In April 2021, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations tweeted that ‘#COVID19 is a public health emergency — that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.’
The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed proven to be a truly intersectional crisis that goes beyond the dire health situations that the world has seen since the beginning of 2020. It has exacerbated systemic inequities resulting in a disproportionate effect on individuals already oppressed by other injustices like human trafficking, to which women and children are particularly vulnerable.
Like much of the South-East Asian region, the effects of the coronavirus are being felt in land-locked Laos. According to Asian Development Bank, 18.3% of the population was below the national poverty line in 2018.
The pandemic has worsened conditions for many families and individuals with limited income, lack of access to social protection, and few options to pay off their debts.
The potential increase in exploitation of children - especially girls - is of particular concern in Laos, as recruiters and traffickers are taking advantage of the increased vulnerability of people due to COVID-19 for their own profit.
COVID-19 has forced schools to close, but it’s not only education that suffers. There is a ripple effect. When children are no longer at school and their families have limited access to livelihoods, cases of child begging, child labour and forced marriages are likely to rise. With a single, relatively small, shock such as loss of a household income or illness in the family, young lives can be disrupted and altered forever.
Children in Laos who are continuing their education online may be safer from the virus, but they are exposed to other threats. Students spending more time online for their education creates an ideal situation for traffickers to groom and recruit vulnerable children.
Prior to the pandemic, traffickers were already using cyberspace for online sexual exploitation and the use of technology to facilitate criminal conduct. The pandemic has only exacerbated their reach and increased the vulnerability of their targets.
Tightened travel restrictions in Laos designed to control the spread of COVID-19, such as border closures and interprovincial travel check points, may appear to discourage human trafficking. However, the recent and successful interception by the Lao authorities of an attempt to traffic two underage girls to China highlights the ongoing problem. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped traffickers.
In one recent case, however, there was a positive outcome due to a combination of border enforcement and disease control measures along with the coordinated effort of the Lao Women’s Union, a Lao Government agency supported by ASEAN-ACT, which led to two girls being rescued from being trafficked to China.
The indebted families of the two rescued girls were offered money in exchange for their daughters’ marriages to men in China. They were told by traffickers through text messages that their daughters could fetch up to LAK 40 million (USD 4,000) as a dowry payment if they traveled to China and married Chinese men. Payment was to be made once the girls were there.
According to a witness in the case, the girls did not want to go to China but agreed to in an effort to help their families, both of which were facing large debts. The girls left their homes in Vientiane, the Lao capital, on 12 June 2021, without clothes and phones. The Lao couple that accompanied them as brokers, assured the families that new items would be purchased.
The parents became alarmed when they could no longer get in touch with the couple and contacted the authorities out of concern. Fortunately, the girls and their traffickers were required to quarantine at a border and were subsequently intercepted. The Lao couple was apprehended.
The girls were cared for at the Lao Women’s Union’s shelter in Luangnamtha province before being returned to their families.
While this case had a positive outcome, it raises the question of how many more traffickers are managing to evade the authorities and highlights the need for stronger mechanisms and coordinated efforts to intercept trafficking operations and deter future traffickers.