2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: Timor-Leste

TIMOR-LESTE: Tier 2 Watch List

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. These efforts included investigating some potential trafficking crimes, identifying and referring for assistance one foreign trafficking victim, taking some steps to establish an anti-trafficking commission, and maintaining an anti-trafficking curriculum in some of its trainings for officials. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity. Lack of expertise and understanding of trafficking crimes, data collection methods, clear leadership roles among ministries, and any devoted budget remained serious impediments to the government effectively combating trafficking. The government continued to demonstrate decreasing efforts to investigate and prosecute traffickers, as well as a failure to push longstanding cases forward in the courts. The government did not obtain any trafficking convictions during the reporting period. The government’s victim identification and referral efforts remained ad hoc, and protection services specifically tailored to the needs of victims of all forms of trafficking remained inadequate. The government did not finalize or approve government-wide standard operating procedures (SOPs) for victim identification for the fifth consecutive year—a critical need as official understanding of trafficking remained low, and some authorities continued to detain and deport potential trafficking victims for immigration violations without performing screening procedures. Therefore Timor-Leste remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year.


Increase investigations of trafficking crimes, proactively initiate prosecutions, and convict and punish traffickers, including complicit officials, in accordance with anti-trafficking laws. • Proactively identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, including individuals in commercial sex, domestic workers, and migrant workers on fishing vessels. • Develop a current national action plan on trafficking and adequately fund its implementation. • Finalize, implement, and train all relevant officials on formal procedures for victim identification and employ proper screening procedures upon detention or prior to initiating deportation. • Strengthen efforts to protect victims from arrest, deportation, or other punishment for unlawful acts which traffickers compelled them to commit. • Establish SOPs on referring victims to appropriate care and train officials on their use. • Increase resources for protective services focusing on trafficking victims and proactively offer male victims the same services offered to female victims. • Establish the human trafficking commission. • Improve nationwide law enforcement and victim identification data collection. • Screen for trafficking indicators among Cuban medical professionals.


The government decreased 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 25 years’ imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Law enforcement and judicial officials remained unfamiliar with trafficking crimes; thus, it was likely that officials inaccurately classified some trafficking cases as immigration or labor violations. Furthermore, the government did not collect detailed data on trafficking, and the government only collected aggregate data on vulnerable persons and not trafficking-specific data.

The government reported it investigated and detained two suspected perpetrators for alleged child sex trafficking of an Indonesian girl in June 2020; the case was ongoing at the end of the reporting period. The police also reported it apprehended two suspected perpetrators in December 2020 for alleged sex trafficking of an Indonesian woman, based on a complaint reported in a prior year; the case was also pending at the end of the reporting period. This represented a decrease from the 13 investigations the government initiated during the previous reporting period and demonstrated overall decreasing efforts since 2018. The Office of the Labor Inspector General referred a potential labor trafficking case to the police in February 2021 involving a Philippine national recruited to work in a casino where her employer withheld her pay and confiscated her passport; the case was pending police investigation at the end of the reporting period. For the second consecutive year, the government did not initiate any new prosecutions during the current reporting period; the Office of the Prosecutor General (OPG) reported that two cases first initiated in a previous reporting period remained pending. The government did not convict any traffickers during the reporting period; it last obtained a conviction in 2018. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in trafficking offenses during the reporting period. In 2018, a district administrator was accused of raping a child sex trafficking victim and attempting to bribe her to not report the case; at the end of this reporting period, the case remained with the OPG for review while the district administrator remained in his position. In a previous reporting period, the government reported referring a case of an immigration official who allegedly facilitated labor trafficking of Bangladeshi workers to the OPG; the government did not report an update on this case. The government acknowledged possible trafficking violations in the fishing industry in Timor-Leste’s coastal waters and exclusive economic zone to the south; however, the government lacked the vessels, training, and human resources to patrol, inspect, and interdict vessels in its waters and investigate possible trafficking violations on these vessels.

Government officials reported that pandemic-related restrictions and the delayed passing of a federal budget hindered the government’s providing anti-trafficking trainings to personnel and the public during the reporting period. The Legal Training Center and the OPG reported they continued to include anti-trafficking curriculum in its training for new judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and for current members of the judiciary, but it did not confirm how many officials received this training during the reporting period. The National Police also included training on how to identify trafficking victims as part of their onboarding curriculum, but it did not report if any members received this training during the reporting period.


