Laos has detained and deported hundreds of Chinese nationals in recent months for illegally entering the country to sidestep a mandatory 14-day coronavirus quarantine period and head straight to casinos to gamble or work, sources in the country told RFA.
Most of the illegal border crossers are tourists bound for casinos in northwestern Bokeo province’s Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, a gambling and entertainment district that caters mainly to Chinese tourists that has been described as a de-facto Chinese colony.
To avoid a 14-day quarantine required for legal arrivals at official border crossings, the visitors from China skirt border checkpoints on foot by taking smaller roads, or take small boats across rivers. Lao and China share a porous 250 mile (420 km) border.
“In July, almost 300 Chinese sneaked into Luang Namtha province without passports. They were going to the casino in Bokeo province,” A member of the Luang Namtha provincial Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Control and Prevention told RFA’s Lao Service.
“They came through a small road, not through any border checkpoint. When they arrived in Luang Namtha, they met middlemen who intended to take them to Bokeo,” the source said.
They were all caught at separate times and deported in July, according to the source, who said that they all tested negative for COVID-19.
A Luang Namtha police officer confirmed that flows of people from China are large, telling RFA: “The Chinese come in groups of 20, 30 or even 50 people. They walk in by taking a shortcut to the main road.”
“They don’t want to be quarantined. They say that it’s a waste of time. They think that we aren’t patrolling the border, so if they can successfully sneak in they will get away with it,” the police officer said, adding that since the start of the pandemic police have increased their presence on the border.
While many Chinese attempt to secretly walk across the land border, others have tried to sneak in by boat.
“In July, about 38 undocumented Chinese traveled on a large cargo ship. Each of them paid about 2,000 yuan ($287) to the ship operator,” a member of Bokeo province’s COVID-19 taskforce told RFA.
But the 38 were not looking to gamble. They were in search of employment, according to the taskforce member.
“They said they wanted to go work in the Golden Triangle SEZ. They were deported on August 1,” the Bokeo taskforce member said.
Another 19 Chinese were deported from Bokeo province on July 1.
The Chinese aren’t the only ones trying to sneak into Laos. The taskforce member said 30 Myanmar citizens attempted to illegally enter Bokeo province in May.
“The 30 Burmese will be sent back home this month. [They] have no ID cards, no papers, nothing. Most of them were looking to work in construction at the casino, where there is a Burma Village,” the taskforce member said.
Bokeo authorities also deported 184 undocumented citizens of Myanmar from the SEZ.
Meanwhile in Laos’ northernmost province of Phongsaly, authorities deported 34 undocumented Chinese on July 20.
“They illegally entered Laos. They are all Chinese and have been deported. We handed them over to the Chinese police,” a member of Phongsaly’s COVID-19 taskforce told RFA last week.
After the 34 were detained, they were transferred to Chinese police custody at the Lan Tui-Muangkham international border checkpoint.
They were caught when residents of Long Thang village in Yot Ou district reported on July 19 that they saw people sneaking across the border and walking on a small road toward a large bus that was waiting for them on the main road.
“We found the bus carrying the 34 Chinese. It was headed from Phongsaly to Oudomxay. We arrested them for violation of immigration law. They said they were coming as tourists,” a police official said.
“They were held for one day and deported to their country,” the official said.
A district health worker told RFA, “We took their temperatures and found that none of them had a fever.”
A village official said the tourists “did not enter our village, they just walked along the small road toward the main road. Some of them were looking at some kind of paper. Maybe it was a map.”
A resident of a village 20 kilometers (12 miles) away told RFA, “We are afraid that they are going to bring the virus to us.”
The Lao government announced in early July that casinos would be allowed to reopen but with social distancing measures in place.
As of Wednesday evening Laos has reported 20 confirmed cases of the virus, and zero deaths.
The communist-run country declared itself virus-free in June, when the last of its then 19 cases recovered. It was lauded by the World Health Organization for “exemplary” handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, during which the government “did all the right things to stop it spreading.”
RFA reported in late July that a South Korean dam expert tested positive for the virus. He remains the country’s only confirmed active case.