Thai authorities have detained 43 Lao women, some of whom appear underage, for illegally entering the country to work in the sex trade just two days after the Lao parliament passed an anti-human trafficking law to ensure protection for victims and punishments for perpetrators.
Passed on Dec. 18, the Law on Preventing Human Trafficking, stipulates prison sentences of 15 to 20 years and fines of 100 million-500 million kip (U.S. $12,300-$61,300) for those found guilty of human trafficking in the region, according to a legislature officer in the National Assembly.
The law, containing 12 chapters and 98 articles, is expected to come into force at a later date, although its content has not yet been made public.
Police in Khong Chiem district of northeastern Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani province raided a karaoke bar on Dec. 16, where the Lao women were employed as sex workers and took them into custody along with the bar owner, who was arrested for illegally operating a business.
“The 43 women working in that restaurant were volunteer sex workers who were not lured there to work,” Sinapha Swadikul, a senior official at Ubon Ratchathani’s Social Development and Human Security Agency told RFA’s Lao Service.
“Fourteen of them are believed to be under 18 years old and may have been trafficked, so that the shop owner might be prosecuted,” she said. “But their ages must be verified medically through bone and hair samples to determine whether they are underage.”
Although all the women have acknowledged that they were voluntarily working as sex workers, Thai law stipulates that employing foreign workers under 18 years of age constitutes human trafficking, she said.
The 43 women, who are being held in detention facilities in Khong Chiem district in two separate groups based on their ages, will be charged as sex trade workers and illegal immigrants, Sinapha said.
Some of them also are being investigated for possession of fake documents, she said.
Those under 18 years of age will be housed at Nalisawath shelter in northeastern Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province for six months to serve as witnesses in a lawsuit against the owner of the karaoke bar.
Lao authorities are still awaiting a report on the women from their Thai counterparts.
“They [Thai authorities] have not informed us yet,” a police officer at Vientiane’s human trafficking service told RFA. “It depends on what Thai authorities need us to help them with. Officially, we must receive notice from the Thai authorities before doing anything about this case.”
Likewise, an official at the Lao Women’s Union of Champasak province in the southern part of the country, which borders Ubon Ratchathani, told RFA that her organization had not received any notice about the women from Thai authorities.
Nongovernmental organizations that deal with human trafficking point out that two scenarios are possible for the Lao woman arrested in Thailand.
In the first one, Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security will hand over the women to the Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, which will ensure that they receive physical and psychological counseling as well as vocational skills training.
In the second scenario, Thai police may pressure the Lao women to return to their home country and hand them over to Lao border police.
Laos is a source country for men, women and girls trafficked for labor exploitation in factories, on construction sites or aboard Thai fishing boats, and in the commercial sex trade.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has publicly vowed strict enforcement of anti-human trafficking laws and cooperation with international organizations to stop the crime.
But human rights groups and western countries continue to criticize Thailand for failing to stamp out slave labor and trafficking people from neighboring countries, including Laos.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.