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Timor-Leste is facing a growing crisis: the alarming rise of human trafficking which preys on vulnerable young people seeking economic security. Recent cases have shed light on the disturbing trend, with young women and men falling victim to these criminal networks. The case which occurred in 2022 of several young women being deported from Abu Dhabi received widespread attention from the public. However, many other cases have occurred which have not received the same level of coverage in news or social media. Young Timorese are being enticed with promises of work in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East, with increasing numbers falling into the hands of criminal groups. In addition, internal trafficking is also a widespread reality, but is largely unrecognised by the state and the general public.
This short article discusses some of factors underlying the growing problem of human trafficking in Timor-Leste, including a lack of police capacity, insufficient resources for detection and prevention, limited government support for victims, and a general lack of public awareness about human trafficking dynamics. In addition, it assesses the definition of human trafficking in relation to certain practices which are widely considered as “normal” in Timorese society, but which can be considered as a form of human trafficking and as a human rights violation. In this way, Fundasaun Mahein hopes to stimulate public debate about this important issue, while providing suggestions for improving support for actual and potential victims of human trafficking and related human rights abuses.
One of the main barriers to tackling human trafficking in Timor-Leste is the inadequate capacity of law enforcement in this area. PNTL lacks the necessary human, financial and technical resources to effectively detect and prevent trafficking activities. In addition, the Government has not yet recognised human trafficking as a priority issue, and thus has not allocated adequate resources to support victims and implement educational programs that raise awareness about the issue and inform people on how to avoid falling prey to traffickers.
Timor-Leste’s social and economic conditions both facilitate and incentivise human trafficking. The domestic productive economy has not grown significantly and job opportunities remain scarce, leading many to seek work abroad. Many people lack basic education and knowledge of rights and laws, which increases their vulnerability to being trafficked and exploited. Accelerating regional economic integration, especially Timor-Leste’s potential accession to ASEAN, guarantees that many will continue to seek work in neighbouring countries, which will inevitably lead some to fall into the hands of unscrupulous groups.
While international human trafficking is a pressing concern, FM believes that it is important to acknowledge the widespread reality of internal trafficking, primarily targeting young women for domestic labour within extended families. This practice, though not widely recognised as “trafficking,” reflects a sad reality where women and girls from impoverished rural families are sent to work in more affluent households for little or no pay, often in highly exploitative and abusive conditions. Initially enticed with the promise of a salary, financial assistance or support for education, these young women frequently find themselves working excessively long hours, facing psychological, physical or sexual abuse, and receiving inadequate pay, food and sleeping conditions. Threatened with severe consequences if they attempt to leave, they exist in a state of semi-imprisonment, as do the victims of other forms of human trafficking.
Due to the complexity of these social and economic factors, addressing the issue of internal and external human trafficking in Timor-Leste requires an integrated, multi-faceted approach. Strengthening the capacity of police units, particularly the Vulnerable Persons Unit (VPU), is crucial for effective prevention, as well as for supporting victims’ immediate needs. At the same time, there is an urgent need for increased efforts to educate the public about how human trafficking operates, including the different forms of trafficking and exploitation, human rights and labour standards. FM believes that long-term domestic labour within extended families involving abuse and violations of human rights and labour standards should be acknowledged as a form of trafficking. This requires serious discussions about the legal classification and implications of this practice, including exploring how socio-cultural norms and practices can be better aligned with human rights standards. Finally, public education about human trafficking and human rights is also critical for empowering potential victims to recognize their rights and resist exploitation by both criminal networks and extended family members.
Currently, Timor-Leste stands at a critical juncture in the fight against human trafficking, with this issue manifesting on both international and internal fronts. By addressing the challenges faced by law enforcement, providing support for victims, and initiating public discussions, we can work towards eradicating this grave violation of human rights and ensuring a safer future for its most vulnerable citizens. Fundasaun Mahein hopes that relevant state entities can work together with civil society and international donors to tackle this problem and plans to continue researching and advocating on this issue.