Better a captive audience than an audience of captives
By Douglas Foskett
Landlocked, with six and a half million people living in seventeen provinces surrounded by five countries (Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand), Laos is not exactly an isolated country. All of its 17 provinces have at least one international border, nine of them have two. So while plenty of legal transit points are accessible, crossing illegally is not exactly difficult either.
To cross legally people need a passport, and these are only available at one location in the capital Vientiane. That’s where the IOM TV and DVD player are installed. More about that in a minute.
Laos, or Lao People’s Democratic Republic to give it its proper name, is economically classified as a least-developed country, which means neighbouring Thailand, with a more developed economy and a similar language and religion, can be a real attraction for young people looking for opportunities in the employment market there. Young people – optimistic, full of energy and hope, looking to a better future and prospects, and vulnerable to those who promise it to them.
Unfortunately, while their own young hearts are full of good intentions, evil people are waiting and preying on them, looking for ways to take advantage of them through false promises of good jobs, good working conditions and good pay. There’s a saying that if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is. But that bitter lesson is learned through years of experience, and these are young people, still wide-eyed and innocent.
Since 2007, IOM Vientiane has been working with the Lao Government, principally through the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW), to educate and inform young people about the dangers of irregular immigration, trafficking and exploitation. Supporting the Vientiane Transit Centre run by the Department of Social Welfare, IOM has assisted in the return and rehabilitation of over 1,200 victims of trafficking since 2007. But in many ways, every person trafficked means another failure because we share with the Government the ambition of having no victims at all.
The key to this is education. Informing young people, along with their friends, families and communities, of the dangers awaiting them, of the false promises that will be made, of the hurt and pain they will suffer at the hands of human traffickers and those who exploit them, is the best way to prevent them falling into such desperate situations.
Each year, in collaboration with MLSW, IOM visits rural centres in migration hot spots in Laos and runs workshops to educate local officials, village and community leaders, teachers, police and other authorities about human trafficking and the personal costs on ordinary people like those in their villages.
At the workshops we train participants in how to organize information campaigns in their districts to educate and make young people aware of the risks of being trafficked, the dangers of exploitation and what to do if this happens to them. We distribute phone cards with emergency hotline numbers for victims of trafficking and exploitation to call for help so they can be rescued and returned to their families.
In 2012 and 2013 we worked in the southern provinces of Salavan and Champasak. In 2014, we will be concentrating our efforts in Bokeo, which borders Myanmar and Thailand, and Vientiane Province, which are major sources of people who find themselves trafficked and exploited.
Now back to that TV and DVD player. They are part of a new initiative with the Consular Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With funds provided by the US State Department, we arranged for the purchase and installation of a large flat screen television and DVD player. These were handed over in a ceremony last month at the Passports Office at the Consular Department building. This is the only passports office in Laos so anyone who wants a passport must come here. Recently the Ministry constructed a large new waiting area where the TV has been installed so everyone who comes to Vientiane to get their passport will now see the anti-trafficking messages and other DVDs warning about exploitation.
Doug Foskett is the head of the IOM office in Lao PDR