The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has accused state and private sector employers in the country of lacking consistency in their efforts to address human trafficking, preventing “real” change in controlling illegal migration.
HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud told Minivan News that despite attempts under the present government to try and introduce new legislation, the Maldives had made little progress towards improving the treatment and rights of foreign workers over the last four years.
The government has in recent months launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, while also last month ratifying eight “fundamental” International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions intended to bring legislation on employee rights and trade unions in line with international standards.
However, independent institutions in the Maldives have maintained that the country is yet to ratify a core convention on protecting migrant worker rights, while no legislation is in place to punish those involved in smuggling workers though the country’s borders.
The Prosecutor General (PG’s) Office has confirmed that a lack of legislation has meant no cases have been prosecuted against human traffickers in the Maldives.
While accepting efforts were being undertaken by the present government to try and address human trafficking in the Maldives, trade unions, foreign diplomats and independent institutions have continued to raise concerns about the scale of the problem nationally.
The Maldives has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row. Should the Maldives drop to tier three – the worst category- then the country will face significant reductions in aid and potential travel restrictions on its citizens.
HRCM member Jeehan claimed that every time the US State Department had reviewed the Maldives’ efforts to curb human trafficking, successive governments had shown commitments to try and implement new control measures.
However, she claimed such efforts were often only temporary and not followed up in most cases.
“The effort is not consistent and that is why we are not seeing real change here. We have not seen change since our 2009 report and in the periodic reviews since then,” Jeehan said
HRCM member Jeehan identified the issue of employers retaining passports as a prevalent concern that had failed to be addressed since the commission carried out a study in 2009 assessing the employment situation in the Maldives for migrant workers.
“One of the findings was that passports were being kept not only by agencies or the companies themselves. We also found the practice was used by the state in hiring teachers and nurses,” she said. “We had called for abandonment of this policy as migrant workers need access to their identity.”
Last year, the Department of Immigration and Emigration issued a notice (Dhivehi) expressing concern at the rising numbers of undocumented workers in the country, and set out a revised visa system to try and combat people trafficking.
The document included a clause stating that under no circumstances should a passport or travel documents be possessed by anyone other than the rightful owner, and threatened legal action against anyone found to have infringed these rights on the grounds of human trafficking. An unofficial translation can be read here.
According to the HRCM, freedom of identity is a right enshrined in the Maldives constitution for any person residing in the country.
Jeehan added that the HRCM had since 2009 continued to recommend changing state-mandated practices for the processing visa documentation of foreign workers. She said despite the efforts, the issue that had not been addressed by either the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed or the present administration of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.
“Our argument is why not find an alternative ID that would allow them to release a passport,” Jeehan said. “If the state kept a work permit instead, there would be no need for passports to be held.”
Despite efforts to outlaw the practice, Jeehan claimed that on the occasion of International Migrant Worker day back in December 2012 , a public forum was held with various stakeholders including the HRCM to try and raise awareness on critical issues facing migrant workers.
She added that during the course of the workshop, the HRCM had not been notified of any significant change in the practice of the state retaining passports.
“The state issued a circular prohibiting retention of passports that was applicable to private persons and agencies. But the state ministries continue retaining passports,” she claimed.
Having spoken with private sector employers about migrant workers rights, Jeehan added that many companies said they were following the state’s example by continuing to retain passports.
“The response we receive is that ‘if the state is practising this, we can do this as well’,” she said
Despite criticism of efforts by the state and private sector to combat human trafficking, Jeehan claimed work had been undertaken to implement new legislation on combating human trafficking. She said this legislation was currently under review within parliament, stalled at committee stage.
The commission has said it remains involved in assisting the development of the human trafficking bill, which Jeehan said would be an important development towards addressing the rights of foreign workers.
According to Jeehan, a lack of legislation on human trafficking was regularly cited by authorities as a key set back to dealing with issues of labour exploitation and migrant rights.
However, she maintained that human trafficking itself goes back to the principle of exploitation, something that is prohibited in Islam and by extension the constitution of the Maldives.
“An estimated one third of the population is made up of migrant workers, so it is only justified we review this,” she added.
Jeehan claimed that as recently as last year, the Maldives Police Service did not have a legal mandate to even investigate potential cases of human trafficking.
The HRCM said efforts had now been taken to screen cases where foreign workers were complaining of non-payment of wages or not being given any free time, to ascertain whether they were victims of human trafficking.
She also expressed hope that the state would also move to clearly identify the individual roles that various stakeholders in the country would play in efforts to combat people smuggling; from institutions like the police and Immigration Department, to the human rights and youth ministries.
Besides signing the ILO conventions on labour rights, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this month also inaugurated an initiative targeted at raising awareness of the human trafficking issue in the Maldives.
The strategy, entitled the ‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’ promises activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community.
Speaking at the inauguration of the campaign last month, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Abdul Samad Abdulla stated that the initiative formed part of a larger plan to try addressing human trafficking in the Maldives.
This strategy is expected to include activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community. The tourism industry, which employs the largest number of foreign staff in the country, was identified as another key focus of the initiative.
The ministry itself defines human trafficking as “taking undue advantage of a person through employing him, transferring him from place to place, taking guardianship of him, depriving him of making decisions on personal matters, assuming control over him through threats or abuse of power; or to create dependence, kidnap, or deceive him through any other means and take undue advantage of a person’s weaknesses and to conduct any of these activities in a manner that includes exchange of money from or to oneself.”
Under the new scheme, individuals held responsible for human trafficking offences would include staff in government offices mandated to oversee the issue, as well as companies and other groups found to be involved in illegal practices.
Employers who force employees to work with no respect or regard to protecting human rights and persons who obstruct the taking of legal action against people who commit human trafficking offences will also be held responsible, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Earlier this month, one local trade union working in the tourism sector alleged that corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers were limiting efforts to curb illegal treatment and abuse of migrant workers
At the same time, a source with knowledge of the current immigration system highlighted that the now illegal practice of retaining passports – a long-standing habit of Maldivian employers – remained a key contributor to human trafficking in the country.
Back in January, a Malaysian IT company at the centre of legal wrangling over a deal to provide a border control system (BCS) to the Maldivian government alleged “criminal elements” could be behind efforts to scupper the agreement.
Vice President for Nexbis Nafies Aziz told Minivan News at the time that “intelligence” received by the company suggested groups backing the country’s lucrative human trafficking industry could be seeking to sabotage the introduction of its BCS to undermine national security controls.
Foreign labourers are estimated to account for a significant proportion of the country’s workforce. Just over a quarter of the Maldives population of 394,451 people is estimated to be made up of foreign workers, according to recent statistics supplied by the Department of Immigration and Emigration.
The official immigration figures found that the expatriate workforce in the Maldives had risen by September 2011 to 99,369 people from just 57,968 registered workers in December 2009.