Economic Changes Mean Border Challenges in Laos

Lao People’s Democratic Republic - Asia is changing – so fast you can literally watch it happen. Like a time-lapse movie, buildings sprout up, cities spread, people rush ever-faster between countries. ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations is quietly but firmly becoming a regional force, bringing opportunity and challenge.

The pace of change is fastest where development has, up to now, been slowest: landlocked Laos shares borders with Cambodia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Myanmar and China.  With 23 international border checkpoints and the growing development of the ASEAN Economic Corridors, Lao border officials face increasing challenges from transnational criminals, as new transport links whizz across this sleepy nation.

Rugged terrain hampered development in this region in the past but with the opening of the 4th Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge at Houayxay in Bokeo Province in December 2013, the scheduled opening of the first Lao-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in 2015 and the planned railway linking Vientiane with Yunan Province in China, the northern provinces are expecting increasing movement of people and goods across the borders.  Laos will increasingly become not just a destination or source country but, equally importantly, a transit country, particularly between Thailand and China.

The International Organization for Migration is playing its part to ensure that this rapid change strikes the right balance between facilitating the legitimate movement of people and traded goods while protecting the integrity of Lao’s borders against criminal activities.   

Last week, IOM ran a third workshop for border officials, funded by the Government of Canada under its Anti-Crime Capacity Building Project. Earlier workshops were held jointly with Lao and Thai officials in Thailand, with Lao participants coming from southern and central provinces.  The event in  Luang Prabang last week was for Lao border officials from the often-neglected and more sparsely populated northern provinces that share frontiers with Myanmar, China and northern Viet Nam. 

For all three workshops, the focus has mainly been on combating people-smuggling and trafficking but participants also learned about the UN Convention Against Transnational Crime (UNTOC) which, in addition to addressing the smuggling of people, also covers the illegal trade in commodities such as wildlife, narcotics, tobacco, gold, currency and other contraband.

For the 30 participants from Luangprabang, Udomxay, Phongsaly, Xiengkhuang, Huaphanh, Luangnamtha, Bokeo and Xayabouly provinces, the training curriculum introduced them to the latest developments in travel document technology, including e-passports and their anti-forgery and anti-counterfeiting measures.  Training was also provided in identifying and investigating people-smugglers, including interview techniques and treatment of smuggled migrants.  Increasing evidence of girls and young women being smuggled into China and then trafficked into the growing trade in brides will require greater vigilance to prevent the trade and protect the human rights of the victims. 

Expert trainers came from the Canadian Border Services Agency, Royal Thai Immigration Service and IOM Regional Office in Bangkok, which was highly appreciated by the workshop delegates.  Discussions were lively and participants were provided with reference material to take back to their workplaces and encouraged to share with their colleagues.