Lao PDR is a poor, landlocked country in South-East Asia and is classified as a Least Developed Country (LDC). The mountainous former French colony, in which the majority of the population follow Theravada Buddhism, is officially a socialist republic. The Lao government have recently started opening up the country’s economy and this has led to a certain reduction in poverty levels. Nevertheless, on the whole, the gains of economic growth have been concentrated in the hands of a few and the majority of the population remain poor.
Development levels around the country vary greatly, with remote villages often lacking basic infrastructure and services. FELM works mainly among the country’s ethnic minority groups that live in remote, mountainous areas.
Nearby Thailand, which is more developed and where wages are significantly higher, attracts migrant workers from Lao PDR. Some who travel to Thailand in search of work end up in exploitative situations, including as victims of human trafficking. Thousands of Lao nationals cross the Mekong River illegally each year in search of better earning opportunities in Thailand. Lao nationals, particularly women and children, are vulnerable to human trafficking, both on initial trips to Thailand and also in cases of deportation when they may be persuaded to try to re-enter Thailand by traffickers hanging around at border areas. Recent developments within Lao PDR, coupled with access to foreign media, have led to the creation of new ‘needs’, such as mobile phones and televisions. Due to the low wages available in Lao PDR, frequently the only way for young people and women to satisfy these ‘needs’ is by migrating to Thailand, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
FELM supports the Lutheran World Federation’s country programme, which aims to improve the quality of life of people living in remote areas of the country. The programme supports work to improve health services, the building of schools, the improvement of hygiene knowledge and the building of toilets and water systems. The LWF programme, furthermore, aims to teach new farming techniques that can increase crop yields and to support the founding of community banks. Community banks constitute an important source of finance through which young people and women have been able to supplement their income by founding small businesses.
The programme provides villagers with various types of training, for instance, in the protection and sustainable use of the environment, in group-formation, human rights, networking and conflict resolution.
FELM also supports work among victims of human trafficking. FELM’s partner organisation in this work is Alliance Anti-Traffic (AAT), which carries out this work from its bases in Thailand and Vietnam. The work aims to support trafficking victims’ reintegration into society. Victims are provided with health services and counselling and psychological support, as well as safe transportation back to their home villages. The women helped by AAT are also provided with vocational training. Prevention work is also carried out in collaboration with local women’s organisations.