Migrants from China, Myanmar, and Vietnam are increasingly entering Laos by boat and through lightly-guarded border crossings, avoiding more heavily inspected international checkpoints and sparking fears among residents near the border of the spread of COVID-19 infection, Lao sources say.
These smaller crossings are harder to patrol, and many people slip through in the hope of finding work in casinos now closed amid pandemic fears, a border official stationed in Luang Namtha province told RFA’s Lao Service this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several months ago, around 100 Chinese migrants crossed illegally into Laos on their way to work at a casino in Bokeo province, but were caught and sent home, the official said.
“The casino is still closed. We think that human traffickers lied to them to entice them to come here,” the official said, adding, “We have to be very careful and vigilant all the time now.”
Chinese migrants seeking work in Laos typically travel by bus or van to the border, and are then picked up by Lao drivers after they cross, but most are quickly caught and taken back to China, the border official said.
Lao villagers living near the border worry that COVID may be spread by migrants crossing the border without inspection, and are welcoming the heavier security presence recently set up at the formerly neglected crossing points, one villager told RFA.
“Illegal entry has been going on for a long time. It’s almost normal now,” the villager said, also speaking on condition he not be named. “But officials are paying more attention now than they used to. For example in the Long district close to the China border they’re inspecting people crossing in both directions more carefully than before.”
In the neighboring northern Lao province of Bokeo, almost 200 migrants from Myanmar have been caught trying to enter Laos in recent months, with many hiring middlemen to take them across the border by boat, a provincial border official said.
“After they arrive, they are approached by contacts who bring them to the casino to find work,” the official said, adding, “Some even cross the border over the mountains and then find their way to the casino themselves.”
“Right now there’s not much work, though, because the casino is closed, and people trying to get into the casino area are being thoroughly inspected,” he said.
Most recently, three migrants from Myanmar crossed into Bokeo on Aug. 27 but were caught and sent back, while on June 24 provincial authorities repatriated 184 workers from the country who came into the country without proper documents, he said.
Villagers in Bokeo meanwhile expressed relief at seeing the stepped-up security measures now in place along the previously lightly guarded border crossings in the province.
“Even along the Mekong River, soldiers are checking passengers in the boats, and they’ll be arrested and fined if they try to come across the border without permission,” one villager said, while another pointed to what he said were stricter inspection routines at land crossings in Bokeo.
“Police and soldiers are also inspecting in casino areas, not just along the border, and all migrants—not just the Burmese—have to show proper identification to get into these places,” he said.
Controls have also been strengthened on the Lao border with Vietnam, which has seen a surge in the numbers of COVID infections in recent weeks, with Vietnamese border guards recently arresting 13 Vietnamese nationals trying to enter Laos in the hope of crossing the country to find work in Thailand, one source said.
“They had hired traffickers to take them there, but they were arrested at the border before they could get in,” the source said.