A United Nations expert on child exploitation and trafficking is calling on the Laos Government to boost welfare support for child victims, and increase regional cooperation to combat child trafficking.
Maud De Boer-Buquicchio, a U.N. special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, made the calls after an official visit, as Laos takes legal steps and campaigns to address child abuse and trafficking.
De Boer-Buquicchio backed steps by Laos' Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, with the support of the UN's Children’s' Fund (UNICEF) and non-government organizations (NGOs), to develop child protection networks in villages and districts. But she said these remained scattered and volunteer-based.
She called for "much more effort" in identifying and preventing the high levels of sexual exploitation of girls and labor exploitation of boys .
"On the basis of my interviews with the victims and child protection stakeholders and those with evidence I can say there are a lot of problems in every sector of trafficking," De Boer-Buquicchio told VOA.
US watch list
Laos remains on the United States' Tier 2 Watch List in monitoring and combating trafficking in persons, and while failing to meet minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, "significant efforts" are taking place to address the issue.
The Lao government did not offer comment for this story, but a 2017 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons report on Laos highlighted the country’s "modest law enforcement efforts," the passing of an anti-trafficking law in 2015, and the arrest and conviction of several traffickers.
The report said Laos has concentrated on "prevention" by promoting anti-trafficking awareness programs through state controlled media and contacts with provincial leaders and community members on the dangers of human trafficking.
De Boer-Buquicchio said the invitation for her to travel to Laos and investigate marked "a signal of wanting to open up and develop more relationships with the international community. "I find it an extremely positive development," she said.
Child rights advocates say Laos is a key source of child trafficking, especially sending children into neighboring Thailand to work in restaurants, bars and the sex industry.
But De Boer-Buquicchio said her investigations also pointed to the abuse of children through internal trafficking in Laos, and sexual exploitation "in the big cities" and in special economic zones throughout Laos.
The special economic zones draw in foreign investment, especially from China, with regions near the Chinese border known for their casinos, money laundering, prostitution and gambling.
She said children are becoming a source of child brides for Chinese businessmen in Laos.
"When it comes to cross border trafficking one should also bear in mind that there is a number of cases of child enforced marriages, with or without the knowledge of the family, in particular to businessmen, Chinese businessmen, which happens in particular in the north of the country," De Boer-Buquicchio said.
Laos remains one of the poorest nations in South East Asia, with young adults often obligated to support their families through working or marrying in return for a dowry.
De Boer-Buquicchio said children as young as 11 years are falling victim to traffickers and as child brides, marking a decline in age from the past.
"Now its much younger. So even if there is less cross border [trafficking] the age of the victims is much lower than it used to be. But that's a very worrying trend," she said.
U.S. State Department reports on trafficking in persons also warns that "child sex tourists" from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States travel to Laos targeting children.
Child trafficking from Laos has largely focused in neighboring Thailand due in part to cultural ties between the two countries.
Thailand and Laos have looked to address the issue through bilateral agreements and memorandums of understanding (MOUs). But De Boer-Buquicchio said these measures also fell short.
"Trafficking laws have been passed. There are MOUs but the implementation of the law and the effectiveness of prevention and particular assistance is really not sufficient,” De Boer-Buquicchio said.
She said the children, expecting to work in a restaurant or home, are largely unaware of what lies ahead once across the border into Thailand.
"The traffickers know they [the children] are vulnerable in the sense they don't know what the formalities are to cross the border, and actually they didn't go to obtain identity documents, so at that point its very easy for these young children to fall victim to the traffickers - easy prey, easy prey" she said.
In Thailand, authorities detain illegal immigrants, including children, during raids on restaurants and brothels, holding them in immigration detention cells before transporting them back to Laos.
De Boer-Buquicchio said the repatriation programs are inadequate to protect and support the children.
"When it comes to repatriation, which occurs, there are big, big loopholes in terms of assistance when they are returned to Laos because, again, [the children] don't know who to turn to, they don't know their rights, sometimes there is corruption along the border, so the reunification with their families is very problematic," she said.
In bilateral talks with Thailand on human trafficking in July, Laos' Head of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, Khamkhane Phinsavanh, vowed to follow up with those victims who were sent back to Laos in order to help them normalize their return to society and living with their families.