Last week, a suspected case of human trafficking received major attention from Timor-Leste’s Government and media. According to various reports, seven Timorese women were recruited by an agency based in Indonesia to travel to work as domestic assistants in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. According to Timor-Leste Government officials, these women requested to be repatriated, and are currently on their way back to Timor-Leste, accompanied Timor-Leste embassy staff. Although some details of the case have not been confirmed, it appears that these women were recruited inside Timor-Leste by Timorese citizens working for the Indonesian agency. However, the details of their travel to Abu Dhabi and working and living conditions have not been made public.
Based on information provided by Indonesian authorities, on 24 June the Scientific and Criminal Investigation Police (PSIK) arrested two foreign citizens who arrived on a flight from Indonesia at Nicolau Lobato International Airport, on suspicion that they were travelling to Timor-Leste to recruit people to be trafficked to work in the Middle East. Three Timorese citizens were also arrested, and all five suspects are currently under house arrest, awaiting further investigation by PSIK.
Fundasaun Mahein (FM) applauds the Government and PSIK for their work fighting against human trafficking operations and helping vulnerable Timorese citizens abroad. At the same time, we are also concerned that this incident has revealed weaknesses in Timor-Leste’s state capacity and economic situation, which require urgent attention from our state decision makers. Therefore, FM offers the following analysis and recommendations which we hope can help the state to combat human trafficking operations in Timor-Leste, thereby preventing vulnerable Timorese people from becoming victims of these criminal organisations.
Lack of economic development creates opportunities for human traffickers
As we all know, Timor-Leste faces major economic challenges, especially creating adequate employment opportunities for our large youth population by stimulating the growth of productive industries. Unfortunately, since independence there has been little improvement in the productive domestic economy, while the working population increases in size every year. The working age population is growing much faster than the economy, so that every year more and more people join the ranks of the unemployed.
As a result, many of our young people hope to find work opportunities abroad, either through official government work programs, personal connections in Portugal or the UK, or, increasingly, through private recruitment agencies. This last category presents the greatest risk for human trafficking. It is widely known that such recruitment agencies serve as fronts for human trafficking groups, which recruit people from poor regions with promises of high wages and easy work conditions in wealthier countries.
In this way, they trick desperate people into paying or borrowing large sums of money for transport, visas and agency fees. Trafficked people are also often forced to hand over their passports either before their journey or when they arrive at their destination, and then forced to work to pay back their “debts” and to retrieve their passports. Some people cross borders legally via airports, ships and land borders, while others are smuggled across borders hidden in trucks or in isolated fronteir areas.
FM worries that as long as Timor-Leste’s domestic economy cannot absorb the growing working population, there will be strong incentives for young people to look for work abroad. Some of these people will go through official foreign worker programs to countries like Australia and South Korea, or through family connections to Portugal and the UK. However, these formal programs and informal networks will not be enough to absorb the large numbers of young unemployed people, which increases the risk that they will become victims of human trafficking organisations.
Limited state capacity and economic development further increases human trafficking threat
Timor-Leste faces significant challenges in its public administration and state capacity, including the administration of foreign worker programs and investigative capacities of our security forces. These limitations contribute directly and indirectly to the problem of human trafficking. For example, the Government’s poor administration of foreign worker programs and lack of effort to increase their number and scale mean that these programs suffer from many problems, while they cannot absorb the large number of unemployed people. It has been reported that many Timorese who travel to Australia as seasonal workers have faced cultural, financial and disciplinary problems due to inadequate preparation before they leave Timor-Leste. These issues limit the success and expansion of this program, as employers in Australia will look elsewhere for their seasonal workers. Another issue which FM has written about before is that foreign consular staff are often appointed for political reasons, and lack the capacity or interest to adequately manage and expand work programs for Timorese citizens.
Furthermore, while foreign worker programs can provide valuable income and experience to some Timorese workers, they are not a viable solution for Timor-Leste’s complex economic problems. Timor-Leste is in competition with numerous other countries which have huge populations with better technical, literacy and language skills. Another problem is that highly motivated young people who join foreign worker programs are less involved in economic activity inside the country, which can negatively affect the development of Timor-Leste’s domestic economy. Thus, while foreign worker programs are an important source of immediate revenues and capacity development, and should therefore be improved and expanded, the Government must prioritize the development of the domestic productive economy, which requires generating viable employment and investment opportunities within the country.
Another factor which increases the risk of human trafficking is the limited ability of our security institutions to prevent and respond to organised criminal activities, including cross-border and transnational crime. One issue relates to the limited technical and investigative capacities of both PSIK and PNTL, including communications, equipment and knowledge about transnational organised crime. These limitations are well-known amongst criminal groups, who constantly search for areas where law enforcement capacities are weak – or security forces are easily bribed – to serve as transit areas. Thus, these capacity limitations – along with the large number of unemployed, poorly educated people – make Timor-Leste an ideal location for recruitment by human trafficking organisations.
