The government increased law enforcement efforts. In November 2018, the government promulgated an updated penal code. Article 215 of the 2018 Penal Code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed increased penalties of five to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million to 100 million Lao kip ($1,170 to $11,720); if the offense involved a child victim, the fine range increased to 100 million to 500 million Lao kip ($11,720 to $58,580). These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2018, the Anti-Trafficking Department (ATD) within the Ministry of Public Security (MOPS) reported investigating 39 incidents (69 in 2017), culminating in the opening of 26 trafficking cases (44 in 2017). At the end of the year, there were 18 ongoing investigations (29 in 2017, 19 in 2016). Authorities initiated prosecutions in 12 cases against an unknown number of suspected traffickers (13 cases in 2017, 11 in 2016) and secured convictions against 27 traffickers in 11 cases (convictions in eight cases in 2017, six in 2016). Convictions included at least one case of sex trafficking of a minor, and at least one case of labor trafficking of Lao citizens abroad. In nine cases it was unclear if they met the definition of human trafficking; eight of these cases involved potential forced or fraudulent marriage of Lao women to Chinese men. Sentences ranged from one year and one month to 15 years and six months of imprisonment and fines ranging from 2 million to 100 million Lao kip ($234 to $11,720). Courts confiscated 70 million Lao kip ($8,200) in assets from traffickers. Courts ordered restitution in six cases, seizing assets ranging from 6 million to 110.25 million Lao kip ($702 to $12,920) and distributing amounts among the victims in each case. The government provided no information on prosecutions of foreign nationals in Laos who engaged in child sex tourism. However, the 2018 Penal Code added Article 262, criminalizing the travel from one country or place to another to engage in child sex tourism. Local village mediation units often handled citizens’ complaints rather than the official judicial system; there were anecdotal reports that these units resolved some complaints of trafficking rather than referring them to law enforcement.
The Lao Anti-Trafficking Secretariat and National Steering Committee continued to provide training to law enforcement officials, and during this reporting period they directly funded trainings while collaborating with international organizations. Officials worked to disseminate the guidelines for management of trafficking cases, developed in partnership with an international organization, and a manual on prosecuting trafficking cases to judges and assistant judges throughout the country. MOPS, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW), and immigration officials organized or participated in trainings on victim identification, interviewing skills, and referral and service provision for victims of trafficking. The Ministry of Justice organized trainings for district level police, the judiciary, and social welfare officials to disseminate information on laws related to trafficking. Lao law enforcement agencies continued to cooperate with multilateral organizations and counterpart agencies in Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam on transnational trafficking investigations and training opportunities. In at least one instance, this cooperation led to the conviction of a trafficker in Thailand who exploited a Lao national in the fishing industry.
Anti-trafficking organizations and media continued to report that some low-level officials may have contributed to trafficking vulnerabilities by accepting bribes for the facilitation of immigration and transportation of girls to China, including through falsification of travel and identity documents. Observers also reported immigration officials may have enabled the illicit transportation of undocumented migrant workers from China and Vietnam into Laos for work on large-scale infrastructure, mining, and agricultural projects, where some of them may have been subjected to trafficking. Despite these allegations, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials for complicity in trafficking or trafficking-adjacent crimes during the year.