Lesotho improves anti-trafficking efforts

By Thoboloko Ntšonyane

MASERU – The United States (US) annual report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) has noted Lesotho’s efforts to address human trafficking and has upgraded its status to Tier 2 from Tier 2 watch list.

This signifies a worthwhile improvement on the part of the country as it was once placed in a Tier 3 watch list in 2020, placing it at risk of losing the US related benefits such as the renewal of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact II and the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA)’s deal.

“The Government of the Kingdom of Lesotho 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 on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Lesotho was upgraded to Tier 2,” reads the report in pertinent part.

The Tier 2 status denotes that the country had not fully met the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) but is making a “significant effort” as far as complying with the stipulated requirement of the TVPA’s are concerned.

The country was previously place on the Tier 3, which is the lowest ranking for countries that have failed to “fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so” and therefore are at risk of forfeiting US attached aid and privileges.

The United Nations General Assembly had on November 15, 2000 adopted the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime which entered into force on September 29, 2003. This instrument was mounted to fight against the transnational organized crime.

Lesotho has ratified this Convention on September 24, 2003.

This Convention is supplemented by the three other protocols that are targeted on the specific areas and address the manifestations of organized crime: the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children; the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air and the Protocol against Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Convention represents a major step forward in the fight against transnational organized crime and signifies the recognition by Member States of the seriousness of the problems posed by it, as well as the need to foster and enhance close international cooperation in order to tackle those problems.

“States that ratify this instrument commit themselves to taking a series of measures against transnational organized crime, including the creation of domestic criminal offences (participation in an organized criminal group, money laundering, corruption and obstruction of justice); the adoption of new and sweeping frameworks for extradition, mutual legal assistance and law enforcement cooperation; and the promotion of training and technical assistance for building or upgrading the necessary capacity of national authorities.”

According to the report, this upward mobility is attributed to the government’s ability to identify more victims of human trafficking, an increase in the rate of investigations and the number of prosecutions.

The report further notes that: “The government launched its national action plan and allocated funding for implementation; finalized and implemented guidelines for victim identification and referral to care; and increased its anti-trafficking training and awareness-raising efforts for law enforcement, diplomats, and the public.”

Be as it may, the report further highlighted the shortfalls on the end of the government, citing failure to meet the minimum standards in several key areas. It says there are still pending “several” investigations and prosecutions from the previous reporting period.

Among those cases, the report highlights that there are those of alleged complicity by some officials.

Despite registering progress with the rate of prosecutions, the conviction rate is however low. The report says that the government had launched 10 investigations for alleged human trafficking offences, of which five involved labour trafficking and the other five were for unspecified exploitation. On the last reporting period, the report shows that the government had launched three investigations and it was able to prosecute 16 trafficking cases, an increase from the previous reporting period wherein it prosecuted four cases.

As in the previous reporting period, only one prosecution was made.

It continues: “The government did not amend existing laws that created jurisdictional issues that prevent magistrate courts from issuing the maximum penalty for trafficking crimes. The government continued to rely on one NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] to provide all services to trafficking victims in the country with nascent government funding, and shelter options remained limited.”

“For the seventh consecutive year, the government did not address a jurisdictional issue impeding efforts to hold traffickers accountable, although officials drafted and submitted to parliament an amendment to the Subordinate Court Act, which would address the issue, but it remained pending approval at the end of the reporting period.

“The magistrate courts, which are the court of first instance for trafficking cases, lacked authority to impose maximum penalties allowed in trafficking crimes.”

In 2021, the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act was amended by removing the option of fine if one is found guilty by the court of law. If prosecuted and convicted, the fines range from M1 million for trafficking an adult and M2 million for trafficking a minor, and these penalties also attract 25 imprisonment fines.

The report also notes that three magistrates were specifically assigned to hear the cases of trafficking in persons, this is despite the fact that 10 magistrates were trained to adjudicate over the matters related to trafficking in persons.

Also the critical stakeholders in the fight against human trafficking, the police, the report indicates that the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) Anti-Trafficking and Migrant Council (ATMC) Unit that is charged with the responsibility to undertake trafficking related investigations, was able to add four new specialized trafficking in persons focal points in the districts of Mafeteng, Butha-Buthe, Leribe and Mohale’s Hoek.

The ATMC units were accorded the necessary logistical and administrative support from the LMPS despite lacking a dedicated budget. Notwithstanding that the members of each focal point received the training, the report is however concerned that it was inadequate as they were not trained on how to identify victims, conduct trauma-informed interviewing, and investigate human trafficking.

Collaborative efforts are also attributable to these registered progress. The report has mentioned the instances in which the ATMC held the monthly meetings with the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to “conduct joint case reviews and facilitate prosecution-led investigations”.

In a similar vein, there is a task force formed by the LMPS, the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the Ministry of Home Affairs and it is tasked to conduct joint inspections that target forced labour and it has “identified several cases involving potential foreign national victims”.

It further highlighted that the government had enhanced the victim identification and protection efforts. “The government identified 24 trafficking victims, including 10 labor trafficking victims and 14 sex trafficking victims, compared with two victims during the previous reporting period. The government referred all identified victims to care [and has] finalized, with support from an international organization, and launched its standard operating procedures (OPS) for victim identification and national referral mechanism (NRM) and began implementation.

Despite these inroads, the report has stated that corruption and complicity still pose a threat and could counter the efforts invested in this fight.

“Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns. Two investigations into officials allegedly complicit in trafficking-related offences, initiated in the previous reporting period, remained ongoing. In one case, a senior government official allegedly assisted a third-country national with illegal entry into South Africa via Lesotho by circumventing South African entrance requirements.”

The Minister of Home Affairs Hon. Motlalentoa Letsosa has termed this as a “huge achievement”.

The US Ambassador to Lesotho Maria Brewer had on July 18, presented the report to the Minister of Home Affairs.

The Ambassador had commented the country for registering the significant progress in buttering the human trafficking.

“An estimated 25 million people around the world are subjected to human trafficking, each human being is exploited in some way- for labor, service, or sex. Through force, through fraud, through coercion, traffickers violate the most basic right of people to be free.

“I want to comment the Government of the Kingdom of Lesotho for its progress in making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but I also note much hard work remains ahead,” she said further committing the US Embassy’s cooperation with the government officials and civil society actors to “ending this horrific modern day slavery”.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception with the aim of exploiting them for profit.”

It further says men, women and children of all ages and from all backgrounds are vulnerable to this crime as it occurs everywhere in the world.

When luring people into human trafficking, the traffickers employ range of tactics ranging from employment and scholarship opportunities, trick people through fraudulent employment agencies and sometimes use violence means to recruit people.

This report offers an overview and overall assessment of the efforts that the country had undertaken to counter the trafficking in persons.

Those include among others the legal steps that the country has adopted to buttress this crime, country information on the reported cases of human trafficking and prosecutions that have been made.

The report further warned that foreign nationals such as those of the People’s Republic of China, Pakistanis and Nigerians “subject their compatriots to sex trafficking” in Lesotho, further mentioning that the Cubans living in the country “may” be forced to work by their government.