Domestic trafficking is under-reported in the Lao PDR due to lax law enforcement, stalled anti-trafficking legislation and lack of knowledge about how to define trafficking, says the UN.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare reported in July 2010 that 1,634 human trafficking survivors had been returned – mostly from Thailand – and reintegrated over the past decade.
But this is only part of the picture. “There are low [reported] numbers of actual reported trafficked victims, because many people don’t know that they’ve been trafficked,” said UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) coordinator in Laos, Xoukiet Panaya.
Most of those trafficked within the country are younger than 18, migrant workers, and eight out of 10 are female, says the UN.
Trafficking versus migration
The 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children defines trafficking as: “…recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion… to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”.
But even with an internationally adopted definition, the line between economic migration and trafficking is blurred. The moment voluntary movement turns exploitative often goes unreported, making domestic trafficking tricky to measure, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
There is an “uneven recognition of all forms of trafficking” in East and Southeast Asia, including forced factory labour and other seasonal domestic employment, stated a UNICEF 2009 report.
With more workers on the move in Laos, the situation has deteriorated. “As infrastructure and communication develops in rural areas, domestic trafficking becomes more prevalent. We need to make the process of domestic migration safer,” said UNICEF’s chief of child protection in Laos, Victoria Juat.
According to UNICEF, many survivors of domestic trafficking voluntarily move from one province to another looking for work without identification, which in many cases becomes a trap for sexual exploitation.
“The situation is too familiar. We encounter women on a regular basis [who] don’t know they were trafficked, but want to escape exploitation,” said Didier Bertrand, the Laos country director for the French NGO, Acting for Women in Distress (AFESIP).
Fighting a largely unreported crime in Laos is made more difficult by national guidelines for victim protection that remain unenforced due to lack of funding and human resources and a national action plan to fight trafficking that has not won government endorsement, said Thanaporn Michaud from the International Organization for Migration.
Requests for comment from the government went unanswered.
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