Yara Murray-Atfield – Organisations are working to raise awareness about human trafficking, as reports find Timor-Leste is a source and destination country for people who have been sold or tricked into slavery.
The American State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 found Timorese women are sold into prostitution while men are forced into hard unpaid labor.
The Alola Foundation is one of the organisations working to raise awareness about trafficking and help victims in Timor-Leste.
The Halt Exploitation, Learn to Prosecute (HELP) program is funded by the US State Department's anti-trafficking force and works with the Timorese departments of Justice and Social Solidarity.
"Because of the lack of information in the community and society," acting advocacy manager Fatima Guterres said, "people don't know what human trafficking is and how to categorize it."
The foundation has been working to combat the growing people trade since 2004, focusing on awareness campaigns. "The districts we now prioritize are the three closest to Indonesia: Cova Lima, Maliana and Oecusse," Guterres said. "We call them the frontiers."
The Trafficking in Persons Report found Timor-Leste to be a destination for people being trafficked internationally, especially from India, Singapore, China and the Philippines.
In previous years, the report has listed Timor-Leste as Tier 2, but has been downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List.
According to the report nations on the Watch List have had a "failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year."
Countries on the Watch List will be downgraded to Tier 3 if they do not improve their efforts to reduce trafficking.
Restrictions can be placed on Tier 3 nations, including "with holding of funding for participation in education and cultural exchange programs," spokes person for the US embassy in Dili, Jennifer Baxter said.
"Even the most effective justice system and the most innovative efforts to prevent future trafficking will not reverse the abuse and trauma victims have endured," she said.
Especially in areas full of poverty, traffickers and people smugglers find their victims with promises of more opportunities overseas.
With the offer of better pay and conditions, it is easy for people "to give them their children to go abroad or to get a job," Alola's Equality and Justice Coordinator Elisita Roserio said. "People really believe when foreigners come and try to recruit them."
The report found children are also forced to work for traffickers in order to pay off family debts.
From 2006 to 2010, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was a part of the Timorese counter-trafficking effort. During that time, the IOM found a significant issue with people from other countries being traded and sold into work within Timor-Leste.
"When counter-trafficking was still operating, I saw that the government had regulations, but sometimes the implementations in the field were not in coordination with the government," IOM's Carlos Araujo said.
The trafficking report found "traffickers allegedly retain the passports of victims, and rotate sex trafficking victims in and out of the country every few months".
Araujo, the Assistant to the Irregular Migrants Project, said, "for everyone who wants to come into this country, of course they have to have travel documents and passports.
"Immigration has passport readers, and the machines are working well," he said. "But often with human trafficking they are not coming through the international airport. They come through illegal borders where immigration doesn't have a post or security."
Due to inexact reporting and very few prosecutions of traffickers, the number of people sold into slavery is not known. However, in 2009 IOM estimated close to 1000 construction workers and a large percentage of the 550 commercial sex workers in Dili were trafficked into the country.
For 2013-14, despite legislation pending approval from the Council of Ministers, the government did not investigate any cases of people trafficking. This is down from 2012 when three people were investigated and one was charged.
"We are lucky, because our government is aware of human trafficking," Alola's Guterres said. "Under the Minister for Social Solidarity, there is a specific budget every year to help human trafficking victims with shelter."
The report outlines several areas for improvement: anti-trafficking laws and greater police presence amongst them.
The Alola foundation is trying to raise awareness to stop trafficking at the source. "I just want to highlight the importance of the campaign that we conduct," Guterres said.
"It's important that people know recruitment for people who want to work abroad is only government now. There are no more institutions that do recruitment to go abroad," she said. "So don't believe it."
Neither the Ministries of Justice or Social Solidarity were available for comment at the time of writing.