This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Lao authorities have rescued more than 1,680 victims of human trafficking from the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone between its establishment in 2007 and the end of August this year, Radio Free Asia has learned.
The victims included Lao workers and foreign nationals from more than 20 different countries, a member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of Bokeo province who, like other sources in this report, requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA Lao.
The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northern Laos is a gambling and tourism hub catering to Chinese citizens situated in Bokeo province along the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. It has become a haven for criminal activities including prostitution, scamming and drug trafficking.
The SEZ is home to the Kings Romans Casino resort, where many impoverished young Laotians from other provinces and foreigners who were promised lucrative jobs end up held against their will by trafficking rings that exploit them under threat of violence. In 2018, the U.S. government sanctioned the Chinese tycoon who is said to run the SEZ as head of a trafficking network.
Most of the workers who have been rescued from the SEZ had been confined in buildings or in their rooms against their will and deprived of their freedom and other basic rights, the member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit said.
Most of the human trafficking victims in the Golden Triangle SEZ are foreigners whose embassies requested that Lao authorities rescue them, said a provincial police officer.
“Once rescued, a great number of them are transferred to an immigration center in the capital Vientiane and the rest to an immigration center in Luang Namtha province [bordering China],” he said.
Most of the victims came to the SEZ to work in the service sector as waiters, waitresses, bartenders, sex workers, and online scammers, known as chatterers, at a call center in the SEZ, said the provincial police officer.
“About half of them were lured to the SEZ, and the other half came here by choice,” he added.
Police refer female workers under the age of 18 to the provincial Lao Women’s Union, a political party organization that provide physical and psychological health services and advice before sending them back to their Lao families or to their respective countries, said the member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of Bokeo province.
A counselor at the Lao Women’s Union of Bokeo province pointed out that human trafficking is not only in the Golden Triangle SEZ, but everywhere in the greater region.
“Many victims are trafficked to China, many others to Thailand,” she said. “These victims are from poor and remote areas. They need money. They are uneducated and uninformed about the dangers of human trafficking.
Dozens of arrests
Speaking at an annual public security meeting in Vientiane last week, Kenchanh Phommachack, deputy director of the Police Department of the Lao Ministry of Public Security, said Lao police had charged 74 people with human trafficking in the Golden Triangle SEZ between Sept. 1 and Dec. 12 alone.
“Most of the arrested human traffickers are Chinese, Indians, Malaysians and Pakistanis, and most of them are middlemen and small fish who provided shelters and means of transportation to the victims,” the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit official in Bokeo province told RFA.
“As for the big fish like Chinese human trafficking ring leaders, they are uncatchable,” he said. “We know that these gang leaders sometimes torture workers or even kidnap them for ransom.”
According to Kenchanh Phommachack, those charged included 16 foreigners among 27 arrested and detained suspects, he said, adding that police had also rescued 21 human-trafficking victims, including 14 foreign nationals, over the same period.
A former online scammer who fled the SEZ last year told RFA that many of the workers in the SEZ’s call center are Lao, Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese.
“Their job is to scam other people, lie to them, and convince them to invest in the SEZ,” the person said. “Once they do, they lose all their money for good. They will never get it back.”
“Many Laotians still work there because they don’t have any other job or any other choice. There aren’t many jobs available in Laos,” the former scammer said.