department of State. Consequently, the Laos government lacks a comprehensive and standardized mechanism for identifying and helping victims.

Future Legislation

The Lao government is working internally with the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It also works externally with the International Labor Organization to implement several changes, as stated at the International Labour Conference. This includes expanding the government budget for anti-trafficking efforts and standardizing training for police and legal officers.

To this end, the government is also developing a formal curriculum for border crossing administrators, such that they more consistently identify victims. The government further seeks to collect and publicize government anti-trafficking efforts to improve transparency and increase public confidence.

Non-State Actors

Sengsavang, operating in Laos since 2006, is an NGO that works closely with the Lao government to rehabilitate Lao victims of trafficking. The organization has a rehabilitation center in Thailand, in Savannakhet, a hotspot of cross-border trafficking. Sengsavang specifically provides education and vocational training, such that victims can reintegrate into society. To this day, the organization has prevented more than 13,000 individuals from falling victim to trafficking. It also supported over 500 trafficked young girls and women.

In sum, human trafficking in Laos continues to enable and exacerbate human rights abuses. There is nonetheless hope for recovery. Consistent coordinated efforts between the Lao government and NGOs to administer tangible change would contribute greatly to decreasing human trafficking in Laos.

– Emily Xin
Photo: Flickr

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Laos

Laos is a developing country landlocked between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The nation struggles with high poverty levels, vulnerability to climate change and gender inequality among other issues. However, due to the progress of many NGOs and a slow improvement in political freedom, Laos has begun to enhance the quality of life of its citizens. Keep reading to learn the top 10 facts about living conditions in Laos.

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Laos

  1. Education
    Education levels in Laos have improved from 91.6 percent enrollment in 2009 to 97 percent enrollment in 2011. However, access to education remains limited, especially for children living in rural areas and especially for girls. Although there is a 20 percent excess of teachers in the country overall, they are concentrated almost exclusively in urban and suburban areas. Unfortunately, only 45 percent of rural villages in Laos have education through the third grade and 20 percent of rural villages have no access to schools whatsoever. Save the Children has been successful in providing access to primary schools for over 3,000 children in 2012.
  2. Poverty Levels
    Poverty levels are dire in Laos. In 2012, 23.2 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line. In addition, 22.7 percent of the Laotian people were surviving on only $1.90 per day. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that there are very limited employment opportunities in Laos. The country’s economy is dominated by agriculture with 75 percent of the workforce working in this sector which offers little opportunity for economic mobility.
  3. Human Trafficking
    Between 200,000 to 450,000 people are trafficked each year in the Greater Mekong Subregion, with many of those people coming from Laos. In addition, 90 percent of Laotian trafficking victims are girls ages 12 to 18. However, the government is not doing enough to curb this issue according to a report from the U.S. State Department in 2018 which notes, “The Government of Laos does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts.” Fortunately, there are several NGOs such as the Lotus Education Fund working to provide young girls with access to education, school supplies, uniforms and books so that they have the opportunity to remain in school and avoid exploitation.
  4. Child Marriage
    Traditional customs and a lack of access to education for girls leads to high child marriage rates in Laos. According to the NGO Girls Not Brides, 9 percent of Laotian girls are married before the age of 15 and 35 percent are married before the age of 18. Understanding the effects of this issue and the other top 10 facts about living conditions in Laos is integral to fighting gender disparity in the region.
  5. Climate Change
    The impact of climate change has hit Laotian farmers hard. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. reported that “serious issues regarding deforestation, forest degradation, aquatic resource degradation and loss of biodiversity have been observed.” This has detrimental effects on the livelihood of farmers. Laos’s Deputy Director of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute said, “Temperatures are definitely rising,” and “rice is the staple crop, and climate change risks the food security of thousands of villages. Every 1C increase in temperature can result in a 10 percent decrease in rice yield.”
  6. Disease Levels and Prevention
    Despite the presence of threatening diseases such as Avian influenza, artemisinin-resistant malaria and HIV/AIDS, there are several projects in place currently to improve public health standards across the country. The U.S. is partnering with the Lao government “on a wide range of health-related programs to promote nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene, maternal and child health, support for people living with disabilities, and school feeding; programs which bring direct benefits to families across Laos.”
  7. Life Expectancy
    The average life expectancy worldwide in 2016 was 72 years. However, Laos fell short of this global standard with an average life expectancy of 66.7 years. This disparity is largely due to poverty levels and hopefully understanding these top 10 facts about living conditions in Laos can help turn these statistics around.
  8. Political Structure
    Political freedoms are unfortunately very limited in Laos. Although the constitution awards every citizen the right to vote, the political system is stuck in one-party rule under the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which severely limits the ability of any citizen to run against the party or criticize the government. In fact, in May 2017, three Laotian citizens were sentenced to prison for criticizing the government on social media. The Freedom House gave the country a Press Freedom Status of “Not Free,” and a one out of 40 Political Rights rating. However, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith did make moderate progress in fighting corruption in 2017, which represents a step forward for the political progress in Laos.
  9. Wealth Disparity
    Income inequality in Laos remains a pressing issue although general poverty levels are decreasing. The Laotian Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, increased from 0.311 to 0.364 from 1993 to 2013. This inequality rose amongst all ethnic groups in Laos and across both rural and urban regions. However, despite the rise in overall inequality, “access to publicly provided services (primary education, lower secondary education, access to health care and household access to the electricity network) has become more equal.” In addition, the absolute poverty rate in Laos has been cut in half from 46 percent of the population living in absolute poverty to only 23 percent.
  10. Access to Electricity
    According to the World Bank, “access to energy is at the heart of development.” Having access to electricity is a modern luxury that many people in developing countries take for granted every day. In Laos, it is not a given for most citizens. In 1990, only 15.3 percent of the population had access to electricity. However, the World Bank funded more than 70 projects in more than 35 countries worth an estimated $5 billion. Laos has benefitted from this initiative as access to electricity rose to 87.1 percent of the population by 2016.

These top 10 facts about living conditions in Laos explain the greatest issues facing the Laotian people and government as well as the most successful progress. The reforms made by NGOs and the Laotian government and people themselves have made enormous strides in improving the everyday lives of the Laotian people.

– Alina Patrick
Photo: Flickr