The Maldives remains on the US State Department’s Tier 2 Watch List for human trafficking, a list signifying an increasing number of victims and little evidence of increased efforts to tackle the problem.
The report comes days after the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) was called to temporarily take over the front line work of the Immigration Department and Human Resources Ministry pending an investigation into corruption and falsification of work permits.
Migrant workers from Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, India, are being subjected to forced labour in the Maldives, primarily in the construction and service sectors, while women and girls are also being subjected to sex trafficking, the report said.
An unknown number of the up to 110,000 foreign workers in the country – a third of the population – “face conditions indicative of forced labor: fraudulent recruitment practices, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, or debt bondage,” the report noted, adding that 30,000 workers had no legal status in the country.
Bangladeshi nationals were especially vulnerable to labour trafficking, the report stated, citing “diplomatic sources” as claiming that half the Bangladeshi workers in the country had arrived illegally, having paid between US$1000 and US$4000 in ‘recruitment fees’.
“In addition to Bangladeshis and Indians, some migrants from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal reportedly experienced recruitment fraud before arriving in the Maldives,” the report noted.
“Trafficking offenders in the Maldives usually fall into three groups: families that subject domestic servants to forced labor; employment agents who bring low-skilled migrant workers to the Maldives under false terms of employment and upon payment of high fees for purposes of forced labor; and employers who subject the migrants to conditions of forced labor upon arrival,” the report revealed.
The State Department reiterated claims from the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) that female migrant workers were also being trapped by employers who were using threats and intimidation to prevent them from leaving.
More commonly, “Recruitment agents collude with employers and agents in the Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labor of migrant workers.”
Domestic trafficking was also observed, whereby “some underage Maldivian children are transported to Male’ from other islands for forced domestic service, and a small number 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 US State Department’s report was critical of the Maldives for human trafficking enforcement in the country over the reporting period, and noted that it had not investigated or prosecuted any trafficking-related offences despite the scale of the problem.
“The government did not investigate or prosecute any labor trafficking cases, but is reportedly investigating two child prostitution cases,” it noted.
It was especially critical of the government’s treatment of those found to be victims of trafficking: “The Maldivian government did not ensure that victims of trafficking received access to necessary assistance during the reporting period. The government did not develop or implement formal procedures for proactively identifying victims, and did not identify any specific cases of trafficking. The Maldives did not provide access to services such as shelter, counseling, medical care, or legal aid to foreign or Maldivian victims of trafficking. The government did not conduct any anti-trafficking or educational campaigns, nor did it take any measures to reduce demand for forced labor within the country.”
The report noted that the Maldives’ general policy for dealing with trafficking victims “was to deport them.”
“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 Maldives may not have ensured that expatriates subjected to forced labor and prostitution were not inappropriately incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalised for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked.”
The report also observed that while the Maldivian Constitution outlawed forced labour and slavery, a person legally married to a minor was exempt from the heavy penalties of the Child Sexual Abuse Act passed in 2009, and that “none of the offences specified in the legislation, including child prostitution, would be considered a crime.”
The report did highlight the ratification by cabinet by a Human Trafficking Plan in February 2011, but observed that this had no law enforcement component, and failed to distinguish people smuggling from trafficking.
Furthermore, a blacklist of 16 employment agencies and private companies by the Labour Relations Authority (LRA) showed no sign of being enforce.
A “rapid assessment” on human trafficking commissioned by HRCM in 2010 had not been finalised, the State Department report observed.
The report urged the government to develop procedures whereby government officials could identify victims of trafficking, and provide them with access to services for victims – particularly translators. It also urged greater efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offences.
The final recommendation was “take steps to ensure that employers and labor brokers are not abusing labor recruitment or sponsorship processes in order to subject migrant workers to forced labor” – one that appears to have been preempted by this week’s corruption probe of Immigration Department and Human Resources Ministry.