The government demonstrated increased efforts to protect victims. Among the 176 suspected trafficking victims identified, the PNTL referred 21—all Chinese nationals—to short-term shelter and protective services run by a local NGO. This was an increase from 10 in 2015. It is unclear how many identified victims, if any, benefited from protective services made available directly by the government. The justice ministry continued to develop standard operating procedures to formalize victim identification intended to replace the current methodology, in which police ask 25 probative questions largely reliant on the presence or lack of movement to determine whether or not a case is human trafficking. It was unclear how often police employed this process during the reporting period. The government allocated funds to two NGOs to provide psycho-social and shelter services to trafficking victims; however, with space for only four victims at a time, the primary protective service NGO experienced severe logistical constraints in accommodating the aforementioned 21 victims. Most female victims received services available to victims of other crimes, such as domestic violence and sexual assault; according to one international organization, this arrangement complicated provision of protective services to male victims of trafficking.
The government’s referral system employed Ministry of Social Solidarity field staff to receive tips from local communities and coordinate with police and NGOs, which reported improved cooperation through the referral network. An unknown number of victims received vocational training, legal assistance, or reintegration support from NGOs, some of which received government funds. According to immigration officials, police, and media sources, foreign women in prostitution—many of whom were possible victims of sex trafficking—were sometimes detained en masse during law enforcement raids and then deported without proper screening, or as a result of arresting officers’ inability to derive pertinent information from the women due to their having been coached to provide identical accounts. For this reason, PNTL officers claimed they were not able to obtain sufficient evidence to prosecute the owners of a karaoke bar who may have subjected 67 foreign women to sex trafficking during the reporting period. The PNTL reported karaoke bar owners confiscated the passports of foreign workers and only surrendered them if the police ordered the foreign workers’ deportation. Authorities also charged some suspected victims with immigration violations, after which they appeared at initial court hearings and were made to forfeit their passports to secure their reappearance. Authorities believed this arrangement pushed some of the victims to return to their offending places of work rather than face deportation. The government did not provide foreign victims with alternatives to their removal to countries where they may face hardship or retribution, and it is unclear if it assisted in the voluntary repatriation of any victims.
The 2017 Law on Preventing and Combating Human Trafficking provides extensive protections for victims, including those specific to victims testifying in criminal cases. The new law also authorizes a period of reflection and potential residence permits to foreign victims as well as voluntary repatriation of Timorese victims from abroad. The Ministry of Justice began working with an international organization to formulate implementing regulations for the new law during the reporting period.