Poor Young Women and Girls in Laos Continue to Fall Prey to Trafficking Schemes

laos-bananas-aug-2005.jpg A young Lao girl sells bananas at her family's roadside stall on the outskirts of Vientiane, in a file photo.

Despite educational efforts by the Lao government, an increasing number of Lao women and girls – mostly from poor rural communities or ethnic minorities -- are falling victim to trafficking schemes.

The victims are often promised jobs in China by Lao brokers, but upon arrival are either sold to brothels or to Chinese men looking for brides.

Between 2008 and 2018, at least 3,000 Lao women were tricked into moving to China, according to a report in an anti-human trafficking conference on October 2018 in Vientiane. Out of that number, only 600 women were able to return to Laos.

Even with Laos launching education campaigns and working with other governments to reduce trafficking, news of trafficked poor women and girls continues to appear on social media.

On Jan. 10, a source from Oudomxay province’s Houn district told RFA’s Lao Service about a local woman who had been sold by her Chinese husband to a brothel in the city of Yueqing in China’s Zhejiang province.

The source said she used to know the victim, a 20-year-old woman from a poor family in Sibounehuang village, and that the victim met her future husband when she went to work on a banana plantation near the village.

They were married in 2015 when the victim was 15, and moved to China that year. They had been living as husband and wife for a few years but the husband sold the wife to a brothel some time before she was arrested in 2018 for illegally entering China.

She was recently released, but does not speak or read Chinese and has no means of support in China.

Chinese police published the victim’s photo on Facebook, hoping her relatives would come to China for her, and that notice alerted the Lao source to her story.

“We shared the news that was posted online, because we were horrified to learn that something so bad had happened to the girl we used to know,” the source said.

“To make sure she was the one in the picture, we went to her old village and asked around. They said it was her,” she added.

“But her family doesn’t know anything yet. They don’t even have a telephone. Only young people like me can see the news posted. We just want someone to help her,” said the source.

An official of Houn district said the relevant authorities are not aware of the case because nobody had reported anything about the victim until now.

“There’s no information about that yet, but we plan to consult with our superiors so that the Houn district Women’s Union can get her back with the cooperation of her family and village,” the official said.

Police in Houn district said that there were over 30 cases of this kind of trafficking in the district between mid-2018 and the end of 2019. Some of these were able to escape and return home, but many are still missing.

The police said they are trying to solve the problem by warning the public in order to prevent young women and girls from being lured away with promises of “easy work for more money in China,” or “living a good life as the wife of a well-to-do Chinese husband.”

The police said many girls and young women want to support their poor families in Laos with what they earn in China, so the idea seems very attractive.

The police also acknowledged that in Houn district right now there is no work or way to get income in many villages.

“There are only unemployed people here. There’s no jobs for them to do so they can get any kind of income, so girls between 10 and 20 years old are all trying to get Chinese husbands,” an officer said.

The Phongsaly incident

Another incident of trafficking involved a girl from the Hmong minority who was 14 or 15 years old when she married a Chinese man in 2015 and has been missing ever since.

Police in Phongsaly province’s Bountai district told RFA that the girl’s parents did not know the identity of the man their daughter married, but when they last saw their daughter, “three or four Chinese men” came to their house in Mouchitai village.

They led the daughter to their car and drove away.

Because of the extreme poverty they were living in, her parents did not report to the authorities that their daughter was missing. They did not know exactly what to do and they had no money to file documents to start a search for her, or to finance a trip to China to get the Chinese police to do it.

“They did not come report to us,” said a police officer.

“We do not know where to start investigating this case. We do not know the date it happened, the car that took the girl away, and we don’t even know whose daughter it was,” the officer said.

“We don’t know her father and mother‘s names,” the officer added.

Mouchitai village authorities told RFA the father of the victim passed away and was survived only by the victim’s mother and brother.

The village authorities helped report the case to the district and the province.

The authorities said that Mouchitai is very remote and most of the Hmong living there are very poor, and do not have the opportunity to attend school, so many of the young girls are easily tricked by strangers.

The Xayaburi incident

RFA learned on Jan. 8 about a case in Xayaburi province’s Hongsa district, where two Hmong girls aged 16 and 17 were lured away by Chinese men in early January last year.

“They just left and that’s it. They went with the Chinese men just last year,” said a local village official.

“They snuck away. They were not married first and they have not come back yet,” the official said.

Police said one of the girls, from Phoudorkmai village, had visited Luangprabang province with her family to see relatives. It was there that she was introduced to a Chinese man who promised to pay about 30-40 million kip (U.S. $3,375–4,500) for her to marry him.

Her father and mother agreed without notifying the village authorities.

The other girl, from Kok Aet village, was betrothed to a Chinese man for 10 million kip ($1125), paid to her parents at their home.

“The parents really allowed their daughter to go with the Chinese man, and that’s why they did not report the case,” said a police officer.

Five cases already this year

Already this year there have been at least five cases of Lao young women and girls trafficked to China as the brides of Chinese men.

RFA’s Lao Service arrived at this number by scouring social media and local reporting.

While it is impossible to know the exact number of trafficking victims, it is likely given the known trafficking cases that the victims are all young women or girls who are from poor families in remote areas of Laos.

The U.S. State Department placed Laos on the Tier 2 Watch List in its 2019 “Trafficking in Persons Report” for not fully meeting minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, though the report noted the country was making significant efforts to do so.

Laos was upgraded from its Tier 3 ranking in 2018 for providing restitution to some trafficking victims through the criminal justice process, directly providing services to trafficking victims, issuing a decree to form anti-trafficking steering committees at the provincial and local levels, and conducting increased training and awareness-raising at the local level to help implement the decree, the report said.

The annual report ranks countries around the world as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, or Tier 3, in descending order based on whether they meet the minimum standards to combat trafficking set by U.S. law.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Manichanh Phimphachanh. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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