The Maldives has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for the third year in a row.
Having “not demonstrated evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous year”, the country only narrowly avoided a descent to Tier 3 – the worst category – after presenting a written plan that, “if implemented, would constitute making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
Particular areas of criticism included “a lack of systematic procedures for identifying victims of trafficking among vulnerable populations, and not taking sufficient law enforcement steps or concrete actions to protect trafficking victims and prevent trafficking in Maldives.”
“Counter-trafficking efforts are impeded by a lack of understanding of the issue, a lack of legal structure, and the absence of a legal definition of trafficking.”
The report noted that in 2011, “13 suspected victims of human trafficking and two suspected human traffickers were intercepted and deported in three cases of human trafficking identified at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).”
The Maldivian government’s response to trafficking victims was to deport them, the report noted, without providing access to services “such as shelter, counseling, medical care, or legal aid.”
“It did not provide foreign victims with legal alternatives to their removal to countries where they might face hardship or retribution,” the report noted. “Authorities did not encourage victims to participate in the investigation or prosecution of trafficking offenders. Due to a lack of comprehensive victim identification procedures, the government may not have ensured that migrants subjected to forced labor and prostitution were not inappropriately incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalised for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of [their] being trafficked.”
The Maldives made some progress towards prevention, the report noted, including the approval of an Anti-Trafficking plan in March 2012 and the establishment of an Anti Human-Trafficking and People Smuggling Unit in January 2012.
However, despite an operation in April 2011 by police and immigration into an “unknown number” of ongoing cases involving fraudulent recruitment, the deportation of two foreigners as a result and the raid and closure of several recruitment agencies by court order on suspicion of fraud and forgery, “no labour recruiter or broker was punished or fined for fraudulent recruitment practices.”
The Maldives is mainly flagged as a destination country for victims of labour exploitation, particularly from Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, India, but was noted as a destination for sex trafficking.
“An unknown number of the 80,000 to 110,000 foreign workers that government officials estimate are currently working in Maldives – primarily in the construction and service sectors – face conditions indicative of forced labor: fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, or debt bondage,” the 2012 report notes.
“According to a diplomatic source, an estimated 50 percent of Bangladeshi workers in Maldives are not documented and a number of these workers are victims of trafficking. Migrant workers pay the equivalent of US$1,000 to US$4,000 in recruitment fees in order to migrate to Maldives,” the State Department said.
“In addition to Bangladeshis and Indians, some migrants from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal reportedly experienced recruitment fraud before arriving in Maldives. Recruitment agents in source countries generally collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labor of migrant workers,” the report added.
The Maldives’ expatriate population makes up almost a third of the country’s population. Minivan News previously reported in 2010 that the scale of labour trafficking in the Maldives was so disproportionately vast that the revenue generated made it the second greatest source of foreign currency to the economy after tourism, eclipsing fishing.
In addition, a smaller number of women were trafficked from Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, China, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and former Soviet Union countries and Bangladesh for sex work in Male’.
The new government has closed down many illegal brothels in Male’ since coming to power, with nearly a dozen reported raids of so-called ‘beauty salons’. The expatriate women arrested during these raids are typically quickly deported, however there have been few reports of brothel owners being prosecuted.
“Some reports indicate that internal sex trafficking of Maldivian girls,” the report noted. “Maldivian children are transported to Male from other islands for forced domestic service, and a small number were reportedly sexually abused by the families with whom they stayed. This is a corruption of the widely acknowledged practice where families send Maldivian children to live with a host family in Male for educational purposes.”
The State Department’s report was swiftly followed by news articles in local media this week claiming that private companies and individuals had begun posting ‘cash bounties’ for absconded expatriate workers.
According to a report in Sun Online, notices had been posted in cafes windows and garages offering rewards of between Rf1000 (US$65) and Rf3000 (US$195) for information leading to the whereabouts of foreign nationals in hiding.
“We let people paste announcements when they request for it. We don’t ask who they are or anything,” a garage employee told the publication, when asked about one such notice.
Immigration officials and police quickly condemned the practice.
Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef told Minivan News that while police had received no official reports of the posters, a journalist had raised the matter in a press conference. Posting such notices was illegal, he said, and opened those responsible to charges of harassment.
An official from the Immigration Department also expressed surprise at the reports.
“We did not know that was going on. It is absolutely against international human rights,” he said, adding that it the matter would be examined.
Standard practice among employers in the Maldives has been required to post the photographs and details of missing and absconded expatriate workers in the local newspaper – on most days, the pages include rows of such faces. However the Immigration official emphasised that no money was offered as an incentive for locating the missing workers.
“I think somebody is playing politics,” he said, of the report of cash bounties. “The US State Department released its report three days ago. We’re still on the watch list. My thinking is that somebody [put up the posters] to tarnish our reputation.”