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The Government of Timor-Leste does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Timor-Leste remained on Tier 2. These efforts included adopting and funding training on SOPs to identify trafficking victims and refer them to care; identifying labor and sex trafficking victims, referring some to NGO shelters, and providing psycho-social support to others; initiating investigations into suspected labor and sex traffickers; and funding the anti-trafficking commission (KLATU). However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not prosecute or convict any traffickers – many officials still lacked understanding of trafficking, which inhibited victim identification, including among foreigners engaged in commercial sex – and KLATU lacked sufficient funding to complete its draft 2023-2028 NAP. The government did not provide trafficking-specific services, and prosecutors required trafficking victims to stay in shelters until they had sufficient evidence for criminal proceedings. Moreover, the government only provided services to trafficking victims who agreed to participate in criminal investigations against their traffickers.

  • Increase investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for trafficking in accordance with anti-trafficking laws, including of complicit officials.
  • Using new SOPs and victim-centered interviews, proactively identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, including individuals in commercial sex, domestic workers, and migrant workers on fishing vessels.
  • Train or fund training for officials on SOPs, including employing them during commercial sex raids, among foreigners in detention, and prior to initiating deportation.
  • Delineate among law enforcement responsibilities for trafficking investigations.
  • Increase resources for trafficking victim protection services, including for victims who do not participate in criminal investigations, and proactively offer male and female victims the same services.
  • Provide judges and prosecutors with copies of the anti-trafficking law in their primary language.
  • Permit victims the freedom to choose whether to stay in government- or NGO-provided shelters and permit foreign victims to choose when to be repatriated.
  • Proactively inform trafficking victims of available legal services, including assistance in seeking compensation.
  • Fully fund KLATU to finalize and begin implementation of the draft 2023-2028 NAP.
  • Improve nationwide law enforcement and victim identification data collection.
  • Screen for trafficking indicators among Cuban overseas workers, including medical professionals.
  • Eliminate worker-paid recruitment fees.

The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Articles 163 and 164 of the criminal code criminalized all forms of labor and sex trafficking and prescribed penalties of eight to 20 years’ imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent, and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Despite the existence of a trafficking law, some law enforcement and judicial officials continued to treat trafficking crimes as lesser offenses, such as immigration or labor violations. In addition, many judges and prosecutors lacked an accessible copy of anti-trafficking laws because Timorese law required publication of laws in Portuguese, a language in which not all judges and prosecutors were fully fluent.

The government investigated 12 trafficking cases (eight new and four continued from previous reporting periods) – an increase from no new investigations the previous reporting period. The Office of the Prosecutor General (OPG) dismissed one case, and 11 cases remained under investigation. The government did not prosecute or convict any traffickers – a decrease from seven prosecutions of 18 alleged traffickers and two convictions in the previous reporting period. In one case, the government investigated five individuals – three Timorese, one Bahraini, and one Sudanese – for alleged labor trafficking of seven Timorese women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Ministry of Justice’s Forensic Criminal Investigative Police (PCIC) investigated and referred the five individuals for prosecution, but the court declined to hear the case for lack of evidence and placed the individuals under house arrest pending further investigation. PCIC also arrested and referred for prosecution a local travel agency owner for facilitating the travel of Timorese youth to Portugal, some of whom were victims of trafficking. OPG commenced prosecution for human trafficking, but the court again declined to hear the case for lack of evidence and placed the accused under house arrest pending further investigation. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes. The government acknowledged possible trafficking crimes in the fishing industry in Timor-Leste’s coastal waters and exclusive economic zone to the south, but it lacked the vessels, training, and human resources to patrol, inspect, and interdict vessels in its waters and investigate possible trafficking crimes.

During the reporting period, the government removed the mandate for trafficking from the Timor-Leste National Police’s (PNTL) Vulnerable Person Unit (VPU) and transferred it to PCIC. VPU and PCIC continued to investigate trafficking cases and did not have a plan for collaborating or sharing information. International organizations and civil society lamented the change, noting several VPU officers had recently received training on new trafficking SOPs; PCIC had fewer officers than VPU (two dedicated to trafficking and gender-based violence (GBV) in Dili, versus 94 VPU officers stationed around the country); and PCIC was not a victim-centered unit. The government did not have mutual legal assistance agreements with countries in which Timorese are exploited abroad, hampering investigation and prosecution of transnational trafficking.

Foreign governments and international organizations provided anti-trafficking training to PNTL, including VPU, immigration and border officials, and service providers. Timorese law enforcement lacked the training, data management systems, and IT infrastructure to conduct investigative research in trafficking cases. Border officials lacked training on trafficking, including how to identify and where to refer cases.