The government maintained minimal efforts to identify and protect victims. Immigration and police officials reported their ad hoc use of trafficking indicators based on the Bali Process to identify victims; however—for the sixth consecutive year—the government did not finalize or widely disseminate comprehensive, government-wide SOPs for victim identification. While relevant ministries collaborated to share information on trafficking victims, there was no formal referral process for trafficking victims; generally authorities used a process based on the referral process for victims of gender-based violence. The Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion (MSSI) reported it had technical officers in each of the 13 districts of the country that worked closely with an NGO to provide victims of gender-based violence and trafficking with assistance; however, MSSI did not report any cases of trafficking to the NGO during the reporting period. The NGO reported it had not received a victim referral from MSSI since 2019. In June 2020, police identified one child sex trafficking victim from Indonesia during the course of an investigation; the police coordinated with the Indonesian embassy in Dili to provide the victim with shelter services and repatriation assistance after she provided a statement of her experience to the authorities. The government was prepared to provide and refer to protection services two other potential victims involved in two separate cases handled by the police during the reporting period; however, the victims opted to utilize local support networks for assistance. In comparison to the previous reporting period, the government did not report its proactive identification of any victims in 2019. The government provided funding to NGOs for the provision of victim services when victims were identified and availed themselves of government-provided assistance. MSSI reported it had $10,000 available to provide for trafficking victims during the reporting period, but the government did not utilize this funding to provide assistance to the one victim identified by the police as the foreign victim sought assistance from her embassy. Although no victims received comprehensive care during the reporting period, an international organization continued to assess the availability and the quality of victim care as poor and below international standards; it further noted that the government’s existing victim assistance was structured for domestic violence victims, who were overwhelmingly female, and therefore did not adequately address the needs of male trafficking victims. Article 9 of the anti-trafficking law permitted victims to seek compensation for losses and damages incurred as a result of the trafficking crime, but no victims received such benefits during the reporting period. The government provided foreign victims with alternatives to their removal to countries where they may face hardship or retribution.

The government implemented regulations and guidance on the 2017 Law on Preventing and Combating Human Trafficking, which stated trafficking victims may not be detained, accused, or judged for having entered or resided illegally in Timor-Leste, nor for having perpetrated crimes their traffickers compelled them to commit. However, the government and NGOs indicated that immigration and law enforcement officials may have detained or deported some potential foreign trafficking victims due to a failure to properly identify and screen for trafficking indicators. Law enforcement routinely performed raids on areas known for commercial sex, which was legal in the country, in part to assess immigration status. Because of inadequate training on victim identification and screening for trafficking indicators, authorities likely detained and deported foreign sex trafficking victims during these raids. Furthermore, immigration and police officials reported traffickers coached victims to state they were voluntarily in commercial sex, which officials reported made it difficult for them to identify victims during these raids.


The government made minimal efforts to prevent trafficking. Although the government did not create a commission to combat trafficking as mandated in the 2017 anti-trafficking law, in December 2020 the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) presented to the Council of Ministers on legislative options to establish the responsibilities of the commission. In the absence of a commission, the government continued to use the interagency anti-trafficking working group, led by the MOJ, to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts. The working group met twice during the reporting period. The MOJ previously drafted a national action plan in 2018, but it did not finalize an updated plan during the reporting period. The government did not conduct research to assess the human trafficking problem in the country, nor did it systemically monitor its anti-trafficking efforts. The government conducted anti-trafficking awareness campaigns in high schools and local communities throughout the country with a focus on Dili. The government did not have an anti-trafficking hotline. The government did not take proactive measures to address fraudulent labor recruitment practices, which created significant vulnerabilities for Timorese nationals seeking work abroad. The government did not take measures to reduce the demand for commercial sex.


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 nationals, in particular women and girls. 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. Traffickers exploit Timorese men in forced labor in agriculture, construction, and mining. Some Timorese family members place children in bonded household and agricultural labor, primarily in domestic rural areas but also abroad, to pay off family debts. Traffickers deceive young men and women and adult women with promises of scholarship opportunities or employment in Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries in the region; often, traffickers take the victim to a different country than promised, withhold their passports, pay them little to nothing, and force them into labor, including domestic servitude. 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. Immigration and police officials and civil society representatives reported in 2020 that trafficking of foreign victims through legal points of entry, such as airports, ports, and official land border crossings, had likely decreased due to the government’s increased scrutiny of those entering the country due to pandemic-related limitations on the entry of both Timorese and foreign arrivals. Sex traffickers in Timor-Leste target foreign women from East and Southeast Asia. Transnational traffickers may be members of Indonesian or Chinese organized crime syndicates, who rotate foreign victims of sex trafficking in and out of the country for the length of a 30-day tourist visa to avoid raising the suspicions of law enforcement officers through visa overstay violations. Traffickers also recruit Timorese women, send them to China, Indonesia, or Malaysia, and force them into commercial sex. 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 are approximately 100 Cuban nationals working as doctors in Timor-Leste.