Authorities in Laos have deported 462 Chinese nationals arrested for crimes, including human trafficking, from the lawless Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in the country’s north that has been described as a de-facto Chinese colony, according to officials.
They were arrested on Nov. 28 during a raid on the gambling and tourism hub in Laos’ Bokeo province and deported to China the following day via the Boten-Bohan International Border Checkpoint, said a statement posted on the website of the Lao Public Security Bureau.
The individuals appeared to be involved with call centers where scammers try to trick people into fake investments. Radio Free Asia has reported that these call centers often exploit their employees by holding them against their will and subjecting them to beatings and other forms of torture if they refuse to work or fail to make scam quotas.
Attempts by RFA Lao to contact the Bokeo Provincial Police and authorities operating within the special economic zone, or SEZ, for comment went unanswered by the time of publication.
The latest round of arrests and deportations of Chinese nationals follows one in mid-September, when Lao authorities sent 164 home, including 46 who were arrested in the Bokeo SEZ, another economic zone in the province operated by a Chinese tycoon who the U.S. government has sanctioned for running a human trafficking network.
Ordinary Laotians welcomed the news, saying it would make the country safer.
“It’s good that the Lao and Chinese authorities are cooperating again in cracking down on the scamming gang in Laos,” said one person who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity citing security concerns. “I hope that the number of Chinese scammers continues to dwindle in the Golden Triangle SEZ and throughout the country.”
But others expressed concern that the deportations won’t address the reasons such crimes persist in Laos.
“My question is, ‘Is this all?’ My answer is, ‘No,’ said a resident of the capital Vientiane. “It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to nab all of them.
Regional cooperation needed
The resident of Vientiane said that while the latest arrests may deal with the problem in the Golden Triangle SEZ, scam gangs may simply move to another place where they can operate without much oversight by authorities, such as Tachileik, a town in Myanmar’s Shan state along the Lao border.
“Then [the deportees] will just come back to Laos again,” he said.
A third Laotian suggested that the only way to effectively eradicate scamming networks is through the cooperation of domestic and foreign security forces across the region, rather than each country individually.
“Here in Laos, [Lao and Chinese forces] are focusing only on the [SEZs],” he said. “The scam rings are everywhere and many of them are still operating. Laos alone doesn’t have the resources to do it all.
Criminal enterprises expanding
Meanwhile, Yos Santasombat, a professor of social studies at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, warned that as criminal activity goes largely unchecked within the SEZs in Bokeo province, gangs are expanding their existing operations and adding new services.
“I went to the Golden Triangle SEZ two months ago and I noticed that the place was huge and expanding,” he said. “[As it grows] it might attract other businesses besides gambling and tourism, such as money laundering.
Sources from the region have previously expressed concern that authorities only arrest “the small guys” who aren’t responsible for running the scam rings, and have failed to address unemployment and inflation in Laos, which allow ringleaders to lure workers with offers of good-paying jobs.
In early September, Myanmar police repatriated 1,207 Chinese criminals arrested from a call center in Myanmar. Thailand, Myanmar, China and Laos have set up a special unit to crack down on human trafficking but the problem still persists.
Translated by Max Avary. Edited by Joshua Lipes.