The government increased efforts to identify and protect victims. The government identified 10 trafficking victims (seven labor and three sex trafficking) and 32 potential trafficking victims, an increase from one Timorese child sex trafficking victim identified in the previous reporting period. Most victims were Timorese exploited in forced labor abroad. With technical assistance from an international organization, the government finalized and formally adopted SOPs to identify trafficking victims and refer them to care. The government funded the organization to train some law enforcement and immigration officials on the SOPs. According to the SOPs, multiple government and NGO front-line responders could refer a suspected trafficking victim for care, and, upon referral, an interagency group of police, immigration officers, prosecutors, Ministry of Social Services (MSSI) officials, and NGOs coordinates care. The government only provided shelter and services to victims who participated in investigations against their alleged traffickers. MSSI had officers in all 13 districts that continued to work with an NGO to provide GBV and trafficking victims with medical and psychological care, security, and legal assistance. The government referred three sex trafficking victims to NGO shelters, and MSSI provided psycho-social, medical, and reintegration support to the sex trafficking victims and several labor trafficking victims. MSSI allocated $2,500 to support GBV and trafficking victims – a substantial decrease from $5,000 and $10,000 allocated in the previous two years; as in the previous reporting period, MSSI did not report utilizing this funding to assist any trafficking victims. VPU had $8,000 that it could use to provide emergency assistance to trafficking or GBV victims; it did not report using any funds. OPG required trafficking victims to stay in shelters until police and prosecutors secured evidence for law enforcement proceedings. The government did not operate any shelters for trafficking victims. MSSI provided funding to NGOs that cared for GBV and trafficking victims. NGOs reported their GBV shelters were not designed for trafficking victims and had limited capacity. The shelters also could not accommodate males, although NGOs stated they could find other lodging if they identified male victims. Shelters and services were primarily available in Dili and other urban areas; the quality and availability of victim care in rural areas remained lower.

Article 9 of the anti-trafficking law permitted victims to seek compensation for losses and damages incurred through trafficking, courts could order restitution in trafficking cases, the government had a compensation fund that could assist trafficking victims, and Timorese laws authorized the government to provide legal assistance to trafficking victims seeking compensation. The government did not assist any victims through these mechanisms. The government did not report whether any trafficking victims participated in trials against traffickers and received protection services to facilitate their participation. NGOs noted that, despite protections available for victim-witnesses, judges often did not apply them.

The government repatriated seven women labor trafficking victims from the UAE, compared to not identifying or repatriating any Timorese trafficking victims exploited abroad in the previous reporting period. To address emerging reports that scammers recruited young Timorese to take to Portugal with false promises of employment but abandoned them upon arrival, the government allocated $3 million to fund temporary housing for the approximately 5,000 Timorese stranded in Portugal and, in collaboration with an international organization, repatriated approximately 20 people, including those at risk of trafficking. Foreign trafficking victims identified in Timor-Leste could not be repatriated without OPG approval. The government’s policies allowed foreign victims alternatives to their removal to countries where they may face hardship or retribution; it did not provide such assistance.

Regulations and guidance accompanying the 2017 anti-trafficking law stated that trafficking victims may not be detained, accused, or judged for having entered or resided illegally in Timor-Leste nor for having perpetrated crimes traffickers compelled them to commit. Neither the government nor civil society partners reported specific cases in which authorities penalized trafficking victims solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked. However, due to a lack of training and inadequate screening for trafficking indicators, immigration and law enforcement officials may have detained or deported some unidentified trafficking victims. For example, officials and NGOs reported traffickers coached victims to state they were voluntarily in commercial sex, which officials reported made it difficult for them to identify victims during law enforcement actions. Immigration officials deported approximately 50 Indonesians for visa violations, including 22 women working in bars, hotels, restaurants, and salons. Although officials reported screening for trafficking before deportation, observers countered that only a handful of immigration officials understood trafficking and could adequately screen, and immigration officials did not conduct victim-centered interviews; for example, officials sometimes questioned suspected trafficking victims in the presence of alleged traffickers.

The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. KLATU, which coordinated interagency anti-trafficking efforts, met 11 times. The government allocated $475,000 to KLATU for fiscal year 2023, the same as in the prior reporting period. KLATU continued to draft a five-year anti-trafficking NAP for 2023-2028; the NAP remained pending at the end of the reporting period. KLATU did not have sufficient funding to establish a secretariat or complete, approve, and disseminate the draft NAP. In addition, some observers reported that although KLATU’s mandate centered on interagency coordination and strategic planning, KLATU focused, in practice, on responding to individual trafficking cases.

