SOME Lesotho government officials are part of an organised crime syndicate trafficking women to a brothel for sex work in neighbouring South Africa, a recent United Nations (UN) Trafficking in Persons report has said.
Government, immigration and law enforcement officers, prosecutors and diplomats in the country’s foreign missions were also said to be involved in criminal activities that have worsened the situation.
The report paints a gloomy picture of Lesotho’s inability to eliminate human trafficking. It also downgrades the country to the UN’s Tier 2 Watch List for failing to meet minimum standards of protecting victims and survivors as set out in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of (TVPA) 2000.
Countries are rated in Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, Tier 3 or Special Case. Lesotho is in Tier 2 Watch List along with South Africa and 36 other countries.
The new grading means that the country needs to work harder to eliminate human trafficking cases in the current financial year or risk going further down the ratings.
“The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials for complicity in human trafficking offences. However, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns and appeared to inhibit all law enforcement actions during the year,” part of the report reads.
“Experts reported that the significant case backlog dating back at least six years was the result of the government officials never prosecuting such cases due to corruption. The authorities postponed cases until the court dropped or removed them from the docket following payment from alleged traffickers.
“Although the government was aware of an organised crime syndicate operating a brothel in South Africa where sex trafficking of Basotho women occurred, efforts to liaise with South African officials did not yield tangible results such as arrests, prosecutions, or convictions of the traffickers involved.
“Observers alleged that Basotho diplomats in South Africa were involved in facilitating fraudulent documents to support illegal migration which may have involved trafficking victims. Many law enforcement officials had limited understanding of trafficking, how to protect victims from potential intimidation from traffickers and often did not demonstrate a victim-centred approach.”
The report states that border points between Lesotho and South Africa were extremely porous and immigration officials did not screen for trafficking indicators. It said that law enforcement officials were allegedly in cahoots with traffickers regularly operating at the Maseru Bridge border crossing.
Traffickers connected to organised crime syndicates operating in South Africa exploit and sometimes kill Basotho men by depriving victims of oxygen in derelict mines, the report said.
It also noted that traffickers also compel Basotho into committing crimes in South Africa, including theft, drug trafficking, and smuggling under threat of violence or through forced drug use.
Locally, it was reported that “foreign nationals, including the Chinese, subject their compatriots to sex trafficking in Lesotho”.
For the third consecutive year, the report said that Lesotho did not convict any traffickers and that the Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU), a specialised anti-trafficking unit within the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS), was operational but did not receive adequate financial or political backing to effectively investigate potential cases of trafficking.
“Moreover, senior immigration officials acknowledged that people regularly cross the borders in plain sight illegally, including with children, without repercussions. Front-line responders regularly conflated gender-based violence and trafficking and some police officers exhibited extreme insensitivity towards child victims of sexual abuse, including potential trafficking victims,” the report reads.
The report said the observers noted that reporting potential trafficking cases to the police made child victims more vulnerable and that despite the significant need for training across all agencies, the government did not train front-line officials during the reporting period.
“There was a lack of coordination between law enforcement officers and prosecutors, which sometimes resulted in acquittals if the police did not collect proper evidence, prosecutors were unable to charge a suspect for trafficking, and magistrates could not amend the charge once it reached them.
“For the fourth consecutive year, the government did not address a jurisdictional issue impeding efforts to hold traffickers accountable: the magistrate courts, which are the court of first instance for trafficking cases, lacked authority to impose the maximum penalties allowed in trafficking crimes.”
The UN says that Lesotho neither investigated nor prosecuted any potential trafficking cases while no traffickers were convicted for the third consecutive year; an indication that the country does not fully meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking.
The UN also said that Lesotho had failed to demonstrate overall increasing efforts of eliminating trafficking as compared to the previous reporting period.
“Despite serious concerns of official complicity in trafficking crimes, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials for such acts, which appeared to restrict all law enforcement actions during the year,” the report reads.
The report said that the government identified fewer victims, and did not finalise standard operating procedures on victim identification or the national referral mechanism for the third consecutive year.
The UN also said Lesotho did not allocate funding for the Victims of Trafficking Trust Fund for the eighth consecutive year or fund the CGPU. The two institutions are responsible for handling trafficking cases within Lesotho law enforcement.
The report also noted that the government did not train front-line responders, which often resulted in law enforcement re-traumatising potential victims.
“The government did not address issues in its legal framework for human trafficking, which did not criminalise all forms of forced labor and sex trafficking and included penalties that were not sufficiently stringent to deter the crime. Therefore Lesotho was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List,” read the report.
But not all is lost as the UN said the country was making significant efforts to meet the minimum requirements.
These efforts included providing financial support to a non-governmental organisation partner who provided protection services to all identified victims, conducting awareness-raising activities in partnership with an international organisation and a local NGO, and updating the 2014 national action plan.
On its prioritised recommendations to Lesotho, the UN said Lesotho must increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers through independent and fair trials, including officials complicit in trafficking crimes.
It also wants Lesotho to finalise 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.
“Provide trafficking-specific training to police investigators, prosecutors, judges, and social service personnel. 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.
“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 18 to be considered trafficking crimes,” the report said.