VIENTIANE – Like many girls in Laos, where almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, Vahn* was desperate to earn money for her family. This made her a prime target for sex traffickers.
As an uneducated 15-year old, Vahn said she was convinced by her stepsister to work at a farm in central Thailand. But she ended up at a Thai brothel, where she was forced to have sex with a client who paid to take her virginity.
Vahn’s story is not unique. Laos, a landlocked, communist state with one of the worst poverty rates in Southeast Asia, is a prime source for Thailand’s flourishing sex trafficking rings. Around 90 percent of Lao trafficking victims are transported to Thailand, the majority of them 12- to 18-year-old girls who are coerced into the sex trade.
“Whenever I sleep I can’t stop thinking about it,” Vahn told The Diplomat. “and I have nightmares.”
Over the next year, Vahn became an enslaved prostitute. She tried to escape twice before being locked up in a room alone when she was not selling her body. The cash she made from sex work went to pay off her so-called travel expenses, a tactic used by traffickers known as debt bondage.
When a set of new girls were ushered into the brothel, Vahn’s stepsister returned the Lao teen to her village near Vientiane. Back home but still in need of money, Vahn was betrayed by her cousin who asked her to be a dishwasher at a Thai restaurant. Instead, she had to perform sex acts for three months at a karaoke bar until Thai police raided it and sent her to a government-run shelter, she said.
Unknown and Unassisted
Toothless counter-trafficking measures in Laos often fail to keep girls like Vahn from being cycled back into the sex trade, experts say.
Not enough is being done to identify and reintegrate victims in the Greater Mekong Sub-region that includes Laos and Thailand, according to a study released late last year by the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative Against Trafficking (COMMIT), a multinational project to combat trafficking.
“Having to cope on one’s own was challenging and stressful, and it sometimes left trafficked persons in very fragile positions – both socially and emotionally,” the study says.
There are roughly 470,000 trafficking victims in Thailand, which is ranked 24 out of 162 countries in modern slavery prevalence. Laos is ranked 30, with an estimated 50,000 victims, the 2013 Global Slavery Index reported.
But Thai government shelters assisted 271 victims in 2012, just 0.06 percent of the estimated number of victims in the country.
Only 2,100 rescued Lao victims have been officially repatriated from Thailand since 2001. Most of the victims originated from trafficking hotspots in the southern provinces and Vientiane, all of which sit along the Thai border, UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) officials say.
Thai authorities also “push back“ large numbers of undocumented Lao migrants into parts of the country where inexperienced Lao border guards are not trained to help trafficked victims.
Xoukiet Panyanouvong, the Laos coordinator for UNIAP, told The Diplomat that the Lao government must take ownership in counter-trafficking, a practice that remains heavily reliant on foreign donors.
“It is understood that the government has a lack of human resources, funding support and technical skill,” Panyanouvong, one of the contributors to the COMMIT study, said. “It should put more effort in counter-trafficking and take the initiative on implementing it.”
In Laos, a transit center for trafficked victims is partially funded by the government, but victim services are almost entirely financed by NGOs and international organizations whose projects can be delayed by the government’s “internal inefficiencies” to grant approval on them, according to the US State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report on Laos.
Corrupt law enforcement and village leaders have been known to facilitate the transport of girls as well, says the report.
Besides not being identified, victims can go unassisted due to inadequate services, limited information on services, weak referral systems or victims accepting their exploitation as normal, according to the COMMIT study.
This lack of assistance to help victims escape a trafficked life sometimes leads to them being re-trafficked, the study added.
“It’s the biggest concern for us,” Virith Khattignavong, country director for Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP), a French NGO that runs a reintegration program in Vientiane, told The Diplomat. “Many Lao girls cross the border and don’t receive the help they need.”
For victims who are rescued from sex venues, Thai authorities typically hold them for up to two years in a shelter where they cannot work or contact family members, advocates say.
Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (2008) affirms that victims be repatriated to their home country “without delay.” It also calls for a “prompt testimony,” where a victim’s account can be used in court without the victim having to physically take the stand.
A victim can also ask for permission to reside temporarily at the shelter and work while they wait for the criminal case against an alleged trafficker to go forward, according to the law.
“Victims have many rights under the law but not always in practice,” Malayvanh Khamhoung, cross-border case coordinator for Anti-Slavery International in Asia, told The Diplomat. “Some victims have said that it’s like being in detention one more time. They have no idea why they have to stay in a shelter so long or when they can return home.”
As a result, victims may decline assistance so they can continue to work and support their families. Some even avoid reporting crimes to Thai police for fear that they are on the traffickers’ payroll, advocates say.
“They don’t want to go back home with empty pockets,” said Khamhoung, who frequently handles Lao trafficking cases in Thailand.
Vahn, now 17, is one of the few to have been repatriated after nearly one year in the custody of Thai officials, who used her as a witness to convict the karaoke bar’s owner. Lao police also arrested her cousin for trafficking her but that trial has yet to begin, she said.
“I’m still afraid to go home out of fear of being lied to and trafficked again,” she said.
Along with a handful of other victims, Vahn is learning to be a beautician and would like to open her own beauty salon with a micro-grant from AFESIP as part of the group’s vocational training projects to empower victims.
“We hope the girls will be stronger to protect themselves,” AFESIP’s Khattignavong said. “They can look forward to a new life and not worry about the past.”
Countless other victims are not so lucky. Vocational training is not always tailored to realistic job opportunities once they return home, say authorities.
There has been “a lack of adequate long-term support” for victims that make them “vulnerable to re-trafficking,” the TIP report noted.
The report added that Laos passed a long-awaited plan of action to fight human trafficking in 2012 but it still has not been implemented. The plan aims to improve victim identification and systematic monitoring efforts. It also looks to increase resources such as vocational training for victims.
In addition, Laos has no anti-trafficking law that covers all trafficking victims. The Law on Development and Protection of Women (2004) supports trafficked women and children, but advocates say enforcement is ineffective.
“It would be good to have a comprehensive anti-trafficking law with victim service provisions, but even without this, there are still tools to provide assistance to victims,” Khamhoung said. “Not having this comprehensive law doesn’t mean that victims cannot be assisted.”
*Not her real name
Sean Kimmons is a freelance reporter/photographer based in Thailand who has reported on political instability and violence in the Iraq War, the Golden Triangle illicit drug trade and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Southeast Asia, among many other topics