Support services for women and children trafficked to Timor-Leste have been forced to close or will soon run out of funding, and NGOs worry that the government will not have the resources to fill the gap.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says Timor-Leste is primarily a destination country for international human trafficking, with mostly women and children brought across the border with Indonesia.
People are often lured from their villages with promises of jobs to pay off debts or earn large salaries in the country's US dollar economy, say activists.
IOM assisted 33 women trafficked from 2008 to 2011 - 13 from Myanmar, 8 from Indonesia, 6 from Cambodia, 3 from China and 3 Timorese trafficked from rural areas to cities - but it is unclear exactly how many people have been trafficked into the country. Others speculate that the number could be higher.
The Alola Foundation, a Timorese NGO focusing on women's issues and prevention of trafficking, reported 50 trafficked women in the same timeframe. "It's a big issue," Alzira dos Reis, the organization’s advocacy officer, told IRIN.
"I'm quite sure the number of trafficking victims is much higher than being reported," said Susan Kendall, an international mentor at PRADET, a local NGO providing psychosocial support. "Nobody really knows what is going on. The border authorities lack resources. The whole system of identifying victims and referrals has broken down."
The most recent US State Department Trafficking in Persons report notes that Indonesian and Chinese women are trafficked to Timor Leste and often forced to become commercial sex workers, while Cambodian and Burmese men and boys are often forced into labour or onto fishing boats operating in Timorese waters.
With just over 1 million inhabitants, Timor-Leste has nowhere near the volume of trafficking experienced by larger countries, but the number is significant, given the country's size.
The lack of funding has already taken its toll. Dos Reis said the Alola Foundation's human trafficking programme, funded by IOM, ended in February, with human trafficking awareness efforts now integrated into other programmes.
A shelter set up to provide temporary safe accommodation, counselling and health care for trafficked people by PRADET, had to close when funding ran out in August 2011. "Even if someone was referred to us, we wouldn't have a designated place to put them now," said Kendall.
IOM has cut back all direct trafficking support and has a limited budget for a capacity building and training programme, but that funding looks set to run out in September 2012.
"We have just finished the external funding we had," noted IOM Chief of Mission Noberto Celistino, who said he was trying to source extra funding and was hoping for a positive response from the US government. The organization would 'close up shop' and leave Timor-Leste if additional funding was not forthcoming.
He had 'little confidence' that the Ministry for Social Solidarity would have the resources to cope with international trafficking should IOM cease its operations, although "They may have means to support or manage a case of domestic trafficking."
Timor Leste is classified by the US State Department as a Tier 2 country, which means it does not meet the minimum standards in the internationally recognized Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, but is making "significant" efforts to do so.
A comprehensive draft law on trafficking, put forward in 2010, still needs three ministers to sign off on the proposed legislation before it goes to parliament for approval.