On August 6th, 2019, the State Inspector General of Timor-Leste revealed the results of a sweeping investigation into the Immigration Service of Timor-Leste: irregularities, corruption, and fraud had been found at all border entry points in Timor-Leste. Indonesian visitors appeared to be favorite targets of fraud, with officers failing to record their entries and instead directly pocketing the visa fees. In response to these revelations, the Minister of the Interior—of which the Im-migration Service is part—ordered the Immigration Service replaced in its entirety, with all offic-ers be reabsorbed into the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL). While Fundasaun Mahein ap-plauds the Office of the State Inspector General for its diligence in detecting and publicizing this fraud, and the Ministry of the Interior for its swift response, we are deeply troubled by the Minis-try’s failure to conduct further investigations, paired with a rash and heavy-handed response that threatens to further undermine Timor-Leste’s border security.
The wholesale transfer of immigration staff, FM investigations find, has left the Immigration Ser-vice desperately understaffed, undertrained, and unable to adequately fulfill their duties, all of which threatens to create a crisis for border security—even as the core issue of corruption re-mains unaddressed. Phase One of the transfers, which came into effect on September 10th, saw the removal to the PNTL of nearly one-third of the total Immigration Service staff, or 28 out of 95 personnel, with three days’ notice; Timor-Leste’s volatile border posts now boast only 26 officers. The Díli Port, meanwhile, is now overseen by a sole immigration officer; it used to have four. The President Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Díli has eight officers doing the duties of what was once fourteen. In the critical border areas of Oecussi and Covalima, respectively, staff has shrunk from ten or more to seven, and from seven to four officers. The border post of Pasabe, in Oecussi, is completely empty.
This lack of manpower has led to a considerable backlog of work, including in the issuing of vi-sas. Processing times for even routine procedures, such as visa extensions, has ballooned. In response to this, the Immigration Service has ordered, starting October 1st, that there will no longer be lunch breaks—or breaks of any kind—at the border posts of Mota-am, Oecussi, and Suai. In an extreme example, on the 17th of September, the mother of an Immigration Service staff member died: the officer was not permitted to take time off to attend her funeral. This leaves border posts manned solely by demoralized, stress, overworked, and exhausted staff, if they are even manned at all. FM’s investigations have shown that boats entering the Díli Port—that entry point now staffed by only one officer—are often greeted by an empty inspection build-ing; especially given the recent reports of drug trafficking to and from Timor-Leste (including FM’s own investigations), this should raise significant alarm.
The issue is more than one of just numbers, however. Even when the transferred staff are re-placed (and whether or not that will happen before Phase Two removes even more personnel is an open question), it will be by newcomers to the Immigration Service who face a significant learning curve, exacerbated by a lack of experienced superiors such as would normally shep-herd new hires through their work. Not only does this mean that processing times are unlikely to decrease significantly as new hires struggle to find their feet, but it has weighty consequences for national security. Many of the immigration officers that have now been transferred into the PNTL—including those uninvolved in corruption and fraud—had years of experience in the Im-migration Service, in many cases bolstered by specialized training at great public expense. These were the men and women trained to detect human and drug trafficking, money laundering, and document fraud, and who had the experience to notice irregularities—all of which their re-placements, as novices, are far less likely to be attuned.
Moreover, such an overwhelming workload does not give new staff time to learn the skills critical to performing their jobs effectively. On September 18th, the Australian Immigration Service of-fered a training on passport fraud at the Díli Port that, unsurprisingly, not a single Timorese Im-migration Service member was able to attend, due to pending work. Such a situation is not only unprofessional, but deeply unfair to all involved: to the immigration staff; to the civilians waiting with considerable delays to have their paperwork processed; to the Australian training staff; and to those victims of drug and human trafficking, money laundering, and document fraud who will inevitably fall through the ever-widening cracks.
Moreover, the Ministry’s actions have not actually addressed the root problem of corruption. Even as the border remains short-staffed, the former immigration officers, guilty and innocent alike, have been reabsorbed back into the PNTL structure—meaning that corrupt officers have merely been reshuffled, rather than curtailed, and will continue to hold positions of power and authority. The PNTL has, in effect, awarded itself a bevy of police officers that it knows to be corrupt. These personnel will be able to continue in their careers without facing any true conse-quences, while the government expenditure that has gone into the training of officers not involved in fraud goes to waste. By not conducting a thorough investigation of the individual perpetrators and the structures that supported them, the Ministry is not only doing a great disservice to those innocent officers who have diligently served for years, but is actively contributing to a culture of impunity for corruption.
FM thus calls upon the Ministry of the Interior to do its duty, rather than the mere appearance of it. The work of the Inspector General should be continued, in cooperation with the Commission for Anti-Corruption, to conduct a far-reaching, independent investigation—one which will examine the work of all members of the Immigration Service, from the former director to entry-level clerks—and seek to identify those officers responsible for immigration irregularities and corrup-tion (FM discourages the Ministry of the Interior against attempting its own internal investigation, in the name of both transparency and to prevent a conflict of interest). Until this happens, allow-ing former Immigration Service officers into the ranks of the PNTL is an unacceptable risk to public welfare.
Beyond identifying and punishing individual officers, the investigation should also endeavor to identify the systems and structures that facilitated corruption and fraud, and make recommenda-tions for reform. Officers who are found to be innocent, meanwhile—particularly those with spe-cialized skills and experience—should be returned to their posts, with apologies. Most importantly, this inspection must be completed in a timely manner, with all findings released to the public for transparency, review, and discussion.
By ordering mass transfers of Immigration Service staff into the PNTL, the Ministry of the Interior has acted irresponsibly and put the people of Timor-Leste at risk: not only at the border, but from their own police service, which now contains known corrupt officers. This must be rectified im-mediately, with officers suspected of corruption removed from the PNTL pending a thorough and independent investigation. FM urges the Ministry not to betray its own good work and put the citizens of Timor-Leste at risk for the sake of a façade of action.