Govt ‘indifferent’ to human trafficking

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By Kefiloe Kajane

  • Lesotho’s commitment to fighting trafficking is questioned
  • Ministers says a handful foreign nationals arrested
  • Amendment Bill passed by National Assembly

Lesotho’s half-hearted approach to eradicating human trafficking once again took centre this week stage when home affairs minister tabled a damning report on the depravity before Parliament, in what could at best be described as nothing more than innocuous rhetoric and buck passing.

The United States 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report (Lesotho) illustrates the extent to which human trafficking in Lesotho is entrenched and institutionalized, and minister Motlalentoa Letsosa’s statement failed to offer concrete and convincing solutions to the problem, except to tell the National Assembly that that the report has been there long before his appointment in June this year.

According to the report, the government of Lesotho does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.

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“Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking, including conducting awareness-raising activities in partnership with an international organization and an NGO, continuing to participate in a regional data collection tool, and training 27 diplomats on trafficking in persons. However, the government did not investigate or prosecute any potential trafficking cases for the second consecutive year and did not convict any traffickers for the fourth consecutive year. Despite serious concerns of official complicity in trafficking crimes, which appeared to restrict all law enforcement actions during the reporting period, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials for such acts.

“The government identified fewer victims and did not provide protective services to victims or financial support to an NGO that did. For the fourth consecutive year, it did not finalize standard operating procedures on victim identification or the national referral mechanism. The government did not allocate funding for the Victims of Trafficking Trust Fund for the ninth consecutive year or fund the Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU), responsible for handling trafficking cases within Lesotho law enforcement. The government did not adequately train front-line responders, which often resulted in law enforcement re-traumatizing potential victims.

“The government did not address issues in its legal framework for human trafficking, which did not criminalize all forms of sex trafficking and included penalties that were not sufficiently stringent to deter the crime. The anti-trafficking coordination body did not meet regularly and lacked formal processes to track progress against national anti-trafficking goals. Senior government officials did not support and continued to impede efforts made by the coordination body. The government did not finalize an updated national action plan to combat trafficking–stalled for the second year. In order to avoid prosecuting a trafficker, the government actively blocked the reentry into Lesotho of a foreign national trafficking victim who left the country to obtain a new passport,” the report states.

Motlalentoa added that the situation downgrades the country to Tier 3 on countries that are unable to fight trafficking in person.

“Tier three is actually junk status. It level means even our longest relationships that we had with other countries are on the verge of collapsing. When I learned about the report and its contents, I instructed the principal secretary to furnish the ministry with ways that we can fight this vice.

“Some of the steps we took included amending Trafficking in Persons law. We had to remove some of the officials from their work stations to improve our efforts in combatting this scourge,” he explained.

He claimed that, so far, a handful foreigners have been arrested in connection with human trafficking. He encouraged Basotho to work with police in order to fight human trafficking.

The US Report goes on to recommend Lesotho to increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers through independent and fair trials, including officials complicit in trafficking crimes; finalize and implement guidelines for proactive victim identification and standard operating procedures for referring identified victims to care, in line with the anti-trafficking act regulations; adequately fund the CGPU and establish a CGPU focal point in all 10 districts of Lesotho to ensure effective responsiveness to all potential trafficking cases; and adequately fund shelter and protective services for victims.

It further recommends the government to provide trafficking-specific training to police investigators, prosecutors, judges, and social service personnel and amend the anti-trafficking law to remove sentencing provisions that allow fines in lieu of imprisonment and remove the requirement of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense; allocate funds for the Victims of Trafficking Trust Fund and implement procedures for administering the funds; allocate funding to support operation of the multi-agency anti-trafficking task force; amend the anti-trafficking and child welfare laws so that force, fraud, or coercion are not required for cases involving children younger than age of 18 to be considered trafficking crimes; as well as fix jurisdictional issues that prevent magistrate courts from issuing the maximum penalty for trafficking crimes, increase efforts to systematically collect and analyze anti-trafficking law enforcement and victim protection data, and increase oversight of labor recruitment agencies licensed in Lesotho to mitigate fraudulent recruitment for mining work in South Africa.

Lesotho’s commitment to combatting human trafficking previously came under the spotlight when most countries attending the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group’s 35th session in Geneva, Switzerland in January this year called on the country to work hard to eliminate human trafficking – a challenge that impinges on human rights.

Countries such as France, Germany and Island recommended that Lesotho ensures that perpetrators of human trafficking are put to justice after the country tabled its report, that shows it to be experiencing a high rate of human trafficking of women and children.

Women and children experience gender based violence and human trafficking despite measures taken by the government to eliminate gender-based violence. Frequent transfers of trained CGPU officers compromise efforts by the government, UN agencies and development partners to strengthen the capacity of the Unit in prevention of and response to gender-based violence and other offences.  

Presenting the report, then minister of law and constitutional affairs, Habofanoe Lehana, told the conference that currently there were about 50 cases of trafficking reported and in 13 of those, the perpetrators or suspects were remanded before the courts of law. However, the major challenge was the victims not being available for trial.

Trafficking victims have always made impassioned pleas to the government and society in general to step up measures to protect women, after it had emerged that some were raped multiple times during their ordeal as sex slaves in neighbouring South Africa.

As if this is not traumatic enough, escaped human trafficking victims often struggle to reintegrate into society as their own families and communities reject them upon their return from the clutches of ruthless and unscrupulous prostitution rings and drug lords.

Lehana reported to the UPR working group that measures have been adopted to combat human trafficking which involve the enactment of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2011.

“The Act has been simplified, translated and disseminated as part of awareness campaigns on human trafficking. Anti-Trafficking Regulations provide for protection of witnesses so that the perpetrators can be convicted. They are provided with free legal and psychological support. 

“As a means to support victims, there is the Victims of Crime Office established under the Ministry of Justice. The office generally eases the victims’ interaction with the criminal justice system. The office provides emotional and practical support to people affected by crime,” Lehana said.

He also mentioned that other interventions include partnerships with civil society organisations and community networks to address human trafficking through community intensive awareness raising campaigns.

Lehana further indicated that there is a pilot project called “Counter Trafficking and Addressing Irregular Migration through Strengthening Border and Migration Management, Sensitisation on Trafficking in Persons and Building Capacity of Law Enforcement and Border Officials in Lesotho”

The project, he said, was intended to address the existing challenges at key port of entries and counter trafficking targeting vulnerable communities living near hot spots along the official and unofficial border crossings in Lesotho.

Meanwhile, the Amendment to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Bill was passed by the National Assembly a few weeks ago.