Subject: East Timor govt bans exit visas to Syria

East Timor govt bans exit visas to Syria

Sunday Dec 10 14:42 AEDT 

East Timor's government has banned exit visas to Syria amid concerns a vice syndicate is trafficking women into prostitution in the Middle East. Labour Minister Arsenio Bano said the government had taken action after women were offered free air tickets to Syria to work as babysitters and housemaids. Girls recruited were AIDS-tested in batches, with the recruiters paying for the tests and passports.

"We acted when we first heard of it," Mr Bano said.

"The interior minister refused passports or visas to anyone applying to travel to Syria and my ministry began educating people on the need to have legal contracts."

One girl seems to have fallen into the net. A friend who wished to be known only as M said a student named Vanda travelled to Syria via Kuala Lumpur on October 28.

"She went with a tall ... Syrian man introduced to us as something like `Hatom'," she said. "Her parents are not from Dili, and have no idea she's gone." M first volunteered, but had doubts and pulled out.

Another girl, known only as A also pulled out after becoming nervous, but said other girls plan to leave Dili this month. The visa ban can be sidestepped by transiting through Bali or Malaysia.

The traffickers began targeting refugee camps in October.

Father Justiniano de Sousa said a local man came to his camp at the Dom Bosco college and asked to display a recruiting poster.

He recognised him as former student Julio da Silva Guterres.

"I told him I needed to meet his Syrian boss first to discuss the scheme's legitimacy, but he didn't return," he said.

"I trained in the Philippines, so I know about traffickers. I warned local girls against them."

Bui Kiak, 35, is typical of women targeted by these post-conflict predators.

A former activist who was tortured by the Indonesian army, she rejoiced at East Timor's 2002 independence, but today is struggling to raise two toddlers alone.

Her suburb has been a focus of the political violence which has swept Dili since April.

"Julio approached me and three friends offering work as cleaners, cooks and babysitters," she said.

"He claimed his Syrian boss would pay the tickets, food and clothing for three years, after which we could return for holidays. They wanted girls between 15 and 35."

The monthly wages offered were $US100 ($A127) with a $US35 bonus for English speakers, lower than Dili rates, but Bui Kiak and 26-year-old M just wanted a new life.

"Julio said we didn't need an interview, only to pass a blood test," Bui recalled.

They agreed to meet him at the clinic of well-known American doctor Dan Murphy, where the Syrian and an African man also were seen.

A total of 27 girls were tested in Bui Kiak's group, all signing forms filled in by others.

She did not know she was being AIDS-tested, or might have suspected the job was not babysitting.

Syrian visas do not require AIDS clearances, unlike some Middle Eastern countries.

Known as a champion of the poor, Dr Murphy said he "had no idea" of the identity of the people who approached his clinic.

He said medical tests are usually free for Timorese but "because this was so unusual we tried to negotiate a contract, of $US5 per patient."

"It was not paid by the patient, but by those requesting the tests," Dr Murphy said.

He admitted women should not have been tested without informed consent.

"They should have had voluntary counselling and testing," he said.

"We should have been more careful."

Deputy UN police commissioner Antero Lopes said police were aware of the Syrian operation. "I am obliged to secrecy, not to disclose stages of investigation," he said.

Women from Thailand, China and other countries have been trafficked into brothels in Dili since UN peacekeepers came here in 1999, but this is the first case of Timorese women being trafficked out.

The brothels are officially off-limits to UN personnel, a ban not seriously enforced.

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