The Maldives Department of Immigration and Emigration has said that 57 unregistered foreign workers detained by police today were currently being processed by authorities ahead of a decision on whether they will face deportation.
According to local media, the foreign nationals, all found working working in the fish and market areas of Male’, were detained by police in an ongoing operation undertaken in conjunction with immigration officials.
Police Spokesperson Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef was not responding to calls at time of press.
Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali today confirmed that the unregistered workers were presently being held by the Immigration Department, but did not specify where they were being kept or their nationality.
“We will process them and whoever has to go will be sent back,” he said.
Dr Ali did not clarify if the unregistered workers were presently being kept at a recently opened immigration shelter intended to temporarily house unregistered and illegal immigrants.
Few details have been provided to media on the shelter, which opened back in February this year as the Maldives comes under increasing pressure to try and alleviate the number of unregistered workers in the country amidst wider fears concerning human trafficking.
The Indian High Commission in Male’ was not responding to calls at time of press on whether any of its nationals were among the unregistered workers. Meanwhile, High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the Maldives Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal said he had received no information on the unregistered workers at time of press.
The Maldives has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row. Should it drop to tier three – the worst category- then the country is expected to face significant reductions in aid and potential travel restrictions on its citizens.
Last May, a total of 47 Bangladeshi nationals working for a local security firm were seized by the Department of Immigration as part of a wider crackdown on unregistered migrant workers.
Immigration officials at the time claimed that the company the men had been working for had been in operation for 10 -12 years, yet no information could be found on its operations during a subsequent investigation by authorities.
The government has in recent months launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, while earlier this year 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 – under successive governments – 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 also confirmed that a lack of legislation has meant no cases have been prosecuted against human traffickers in the Maldives at present.
“Corrupt immigration practices”
In February, a Maldivian trade union alleged that corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers was limiting efforts to curb abuse of migrant workers and prevent illegal practices such as retaining their passports.
The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) claimed that while companies are not permitted to retain the passports of foreign workers, some hospitality operators – as well as unregulated third party agencies and government ministries – are still keeping employee travel documents without consent.
At the same time, a source with knowledge of the current immigration system told Minivan News that the practice of retaining passports – a long-standing habit of Maldivian employers – was a key contributor to human trafficking in the country.
“This is a common practice seen all over the world. But it creates major problems. If a foreigner wishes to go to law enforcement agencies for assistance, they will be asked to identify themselves with a passport,” the source said.
Third party agencies appeared to want to keep the passports to be able to “manipulate” foreign workers for their own financial advantage, the source explained.
Meanwhile, 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.
Speaking back in February 2013, 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.
Addressing the current scope of unregistered foreign labour, Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) President Mohamed Ali Janah said an estimated 40 percent of the foreign employees in the sector were thought not to be legally registered.
Considering these numbers, Janah said he could not rule out the involvement of organised crime in certain employment agencies, which supply a large amount of foreign labour to building sites in the Maldives.