Timorese and foreign nationals are trafficking people for sexual exploitation, forced labour and agricultural work, said Heather Komenda, counter-trafficking programme manager for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Since Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002, local Timorese women have been lured away from their homes and recruited with promises of work abroad.
Francisco Belo, a coordinator for the counter-trafficking project of the Alola Foundation, an NGO founded in 2001 to respond to the needs of women in Timor, told IRIN: "We have heard of almost 100 such cases… Especially near the border [with West Timor], traffickers have recruited women to work in Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in southeast Asia. The families in Timor haven't heard from those women [again]."
Traffickers employ a number of strategies. Bogus NGOs arrive in Timor offering overseas employment. The population of Timor is 90 percent Catholic and some traffickers even employ people impersonating nuns to recruit people, said Belo.
Trafficked people in Timor
Perhaps a bigger problem is the number of people being trafficked into the country. "Timor has become a destination for human traffickers. We have found people from Thailand, Indonesia, China and the Philippines - most of them working in the sex industry and most of them victims of human trafficking," he said.
Belo said the number of female commercial sex workers in Dili is now probably close to 550. Back in 2004, the prosecutor-general estimated there were 400 Chinese and 300 Vietnamese construction workers in Dili who were possible victims of trafficking.
Trafficking in persons is a criminal offence under Article 81 of the Immigration and Asylum Act of 2003. Trafficking in minors carries a jail term of 5-12 years.
Lauren Rumble, chief of the UN Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) Child Protection Unit, said: "Timor-Leste's government has been determined to set up systems to prevent and respond to child trafficking. The Ministry of Social Solidarity in 2008 deployed 13 child protection officers (one for each district) to monitor and manage cases of vulnerable children. A new law on adoption and guardianship is being developed and a birth registration programme is in place."
The government, however, has yet to ratify the world's primary anti-trafficking treaty, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Crime.
"The government is considering ratifying the protocol this year," said IOM's Komenda, adding that this would further develop the Immigration and Asylum Act, especially in terms of victim protection and assistance.
While enforcement of trafficking laws has proved difficult, it is often easier to arrest suspected traffickers through a law other than Article 81, such as document fraud.
In 2007, for example, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the prosecutor's office twice ordered Immigration to deny a group of Timorese females, which included minors, exit visas to leave the country because information suggested the group was to be trafficked to Syria via Malaysia. A Nigerian man was accused of recruiting the group.
No witnesses came forward and Article 81 could not be applied. However, the man was subsequently arrested twice for possession of fake passports before Immigration officials asked him to voluntarily leave the country, which he did.
A big part of Alola and IOM's work is awareness-raising. "We produce pamphlets, posters, and CDs to spread the word on the radio and TV about the dangers of human trafficking, and we deliver training workshops," said Belo.
This year IOM plans to establish Timor's first shelter for victims of trafficking, with funding from the UN Development Programme-Spain's Millennium Development Goal Achievement Fund.
Komenda said: "The government also has an inter-agency trafficking working group. We support them to develop national action plans. We are happy the government is taking it seriously, but there is still a lot of work to be done." mc/bj/cb [ENDS]
Image added by ETLJB - The Alola Foundation.
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