Human trafficking rings are increasingly using Thailand as a transit country to send Lao girls to Malaysia where they are sold into prostitution, according to a Lao official who called the route a “new problem” for authorities.
The anti-human trafficking official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said only a few cases were currently under investigation, but was unclear on how many girls may have been taken to Malaysia through Thailand.
“Lao girls being trafficked from Thailand to Malaysia for prostitution is a new problem for Lao authorities. It is also a new route for human trafficking,” the official told RFA’s Lao service.
The official said that the Lao Anti-trafficking Unit—created in 2005 to coordinate national law enforcement—had received complaints from “many families” asking for help finding missing daughters believed to have been lured into prostitution in Malaysia.
“The Lao anti-human trafficking unit doesn’t know the exact number of Lao girls who have been lured to Malaysia to work as prostitutes,” he said.
“There has been cooperation between Lao and Malaysian police [investigations] via the Thai police.”
Based on statistics provided by the immigration bureau of Thailand’s Songkla province, which borders Malaysia to the north, 48,000 Laotians crossed into Malaysia in 2011, but only 46,000 returned.
Last year saw a number of raids by authorities freeing Lao girls who had been trafficked as sex workers to brothels in Thailand, but using the country for transit to Malaysia highlights a new and disturbing trend in human smuggling.
In December, Thai police freed 21 Lao women, three of them under the age of 18, from two karaoke bars in the town of Sungai Golok in southern Narathiwat province, where they were forced to work as prostitutes.
Sungai Golok, which Thai police say is a major human trafficking destination in the country with over 100 brothels, is located on the border with Malaysia.
In August, Thai authorities freed 59 Lao women from a karaoke bar as part of a larger bust that rescued another 12 women from a spa. Both raids took place in Songkhla province near the border with Malaysia.
Thirteen of those freed were girls under the age of 18.
In February, police rescued five Lao teenage girls from a karaoke bar in central Thailand’s Suphan Buri province where they were forced to work as prostitutes after being told they would be given jobs at a restaurant in Bangkok.
And in October last year, police rescued 13 girls from Laos who were forced into prostitution in Thailand’s Lop Buri province and arrested four suspects involved in a syndicate smuggling underage girls.
Some 35 percent of Lao nationals trafficked to Thailand end up in prostitution, U.N. figures have shown.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons report, “Laos is a source … 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, the report said.
According to the report, Laos does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, though it said the government has been making “significant efforts” to do so.
It said the Lao government continued to rely almost entirely on nongovernmental organizations and international organizations to provide victim assistance in 2010.
Lao 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.
Observers of trafficking in Laos believe that some public officials—particularly at local levels—are involved in facilitating human trafficking, sometimes in collusion with counterparts in neighboring Thailand, the report said.
"Nevertheless, the government has never reported any officials investigated, prosecuted, or punished for involvement in trafficking in persons."
The Lao National Assembly approved a National Plan of Action on human trafficking in 2007 but it has not been endorsed by the prime minister’s office.
Every province in Laos operates an anti-human trafficking unit, but many officials complain that a lack of budget and personnel prevents them from effectively carrying out their jobs.
Reported by Apichart Sopapong for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.