Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid has confirmed that corruption of the work permit system is a major focus of an ongoing investigation into the Immigration Department and Human Resources Ministry.
Front-line staff at both immigration and the area of the ministry handling employment have been sent home, and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has taken over their duties.
President Mohamed Nasheed has said the police investigation – which has already resulted in several arrests of suspected traffickers – is expected to take two weeks. Afterwards, staff will be invited to return to work, the President’s Office said in a statement.
Shahid told Minivan News today that people had been found to be attempting to enter the country with falsified permits.
“We believe we have 40,000 illegal immigrants, and we know two departments are involved: Immigration and the Human Resources Ministry,” he said.
“Something has gone wrong in one of these departments, and we are going to find out what it is.”
The Immigration Department’s records for expatriates working in the country show 21,000 people unaccounted for in records held by the Human Resources Ministry, he said, a discrepancy representing six percent of the country’s entire population.
Shahid acknowledged that the relationship between the Human Resources Ministry and the Immigration Department prior to the MNDF’s intervention had been “strained”, and that there was no shared IT system linking the records of both.
“We know there are a lot of loopholes and minor things that have been overlooked,” he said. “For example, 10 days ago an immigration officer was arrested after collecting a deposit which disappeared from the system the next day.”
Shahid said he expected the police investigation would discover “a lot of things.” A report will be presented to the President on conclusion of the two weeks.
The investigation, he said, was a very time-consuming task “involving a lot of data.” In the mean time, he acknowledged there had been some delays at the airport and “hiccups” as the MNDF took over immigration duties.
“We did some orientation for them, but this is not a permanent situation,” he emphasised.
Shahid dismissed the idea that tourists arriving at the airport would be intimidated by the sight of the military.
“They work uniforms of the MNDF are very similar to the immigration uniforms,” he said.
The government last year signed a contract with mobile security technology vendor Nexbis whereby the immigration system would be upgraded to include biometric identification of work visa applicants, reducing the reliance on potentially-forged documentation.
The upgrade was stalled when the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) expressed concerns about the deal. Cabinet has since requested the Immigration Department review the project, and if necessary, renegotiate.
“We will enter negotiations soon – we can’t agree with the figures [in the contract],” Shahid said. “The ACC has from the very beginning said it is wrong.”
“The contract says we will charge arriving and departing passengers US$2 – this year we expect a million foreigners, so that is US$4 million. Then for every work permit card we issue we pay Nexbis US$15 – currently we charge Rf50 (US$4). At present rates of arrival that US$5.5 million per year.
“The Nexbis contract is a 20 year contract – which means the total cost to the country at present-day arrivals is US$110 million. If you calculate the increased percentage of arrivals over the 20 years, it’s more like US$200 million.”
Such a deal was, Shahid said, “The worst possible thing we could do to border control. Sri Lanka’s system cost US$2.2 million to install and develop. We could get a luxury system [installed] for US$4 million. Why should the Maldivian government spend US$200 million over 20 years, when it’s highly unusual for an IT contract to last more than five? I will never agree to this – the contract should never have been signed.”
The ACC had “a lot of grounds” to investigate the deal, he suggested, adding that as the project involved imposing a tax, approval was also required from parliament prior to signing.
Nexbis shares fell 6.3 percent on the back of the ACC’s original announcement. The company subsequently issued a statement claiming that speculation over corruption was “politically motivated” and had “wrought irreparable damage to Nexbis’ reputation and brand name”, and revealed its intention to take legal action.