The Labor Inspector Office, which had the authority to monitor workplaces for labor violations, did not identify any labor trafficking cases; authorities acknowledged labor officials lacked knowledge of labor trafficking and the new SOPs, and the office was not a member of KLATU. Timor-Leste’s labor code did not prohibit worker-paid recruitment fees. Immigration officials lacked the manpower, resources, and legal authority to proactively investigate tourist or work visa violations as potential trafficking cases, such as by requesting wage or staff information from businesses employing foreign workers, and the new SOPs did not include guidance on referring suspected trafficking cases from immigration to labor inspectors or police.

With funding from an international organization, the government conducted an assessment on agencies’ anti-trafficking activities. The government did not conduct research to assess human trafficking in the country. The government did not conduct a countrywide anti-trafficking awareness campaign, but it collaborated with international organizations and NGOs to raise awareness of safe migration, including preventing labor trafficking. There remained a substantial gap in the understanding of trafficking among the population. Civil society reported awareness of safe and legal migration channels and trafficking was low among Timorese living in rural areas, who were the most likely to migrate abroad for work or education. The government did not have an anti-trafficking hotline, but VPU had a phone number to report criminal complaints and request assistance; the government did not report any trafficking investigations or victim identification resulting from the hotline. To prevent the fraudulent recruitment of Timorese youth for non-existent jobs in Portugal, in October 2022, the government began requiring Timorese traveling from Dili airport to Portugal for work to complete a sponsorship form and secure approval from Timorese and Portuguese immigration authorities prior to departure. The Ministry of Interior publicized the new requirement on social media and at travel agencies. The government had labor attaches in the Republic of Korea and Australia that could assist Timorese with labor disputes; they did not receive any reports of trafficking. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Timor-Leste, and traffickers exploit victims from Timor-Leste abroad. Poor economic conditions and limited educational opportunities create trafficking vulnerabilities for Timorese, in particular women and girls from rural areas; limited economic opportunities also create increased trafficking vulnerabilities for LGBTQI+ persons. Traffickers lead Timorese women, girls, and occasionally young men and boys from rural areas to the capital with the promise of employment or education and exploit them in sex trafficking or domestic servitude. Some rural Timorese families send children to live with relatives in the capital, where some are exploited in labor and sex trafficking. Traffickers exploit Timorese men in forced labor in agriculture, construction, and mining. Some Timorese families place children in bonded households and agricultural labor, primarily in domestic rural areas but also abroad, to pay off family debts. Traffickers also exploit Timorese in forced labor in manufacturing and street vending and in restaurants and storefronts. Communities affected by HIV/AIDS are believed to be vulnerable to trafficking. In 2022, allegations resurfaced that a former Timorese independence figure, bishop, and Nobel Prize laureate perpetrated child sex trafficking against multiple boys, including those orphaned during the Indonesian occupation and Timor-Leste’s fight for independence; the alleged sex trafficking occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prior to Timor-Leste’s independence.

Traffickers deceive women and teenagers with promises of scholarship opportunities or employment in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), other countries in the region, and the UAE; often, traffickers take victims to a different country than promised, withhold their passports, pay them little to nothing, and force them into labor, including domestic servitude. During the reporting period, reports emerged that scammers recruited thousands of Timorese youth for non-existent jobs in Portugal; upon arrival in Portugal, they were vulnerable to trafficking. Over the past few years, approximately 1,200 Timorese migrant workers in the Republic of Korea and Australia left their employers or did not return to Timor-Leste at the conclusion of their contracts; undocumented workers are vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers also recruit Timorese women, send them to the PRC, Indonesia, or Malaysia, and force them into commercial sex. Frequently, Timorese victims overseas first transit through the porous border with Indonesia; some remain and are exploited in Indonesia. Some routes used by smugglers along the Indonesia–Timor-Leste border are also possible routes used by traffickers. Sex traffickers in Timor-Leste target foreign women from East and Southeast Asia. Transnational traffickers may be members of Indonesian or PRC national organized crime syndicates, which rotate foreign victims of sex trafficking in and out of the country for the length of a 30-day tourist visa to avoid raising suspicions of law enforcement officers through visa overstay violations. Government officials and civil society acknowledged reports of exploitation and abuse, including potential labor trafficking of construction workers from the PRC in Dili, often as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Police accept bribes from establishments involved in trafficking or from traffickers attempting to cross borders illegally. Traffickers exploit foreign fishing crews in forced labor on foreign-flagged vessels that transit Timor-Leste waters. There were approximately 160 Cuban medical workers in Timor-Leste in 2022; they may have been forced to work by the Cuban government.

U.S. Department of State

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