A Thai official has claimed that more than 500 underage Lao girls are working as sex slaves in eastern Thailand, saying that authorities in both countries need to step up the fight against human trafficking.
Chuvit Kamolvisit, a Thai member of parliament and advocate for social issues, said that the girls, aged 13 to 18 years, were discovered in a karaoke bar in the Chachoengsao district of Chachoengsao province.
“A total of more than 500 Lao child prostitutes were found in the area of Chachoengsao, with the youngest only 13 years old,” he said.
“The place they were held in was a one-floor building set up as a karaoke bar, with a restaurant as a front business.”
Chuvit said he had video footage to back his claims. It was recorded on a hidden camera that was taken into the karaoke bar as part of an effort to compel concerned officials and police to tackle the problem of human trafficking.
A local television station broadcast Chuvit disclosing information about the Lao girls and showing the undated video footage on Sunday.
It is believed that the girls are still working in the karaoke bar.
But Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung denied Chuvit’s claims in a statement to the Thai media, saying no such karaoke bar existed.
The police chief in Chachoengsao province also denied existence of any such place but acknowledged that in the past there had been karaoke restaurants with Lao girls working as waitresses and involved in prostitution.
The police had cracked down on the activities, detaining several suspects about a month ago and closing down many restaurants, he said.
The Lao Embassy in Bangkok said it had not received any official confirmation of the report from Thai authorities, though a staffer acknowledged having heard the claims on a television news broadcast.
An official with the Lao Internal Security department contacted by RFA refused to comment on Chuvit’s claims.
MP Chuvit said that some 50 karaoke bars exist in Chachoengsao, with each bar holding about 30 Lao girls, most of whom are in possession of a passport issued by their home country.
He said that the girls usually travel to Chachoengsao from Louang Prabang and Vientiane provinces in Laos, entering Thailand legally on a tourist visa, which allows them to stay in the country for 30 days.
Chuvit was a former businessman who became wealthy through the massage parlor industry in Thailand before becoming a politician based on his advocacy work on social issues, including illicit gambling and prostitution.
The member of parliament claimed that human trafficking had grown in his country due to the complicity of Thai authorities, who he said often look the other way or have a hand in the large profits that can be reaped from sex slavery.
“Human trafficking has expanded because some officials in the police immigration department and local police have an interest in the trade,” he said.
Chuvit said he was concerned by the ease with which Lao girls can enter the country and become victims of human trafficking, and called on the authorities of both countries to work together in solving the problem.
Word of mouth
A Lao expert on human trafficking and women issues said that regardless of who smoothes the path for these girls to enter Thailand, one of the biggest problems to address was their lack of education about the dangers of human trafficking.
The expert said that Lao girls are often lured to Thailand with the promise of work through their social contacts and by word of mouth.
“These are people that they trust, which makes them easy to follow without doing any research into what really is going on,” the expert said.
“These young girls have no idea what their arrival in Thailand holds in store for them, and most of them have never been to Thailand, so when they get there they have no choice but to listen to the people who brought them there.”
And an official from a Thai nongovernmental organization that focuses on human trafficking said that while the Lao government has made efforts to combat the problem, it has not produced laws that are far-reaching enough to make a real difference.
He said that an anti-trafficking law which is being drafted in Laos will help limit the activities of traffickers in some ways, but falls short because it will not include more restrictions on the ability of Laotians to travel to Thailand.
“If the draft law is adopted as it stands, it will only address domestic issues,” he said.
“I don’t believe the law will reduce human trafficking because most people from Laos can still enter Thailand easily.”
He called on Lao officials to take measures which included more scrutiny of Lao girls traveling to Thailand to look for work and targeting officials who have assisted traffickers.
The Lao draft law on human trafficking is currently under review and is likely to be put into law by 2014.
In June, the U.S. State Department maintained Laos at “Tier 2” in its annual report on human trafficking. The department says governments of countries in that group do not fully comply with minimum standards for protecting trafficking victims, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
Laos has stepped up efforts to investigate trafficking offenses and to prosecute and punish traffickers, the report said.
It said inefficiencies within the Lao bureaucracy delayed approvals for nongovernmental organizations to implement anti-trafficking projects and that the prime minister has yet to approve a final draft of the anti-trafficking national plan of action.
The United Nations has said human trafficking remains the second largest illegal trade next to drugs, with traffickers earning tens of billions of U.S. dollars annually. It also estimated that 2.5 million trafficked people worldwide come from the Asia-Pacific region.
Reported by Nontarat and Apichart for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha and Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.