Government actions reveal lack of seriousness to combat human trafficking
A further problem which limits Timor-Leste’s ability to combat these activities is that the Government is not taking urgent steps to seriously address human trafficking and other transnational criminal activities. FM has written several times in the past calling for major action against human trafficking, and Timor-Leste is signatory to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (since 2009), while human trafficking is criminalised under Article 163 of the 2009 Penal Code. Despite this, human trafficking has received insufficient attention from the Government in recent years, while the capacities and knowledge of security institutions related to human trafficking remains extremely limited.
Reflecting this lack of progress, under the US Government’s 2021 Trafficking Victims Protection (TVPA) report, Timor-Leste is now categorised as “Level 2 (Watch List)”, having previously been categorised as “Level 2”. This means that although Timor-Leste does not meet the TVPA minimum standards, and has made efforts to comply with these standards, the level of human trafficking is increasing, or Timor-Leste authorities have not provided evidence that they are increasing their efforts to combat trafficking compared to previous years.
In November 2021, the Council of Ministers passed Decree-Law No. 9/2021 to create the Commission to Fight Against Trafficking in Persons, which “aims to ensure the existence of coordinated action between the various stakeholders involved in the fight against human trafficking, to define the necessary policies and strategies for effective prevention and fight against trafficking in persons”. This initiative has also received support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Australian Government, and aims to increase the state’s capacity to fight various organised and transnational criminal activities.
Civil society organisations have also provided data and recommendations to this Commission, and there have been some preliminary discussions about drafting a National Action Plan on trafficking in persons. However, since the launch of the Commission, it has not functioned as hoped. Part of the reason for this is the lack of specific budget allocation for the Commission and its various activities. The 2022 rectification budget was supposed to have included additional allocations for the Commission, but finally failed to include this.
FM is concerned that the failure to follow through with this initiative reveals a lack of seriousness from the Government to tackle the serious and growing problem of human trafficking in our country. Therefore, we ask the Government to reactivate the Commission to Fight Against Trafficking in Persons, including by inviting stakeholders from civil society, security sector and donor agencies to participate in consultations. We also ask Parliament and political party members to push for adequate state budget allocation for the Commission and security forces to carry out their functions and increase their capacity to combat human trafficking. This includes investigating suspected organisations and individuals who may be involved, and identifying weak points which may be exploited by human trafficking organisations and taking action to close these gaps. In this way, our state can fulfil its duty of protecting its citizens by preventing vulnerable Timorese people from falling into the hands of ruthless criminals.
Recommendations to Timor-Leste’s state decision makers
In conclusion, FM offers the following recommendations to our state decision makers, which we believe will strengthen the capacity of our state and people to combat and resist human trafficking activities in our country:
- The Timor-Leste Government must strengthen bilateral cooperation on the issue of worker exchange programs with foreign partners such as Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, Ireland, UK, Korea, Japan and ASEAN member states. This also requires motivated and competent ministers, director generals and secretaries working on migration and bilateral relationships. At the same time, existing programs must be evaluated to identify challenges and measures needed to improve their administration. There are already indications that Timorese workers require greater preparation related to cultural, financial and disciplinary issues before going abroad on foreign worker programs. Taking these steps will enable Timorese people to access work opportunities abroad through well-regulated official programs, which will reduce their risk of falling into the hands of criminal organisations.
- The Commission to Fight Against Trafficking in Persons must be reactivated and receive an adequate allocation in the state budget to carry out its functions. This budget should be developed in consultation with civil society organisations, donor agencies and security forces.
- Timor-Leste’s security forces require specific training and operational programming focused on combating human trafficking. This requires an evaluation to identify gaps and needs, specific budget allocations and the creation of positions or sub-units within security forces which can oversee and implement counter-trafficking programs. Donors can contribute funding and expertise in this area to assist with the development of these capacities.
- The Government must make greater efforts to stimulate economic diversification, especially creating plans for transforming the agricultural and industrial sectors, as well as reforming the education system to raise standards of literacy, mathematics and science education, and prepare our young people to participate in a productive, modern economy.
- Many Timorese people have limited knowledge about other countries and the dangers of human trafficking, which increases their vulnerability to criminal organisations. Thus, not only should the Government address the long-term problem of economic diversification, it must also implement information campaigns to educate young people – who are most likely to seek work abroad – about the dangers of human trafficking, including informing them of techniques used by recruiters.