Additional reporting by Mariyath Mohamed.
The Department of Immigration has declared that it will cease renewing the visas of foreign employees working under GMR Male International Airport Limited (GMIAL), the Indian infrastructure giant’s side of the deal to manage and operate Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) signed with the former government.
“We have stopped issuing visas to GMR for the time being. This was decided since the cabinet has terminated the contract, and GMR has been given a seven day ultimatum to leave. If we went on processing visa requests, it would just be pointless work,” Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Immigration, Mohamed Khalid told Minivan News.
“We are just going along with the decisions made from the top, the President’s Office,” he said.
The Maldivian cabinet declared the agreement with GMR void on Tuesday evening, and gave the company a seven day ultimatum to leave the country.
“The government has given a seven day notice to GMR to leave the airport. The agreement states that GMR should be given a 30 day notice but the government believes that since the contract is void, it need not be followed,” said Attorney General (AG) Azima Shukoor at the time.
Deputy Controller of Immigration Hamid Fathuhullah told Minivan News that immigration had not yet made any decisions on how to proceed on dealing with the visas and permits obtained by GMR that were still active after the government’s seven day ultimatum.
However, Fathuhulla added that they would be making provisions in accordance with existing regulations to allow ample time for the employees to make arrangements to leave.
“Right now, we are not going to provide visas, quotas or work permits to any company associated with GMR. This is in line with the Immigration Act 1/2007 and International Law,” Fathuhulla stated.
President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad declined to comment on the matter.
“It is not part of our mandate to cancel visas, deport or arrest people. The President’s Office will do no such thing. The immigration department will decide this issue,” Imad said.
CEO of GMIAL, Andrew Harrison, said the company had received no communication or memo from the immigration department, as stated in several media reports, and had contacted the immigration to try and clarify the matter.
Of the company’s total 1760 staff, 140 are foreign employees on work permits, Harrison said. He stressed 17 of there work permits were due to be renewed before the end of December.
“Our people are committed. They will stay and work until otherwise notified,” Harrison said.
He said it would be “premature” to discuss the implications of the Immigration Department’s announcement, given that GMR disputes the legality of the government’s termination of its contract, and that there was “still work to be done before statements are made”.
However, he said it was surprising that the notice was issued to the media before any discussion with the company.
“I don’t know why they are doing it this way,” Harrison said. “People are asking us about this, but we have no information apart from the conflicting reports in the media.”
“One report says the visas are being cancelled, another says they have not been cancelled, just the renewals,” said Harrison.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Mohamed Fayaz stated Thursday that the foreign employees of GMR would be “given protection” until they could arrange to leave the country.
Fayaz said that the ministry had extended an invitation to the management of GMR for a meeting following the termination of the contract.
Accepting the invitation, Harrison and Managing Director P Sripathi had met with the ministry representatives, he said.
“At the meeting, we requested that in these seven days, they proceed in a manner which would not disrupt any of the services being provided at the airport. We also assured them that they would remain safe and secure during their time in the country,” Fayaz said.
“We also told them that should they require it, we can provide security services through the police force,” he added.
The government-owned Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) has meanwhile issued a circular “opening opportunities for GMIAL staff who are keen to join the MACL team.”
In a statement, the company said it provided “assurance to employees that their present basic salary, allowances and other benefits, and training and development opportunities will be maintained under MACL management. MACL also guarantees that the employees currently sponsored by GMIAL will have the same opportunity to continue and complete their courses.”
CAA withdrawing aerodrome certificate
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has meanwhile sent GMIAL a letter informing the company its aerodrome certificate will be withdrawn at 11:59 pm on December 7.
“That is the regulatory authority that permits us to operate an airport,” explained Harrison, “We cannot operate an airport without the certificate.”
Harrison emphasised that the withdrawal of the certificate did not mean the end of the company’s effort to seek legal redress.
The government’s decision to declare GMR’s concession agreement void and evict the developer from the Maldives comes after a tough year for tourism, the sector indirectly responsible for up to 70 percent of the country’s economy. According to the 2013 budget presented to parliament on November 27 – the same day as cabinet announced GMR’s eviction – tourism growth in the Maldives has fallen from 15.8 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent in 2011, to an expected 0.7 percent in 2012.
In a statement today, former President Mohamed Nasheed, under whose administration the GMR contract was signed, said the government’s “reckless decision to terminate GMR’s contract will scare off investors”, with “serious ramifications for the economy, at a time when we can ill-afford to see it falter.”
“Right across the board we are witnessing positive trends being dangerously reversed. Growth in tourism – the bedrock of our economy – has flat-lined; our GDP, which was 7 per cent last year, is projected to be just 3.4 per cent this year; and our deficit, which we had brought under control at the start of the year, is now ballooning at an alarming rate,” Nasheed said.
“If this continues, we risk setting back every aspect of our development. It is not those in government but the Maldivian people who stand to lose most from President Waheed’s economic mismanagement.”