Lao high school girls are being lured into China with promises of rich husbands only to find they have been sold to a brothel or forced into street prostitution, RFA’s Lao Service has learned.
Chinese involvement in sex trafficking is a new wrinkle for Laos, as Thailand has been the most common destination for young women or girls forced into prostitution.
“This is a new trend,” said an official with an anti-trafficking nongovernmental organization (NGO), who requested anonymity because members of the group are not allowed to talk to the media.
“Girls are lured to China to get married,” the official said. “It’s a form of human trafficking.”
The victims are not just confined to northern Laos, where the land-locked nation borders China.
“They come from all over the country, the South, the center and Vientiane,” the official said. “The government is now very worried about this.”
Chinese men typically come to villages looking for poor high school girls who think that all Chinese are rich. They believe they are going to China or another part of Laos where they will get married, but more often than not they are forced into prostitution.
“These are grade 11-12 students whose families are poor,” a Xieng Ngeun resident told RFA. “They drop out of school to get married to Chinese men.”
In Xayaburi province’s Pak Lai district, one girl sent a message to her parents two months ago saying she was forced to provide sex service at a brothel. When she resisted, she was detained and physically attacked, a Pak Lai resident told RFA.
The Lao people who spoke to RFA did so on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation in a country where media is tightly controlled.
The Pak Lai district girl, who had finished high school, met a Chinese man who had come to her village, the resident said. The man told her he loved her and then made arrangements with a middle man, the resident added.
‘He sold her to a brothel’
Not long after they were engaged, the man took her to China where she disappeared, except for an occasional online message.
“She was detained for three or four days. Her husband was not truthful,” the Pak Lai resident told RFA. “He sold her to a brothel.”
It’s a story that’s repeated again and again inside Laos, but it is next to impossible to determine with any accuracy how many times it happens.
“It’s unknown,” the NGO official said. “We don’t have any information about the number because there has been no survey on this.”
While human trafficking, particularly for sex, is an illegal activity, making it difficult to track, the uptick in sex trafficking to China has been recognized by the U.S. State Department.
“A small, possibly increasing, number of women and girls from Laos are sold as brides in China and subjected to sex trafficking,” the State Department said in its 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The State Department kept Laos on its Tier 2 Watch List, but the country barely escaped being named a Tier 3 country—the department’s lowest ranking.
“The government did not demonstrate overall increasing anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Laos is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for a third consecutive year,” the report said.
“Per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Laos was granted a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3 because its government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards,” the State Department wrote.
Laos’ efforts to combat sex trafficking have not translated into a way out for impoverished Lao teenage girls.
Never brides, but unwed mothers
“Many people in the villages believe Chinese men are rich,” one villager told RFA.
In her village at least eight girls have gone to China. One girl who left for China three months ago has never contacted her worried parents.
“Many, many Chinese men come to our village looking for brides,” the villager said. “Some of the girls come back to the village, and a few of them come with one or two babies, but without their Chinese husbands.”
Laos and China signed an anti-human trafficking cooperation memorandum of understanding in 2014, and the countries have drafted an action plan to combat human trafficking, but local officials have done little to help and may in fact be part of the problem.
“In the past police officers would come to our village ask us if our daughters have been lured to China, but now there is no police presence,” the villager told RFA.
According to the State Department’s report, government officials sometimes stand in the way.
“Civil society organizations with trafficking expertise report a lack of transparency from the government. At times, authorities may have impeded the work of NGOs by requiring prior government approval of all anti-trafficking activities,” the State Department found.
“Some local officials may contribute to trafficking by accepting payments to facilitate the immigration or transportation of girls to Thailand,” it added.
While the State Department singled out Thailand, it is likely that local Lao officials are also doing the same with regard to China.
Bribes, kickbacks, document forgery, and fraud have become a part of life in Laos, which Transparency International ranks as the 139th most corrupt out of 168 nations.
Although the girls who left Laos were looking for love, or at least a husband, the girls who have returned to their country say have had enough of China.
“These girls say they don’t want to go back to China,” said the villager.