Suva, Fiji, 30 March, 2021 – Sonia Lecomte is the deputy director of Customs in the French territory of New Caledonia, a position she has held in the last three years. She has worked for French Customs for the past 22 years, in various posts which included being head of the intelligence team at Le Havre in France. Sonia is one of the ladies featured in the OCO/PACNEWS Pacific Women in Customs series.
Do you ever wonder how Customs officers find narcotics, contrabands or illicit drugs in cargoes or boats?
They don’t comb every container but there is a team that investigates and studies the intelligence files of cargo ships before searching any suspicious containers.
In her 22-year career as a customs officer, Sonia has been involved in this kind of work.
In fact, she once was the head of the intelligence unit at one of France’s most important ports, Le Havre Port. Though Le Havre Porte much larger than the Noumea port, being the second-largest commercial port in France in terms of overall tonnage, and the largest container port, with three sets of terminals- they and all ports in the world are targets for criminals.
While criminals plan ways to infiltrate a port, customs officers are also working hard on the other end to try and stop them.
It was at Le Havre that Sonia was part of a team that created the Port Community System, which aimed to accelerate clearing procedure, increase the productivity of supply chain stakeholders and overall improve Customs control of cargoes. The system was replicated in the Caribbean island of Reunion and in New Caledonia as well.
“Having a system that works for importers, exporters and customs is important. Facilitating trade means the turnaround time needs to be fast and at the same time Customs needs to be assured that the necessary procedures have been undertaken to ensure there are no illegal activities.”
Sonia also has experience in other roles such as being responsible for training officers and training programs, liaising with the business community.
As deputy director of Customs in New Caledonia, she is using her experiences in France in the much smaller Pacific region.
“I participate in the strategic and operational management of Customs by using my experience to support the modernization of practices and processes. My team also supports the local government in the drafting of tax and customs regulations.
“I am also responsible for steering the policy of controls in New Caledonia so that Customs responds effectively to its priority missions of protecting the country and the collection of revenue.”
Sonia has also been part of a team that ensured the regulation of the export of indigenous art in New Caledonia in 2019.
“Many don’t realise the important of work in Customs to protect the illicit trafficking of works of art. Even during our training, some customs officers were not aware that certain objects should be protected.”
Coming from a bigger jurisdiction, Sonia admits the biggest challenge in her work is understanding the tax environment and local economic issues in order to provide an informed and quality expertise in the drafting and implementation of new tax systems. “The establishment of Value Added Tax for imports in New Caledonia required a significant investment at all levels to support operators and customs agents in understanding and deploying this major tax reform. “Supporting tax reforms is a daily challenge, I think we must maintain constant vigilance to improve tax systems and provide more clarity and legal certainty to businesses and administrations. “Nonetheless, it was an enriching experience which allowed me to broaden my field of expertise in taxation.”COVID-19
New Caledonia has remained COVID-19 free since April 2020. There had been some impacts on daily lives and customs operations.
“My mission is to support the Customs services as best as possible in order so that we can continue to uphold a high level of protection of New Caledonia, so that we can continue to collect revenue while guaranteeing the health security of the people.”
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Our Gender Program: In 2019, the OCO held its inaugural Change Management on Gender Equality workshop, which suggested there should be gender equality on all aspects of OCO’s work program. This suggestion was endorsed at the 2020 OCO Annual Conference. In 2020, OCO member countries were encouraged to celebrate the International Women’s Day in their own administrations and to share their activities widely. This year, OCO is dedicating the month of March to our women. The Pacific Women in Customs Series is a collection of stories of women who are working in Customs in their various countries and we hope to inspire more women to join this field of work.