• Ihma Shareef | IOM Chief of Mission in Timor-Leste

Dili, 30 July — Being able to support his family and earn a decent income was all that Domingos* could think about when he first met a recruiter in his village. Offering the opportunity to work overseas, the agent promised him to earn hundreds of dollars a month and change the course of his life. Domingos, without hesitation, accepted the offer.

The eldest among his four siblings, Domingos lived with his widowed mother in a house with barely enough space. He always felt a sense of responsibility to make a sustainable living and becoming the breadwinner for the family.

Before Domingos embarked on his journey, the recruiter provided him with a passport and facilitated his travel, for which Domingos had to take loan from the agent. The wages he received during the first three months were also deducted for those excessive recruitment fees and other associated costs.

At first, Domingos was happy that he was given a better-paying job as a construction worker overseas, thinking that he could lift his family out of poverty. Nevertheless, he soon found himself forced to work for excessively long hours on a fishing vessel. Everything he could remember from that period was the coldness, the lack of rest and the raging waves that ceaselessly rocked the vessel. Constantly under the surveillance, his contact with family and friends were also restricted. Drifting on the sea realizing the whole trip was a trafficking scheme, he thought of his family, afraid that he would end up drowning in an open sea.

When he and other co-workers did not reach the unrealistic work objectives set by the captain, they were threatened with physical violence. Domingos was once beaten by his boss only because he defended his co-workers. Back then, he could not do anything but cry, desperately praying for a safe return home—it was a traumatic experience.

Such pattern of trafficking recruitment is similar to that of the global trend. The poor economy, reflecting the inequality in Timor-Leste, coupled with low levels of education and limited job opportunities, exacerbates the risks of the most vulnerable to trafficking.

Timor-Leste is a source, transit and destination country of trafficking. More than two third of the cases of trafficking involve Timorese being trafficked out of the country, while the remaining one third belong to the internal trafficking category. Many victims of trafficking are awaited by commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour. Trafficking in persons (TIP) is particularly prevalent among men who are forced to work in labour-intensive and physically demanding jobs, as well as women and children who are often forcibly involved in domestic work and the sex industry.

Fear arising from the exploitative natures in which they are caught up has placed them in helpless situations. Employers often withhold the victims’ passports, as well as other official documents, and retain their wage to avoid the trafficked fleeing home without completing their jobs. It is also rather common for these employers to threaten the victims with physical abuse and retaliation. On the other hand, many of the victims themselves are unaware of their labour rights, including trafficking and labour laws, therefore left with no channels to seek help and report the crime.

To strengthen the institutions in Timor-Leste responsible for anti-trafficking practices, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Timor-Leste has been working closely with the Government of Timor-Leste (GoTL) on counter-trafficking efforts. Since 2016, IOM has trained almost 950 law enforcement officers, government officials, social services staff, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), judges and prosecutors to strengthen national surveillance and protection of victims of TIP.

IOM has supported the GoTL in developing policies as well as raising awareness on prevention of TIP. More recently, IOM has been working directly with law enforcement to strengthen their capacities to identify and investigate TIP cases. The GoTL has partnered and funded IOM’s activities since 2021, which is a testament to the government’s priorities to strengthen and address this serious and organized crime in the country.

The role of IOM in the anti-trafficking efforts is pivotal, as it facilitates multi-stakeholder coordination between government actors, including law enforcement officers, NGOs and foreign governments. Not only does IOM provide technical assistance to the GoTL, but it also offers key policy recommendations and best practices to address TIP.

Mandated by the 2017 Anti-Trafficking Law, Timor-Leste has also established the Komisaun Luta Kontra Trafiku Umanu (Anti-Trafficking Commission, KLATU) that developed the Anti-Trafficking National Action Plan (NAP) 2023-2028 to ensure coordinated action with various stakeholders and inter-ministerial coordination at the national level. The NAP assigns each agency’s roles and responsibilities in countering trafficking, which guide the TIP responses in the next five years.

The line ministries responsible for preventing and protecting victims of trafficking and law enforcement institution must also strengthen their coordination and information sharing mechanisms. Such framework should possess a centralised nature and be able to proactively initiate investigations, prosecutions and convictions.

Despite the efforts the Government has made in combatting trafficking, however, the low capacity of law enforcement and victim identification data collection remain the major obstacles to formulating a more comprehensive response to addressing TIP. Such challenges are particularly amplified due to the lack of funding and low human resources available.

The widely recognised paradigm which guides TIP intervention is the 3Ps: prevention, protection and prosecution. However, this existing mechanism excludes partnership, albeit increased coordination among various actors in TIP responses. Partnerships that bring together law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and judges, civil society and international organizations will achieve greater results than any sector could accomplish alone. Such efforts can be complemented by active information sharing, comprehensive data collection and awareness-raising activities. There is no doubt that, in Timor-Leste, a whole-of-society approach is required to address TIP.

A continuous collaboration among various actors involved in TIP responses is crucial more than ever. Now, Timor-Leste is equipped with a robust law on preventing and combating human trafficking, accompanied by the NAP as the guidance of TIP responses. Yet, inadequacy in law enforcement capacities, in addition to underfunding in human and other resources, still allows human traffickers to exploit the loophole. If this is left unaddressed, the risks faced by the most vulnerable populations will be exponentially heightened. In response to such uncertainty, concerted efforts between government actors, international organisations, NGOs and other stakeholders, therefore, are pressingly needed.

*Domingos’ story is fictional. Any resemblance to any actual events, entities, places, or persons is purely coincidental.