The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has welcomed this week’s ratification of the Anti-trafficking act, despite reservations about the legislation itself and the state’s capacity to enforce it.
“It covers many acts of exploitation that will now be considered as offences and it also has penalties in the act for those who commit the crime of human trafficking,” said HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud.
Earlier this week, the government announced the ratification of the bill, which had been passed in the Majlis on December 3.
Assistant Controller Ali Ashraf has also described the new legislation as “an excellent piece of work”
A President’s Office press release stated that the new legislation clearly defined human trafficking as an offence in the Maldives.
The main objectives of the Anti-Human Trafficking Act were subsequently listed as:
• Preventing trafficking of persons through and across the Maldives
• Establishing the crimes of trafficking in persons and prescribing punishments
• Providing for prosecution of perpetrators of trafficking in persons
• Providing protection and assistance to victims of human trafficking
• Promoting and protecting the human rights of trafficked victims
• Engaging in cooperation with local and international NGOs working against human trafficking
Those found guilty of human trafficking can now face up to 10 years for cases involving adults, which can be extended to up to 15 if children are involved. Accomplices to trafficking can also now receive a seven year sentence.
Both Jeehan and Ashraf, however, maintained reservations regarding the efficacy of the act in the absence of specific definitions of offences and in its failure to include human smuggling.
“We wanted to identify specific acts. In our experience, if specifics are not detailed there is a chance that the offences go without prosecution when they get to the courts,”said Jeehan.
Similarly, Ashraf noted that the failure to include the category of smuggling in the act – different to trafficking in that individuals give a measure of consent to be transported illegally – made it very likely that offenders will be able to evade prosecution.
“The definition of trafficking can be twisted so easily,” warned Ashraf.
Jeehan noted that those smuggled were as vulnerable to exploitation by their handlers as those trafficked.
In ratifying the bill, President Yameen has fulfilled one of the recommendations given by the US State Department earlier this year to avoid a downgrade to Tier 3 – the lowest rung on the department’s scale.
Relegation to Tier 3 is reserved for states who are neither meeting the minimum requirements to eliminate trafficking, nor are making concerted efforts to do so. The State Department revealed in June this year that, despite being spared the downgrade to Tier 3 this year, the country would be ineligible for such a reprieve in 2014.
US diplomat Luis CdeBaca – speaking at the launch of the US’s most recent human trafficking report – said that the guarantee of a downgrade had been introduced to prompt action in countries who had been “getting comfortable being on Tier 2 Watch List, doing a minimum amount.”
Jeehan argued that such international pressure had played a “key role” in paving the way for the new legislation, expressing her belief that the move will be viewed positively by international observers.
The Maldives’ downgrading from the Tier 2 watchlist – where it has remained for four years – could potentially leave it open to non-humanitarian and non-trade international sanctions.
A government-ordered report in 2011 revealed human trafficking to be the Maldives second most lucrative industry after tourism – worth an estimated US$123million a year.
The Maldives expatriate worker population is estimated by some sources to be as high as one third of the population with the majority coming from Bangladesh. Bangladeshi authorities temporarily halted worker migration to the Maldives earlier this year in order to check on worker eligibility.
Under the previous government, the Immigration Department had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of 2013.
Jeehan today noted that much work was still needed to build the capacity of state institutions in order to adequately fight trafficking.
“Very little has been done to build the capacity of state officials to counter human trafficking. One thing definitely needed is to build the capacity of state institutions,” said Jeehan.
The capacity of the country’s border control infrastructure to adequately deal with trafficking has been questioned in recent months, following the decision of the previous government to replace border control system offered by Malaysia’s Nexbis company with the US PISCES system.
During the legal wrangles that dogged the Nexbis deal from its initial agreement, the company’s Vice President suggested that groups backing the country’s lucrative human trafficking industry could be seeking to stymie the introduction of its BCS to undermine national security controls.
Ashraf stated that the capacity to meet the requirements of the new legislation was there, but that a number of amendments would be needed to make it fully workable – including special visas for trafficking victims.
“Implementation of the bill will require a lot of effort and coordination,” he added, revealing that the Department of Immigration, alongside the International Organisation for Migration, would be holding a training session for all immigration officials on December 15 for this purpose.