Nearly 60 Lao women are being housed in a rehabilitation center in southern Thailand while they wait to testify against their alleged captors who lured them across the border to work as prostitutes, according to officials.
The case highlights an alarming trend in which a growing number of Lao women have been trafficked for sex to Thailand and other destination countries around Southeast Asia.
The 59 Lao women, aged 18 to 30, were sent to the Sri Surat rehabilitation center in Thailand’s Surat Thani province shortly after they were rescued by Thai police on Friday.
“They just got here a few days ago. We have been providing them with accommodation and food,” said a center official.
“For the time being, we have no special programs to assist them. They have been involved in the daily routine of our center,” she said.
An official from the Thai Department of Special Investigation (DSI), who took part in the raid to free the women, said they would be cared for until the three suspects—a Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai—are tried.
“The Lao girls will stay here until they are called as witnesses in the prosecution of the three … suspected of forcing them into prostitutes, but as of now, we have no date set for the trial,” the official said.
“When the trial is over, the girls will be returned to Laos,” he said.
“Thai officials have given assurances to the families of the victims that they will be given good treatment while in Thai care.”
Authorities freed the 59 Lao women from a karaoke bar as part of a larger bust that rescued another 12 women from a spa on Friday, according to Thai police. Both raids took place in Thailand’s Songkhla province near the border with Malaysia.
Thirteen of those freed were girls under the age of 18, according to Lieutenant Colonel Noppadon Petsut, who is deputy commander of police in Sadao district, where the operation was carried out, Agence France-Presse reported.
Noppadon said that Thai authorities acted on a tip off from Lao embassy officials in Bangkok that a number of women had been lured into the sex trade in Sadao’s massage parlors and karaoke bars, adding that 70 of the young women were from Laos while the remaining woman was from Burma.
He said a Singaporean man, a Malaysian man, and a Thai woman have been charged with human trafficking and illegally procuring sex.
"Charges of human trafficking are very serious and carry a maximum sentence of the death penalty," Noppadon said.
Another officer involved in the raid told AFP it was believed that the women and girls had been sold to the suspects by brokers and later forced to work as prostitutes.
Friday’s raid marks the latest in a string of sex trafficking scandals in which Lao women have been lured to Thailand with the promise of legitimate work.
In February, police rescued five Lao teenage girls from a karaoke bar in central Thailand’s Suphan Buri province where they were forced to work as prostitutes after being told they would be given jobs at a restaurant in Bangkok.
In October last year, police rescued 13 girls from Laos who were forced into prostitution in Thailand’s Lop Buri province and arrested four suspects involved in a syndicate smuggling underage girls.
Laos is primarily a source country for women and girls trafficked mostly to Thailand for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor as domestic or factory workers, government and relief officials say.
According to an official of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to Laos, some 35 percent of Lao nationals trafficked to Thailand end up in prostitution, a report in the Lao state-run Vientiane Times said in 2009.
Another 32 percent end up in forced labor, 17 percent work in factories, and 4 percent work on fishing boats, the report said.
A U.S. State Department global report on human trafficking this year said many Laotians, particularly women, pay broker fees to obtain jobs in Thailand, normally ranging from U.S. $70 to U.S. $200, but are subsequently subjected to conditions of sexual servitude and forced labor once they arrive in the neighboring country.
Lao men are subjected to conditions of forced labor in the Thai fishing and construction industry, while a small number of Lao women and girls reportedly were also trafficked to China to become brides for Chinese men, the report said.
Laos is also increasingly a transit country for Vietnamese, Chinese, and Burmese women who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor in Thailand, according to the report.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.