The Department of Immigration and Emigration’s shelter for undocumented workers in Male’ was opened earlier this year as part of commitments by the state to provide a more “humane” means of tackling the issue of unregistered foreign workers in the country.
Authorities have previously provided few details to the media concerning the plain white building based on Orchid Magu, or what is beyond the black iron bars that adorn the entrance of the site.
Minivan News toured the premises on Wednesday. An immigration official said despite appearances, the bars – open throughout the day – were not for detaining unregistered workers, who are free to leave at any time. Instead they were there to protect workers inside from unscrupulous agents and employers.
“Many choose not to stay here overnight, they will perhaps spend the night at a friend’s place. They come here for support or for food, mainly,” the immigration guide explains.
According to the immigration department no workers are detained at the shelter, which serves as a site to support expatriate workers not registered to work in the country. Officials at the shelter estimate there are presently some 40,000 unregistered foreigners working in the country – a huge proportion given that a third of the Maldives’ population are foreign workers.
Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali has previously told Minivan News that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrive under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.
The entire ground floor of the building – mostly an empty hall with a number of makeshift metallic frames that can be converted to beds – is made available for unregistered workers, several of whom watched bemused at the makeshift media tour of the facility taking place in their presence.
The shelter also has a kitchen area open to unregistered workers, as well as a bathroom with a dozen or so toilet cubicles, several sinks and showers. The shower area looks basic, but the immigration official explains they are designed to be able to cater around 50 people in line with human rights conventions.
“We try to ensure [the shelter] is up to standards for the human rights people, though I’m sure they would still say something,” the guide explains, emphasising that no one is detained on the site.
In cases where foreign workers are found to be working illegally, the Immigration Department also has what it calls a “processing centre” – a gated compound on the island of Hulhumale’ where expatriates are kept before being sent back to their respective countries.
The opening of the shelter this year comes as the Maldives has come under increasing pressure to tackle the issue of unregistered expatriates, with the country appearing on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking. The country has appeared on the list for three years in a row.
Just above the shelter on the building’s first floor, is the immigration department’s monitoring and repatriation service, which is charged with monitoring immigrant workers being brought to the Maldives.
Immigration Department Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz, who is in charge of the facility, said that some 3000 unregistered foreign workers had been returned to their respective home countries so far this year. That figure is equal to the total number of expatriates deported during 2012.
Earlier this year, Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the year.
This pledge to return a predetermined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were being punished for the actions of employers or agents acting outside the law.
Munaaz said the vast majority of foreign workers were brought Maldives legally, though for a number of different reasons many found themselves employed in the country without being correctly registered.
“Sometimes this happens due to a dispute with an employee where they go missing. There are some cases, not many, where an employer will decide to stop taking responsibility for an employee and throw them out onto the street,” he said.
Among services offered by the monitoring service is a special form for “missing migrant workers”.
Munaaz claimed that in all these cases, foreign workers were requested to come to the expatriate monitoring service for assistance, adding that the shelter had been established to provide food and support for foreigners who were victims of illegal employment practices.
The immigration Department said a local helpline service was available for foreign workers on 750 4511.
Munaaz added that the immigration department had recently become aware of individuals posing as recruitment agents who were travelling to airports to poach foreign workers by promising them resort positions or higher pad jobs than the work they may have originally been brought to the country for. Whether these jobs really exist is unknown.
“Now we have started to identify how this is being done and we are working to stop this,” he said. “We know there are agents living here in Male’, some who are foreign nationals from the same countries, and they are bringing people over. We are in the process of breaking these rings.”
Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by such brokers, paying a ‘recruitment’ fee or entering into debt – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin, most significantly Bangladesh.
In many cases the workers are then brought into the country ‘legitimately’ by a specially-created paper company, created using the ID of a complicit or unwitting Maldivian national, for the stated purpose of working on a ‘construction project’ of dubious existence.
Senior immigration sources have confided to Minivan News that almost no human verification was undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.
Moreover, despite the size and scale of the practice, not a single recruitment agent or labour trafficker has appeared before a Maldivian court.
Munaaz said that with an estimated 40,000 unregistered workers across the Maldives – a figure some industry bodies like the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) estimate is in reality likely to be much higher – police and immigration authorities could not alone find a solution.
Although stating that local attitudes towards foreign workers needed to be changed, Munaaz was reluctant to say the Maldivian public at large were responsible for the problem. Instead he said certain local individuals and enterprises were profiting from the exploitation of foreign workers.
“It is maybe just one or two percent [of the population] who have involvement in this, but they are doing a lot of harm to the country,” he said. “It will take time, but the public must take a role for the good of the country,” he said.
Munaaz alleged that anyone walking down by the junction at Chaandhanee Magu and Majeedhee Magu – one of the capital’s busiest intersections – most mornings would be able see migrant workers waiting around the area in the hope of receiving ad-hoc offers of work and daily payment – usually from the back of a van.
He claimed that many people were aware of the practice in the capital, but most only talked about it without taking any action.
Under a clause in the Immigration Act of 2007, Munaaz said the Immigration Department’s legal representatives were now taking action against individuals sheltering or employing unregistered expatriates by issuing fines of up to MVR 50,000 (US$3,240).
However, the figures on the exact number of individuals fined by immigration officials on this basis were not available at time of press.
Munaaz added than rather approaching and checking documents of foreign workers out on Republic Square or other areas of the capital, the Immigration Department was opting to focusing on cooperating with police investigators to perform checks of tea houses, work sites, as well as the market area in Male’ to ensure all foreign workers were registered.
With the number of expatriate workers returned by immigration officials to their home countries for the last five months already matching the number repatriated during 2012, Munaaz claimed that the increased workload was directly related to concerns raised by President Dr Mohamed Waheed.
“President Waheed has been very involved in this after receiving a lot of concerns on islands he has visited about illegal immigrants,” Munaaz said, adding that the formation of the shelter back in January this year was a result of these concerns.
Munaaz said that five months on from the shelter’s formation, his team at the monitoring service were now working overtime, barely handling the number of calls being received by the public related to the issue of unregistered workers.
“We are working on the issue, but previous governments have simply left this matter unattended for so long that there are now more than 40,000 unregistered workers in the country,” he said.
Munaaz said his department aimed to not send anyone out of the country who was believed to be a victim of traffickers or other rights abuses.
In cases where expatriates had been working illegally in the country for several years, sometimes for periods up to a decade, he said the Immigration Department could no longer treat them as victims of smuggling.
One senior immigration source who asked not to be identified told Minivan News this week that the exact manner in which enterprises and individuals were profiting from unregistered workers continued to require investigation.
The problem was not isolated to businesses on inhabited islands, the source said, stating that one of the country’s exclusive island resort properties had recently been found by the Immigration Department to have employed between 50 to 60 foreign staff illegally.
As a result, immigration authorities were in the process of conducting reviews of resort operations around the country, according to the source.
While the government earlier this year launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, NGOs and institutions continue to identify human trafficking as a significant issue needing to be addressed in the country.
Human rights groups in the Maldives have for instance continued to criticise the present and former governments for failing to pass legislation that would allow authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking. The legal measures to do so are presently under review in parliament.
However, one anonymous source in immigration said that it was still possible to penalise any Maldivian suspected of trafficking foreigners into the country on the grounds of contravening the Maldives Immigration Act, ratified in 2007.
“If a Maldivian tries to go against this law they should be penalised with very heavy fines. The law has been in place since 2007,” the source claimed. “Yet has anyone been fined for illegal immigration activity? The answer is no. The legal authority to do this is there.”