The Department of Immigration and Emigration deported 6,400 migrant workers between January and July and is currently holding 159 workers in detention.
According to the department, barring a handful arrested on criminal offenses, all were undocumented – some having worked illegally for up to 12 years.
“This is not just a programme we carry out for this period, it will be a continuous process,” said Controller of Immigration Hassan Ali, who also promises action against employers.
“We have been warning about this for several years now, but there will be no warning anymore. We are taking action.”
The controller has made assurances that immigration staff are aware of the risk of deporting trafficking victims, and said that no legal rights were being infringed upon during the detention of migrant workers.
He urged small businesses to ensure recruitment agencies provide the correct information to migrant workers prior to their arrival. He also revealed long term plans to check company immigration records before awarding government contracts.
The current special operation to deport undocumented workers was announced on April 24, with Minister of Defence and National Security Mohamed Nazim – also in charge of the immigration department – promising “the whole Malé will be cleaned [of migrant workers]” within three weeks.
In December 2013 the department also conducted a voluntary repatriation program to allow for the regularisation of workers through easier documentation processes and the option to return legally after six months.
Those detained under the current programme are deported as soon as possible, and will be unable to return to the Maldives within the next ten years.
Their documents are arranged through their respective foreign offices and the travel fare is arranged with money deposited at the department prior to their arrival, or through their employers.
The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) has previously expressed concern over the programme, stating that victims of human trafficking may also be deported.
While the national anti-trafficking steering committee established under the new Anti-Trafficking Act has drafted a national guideline of internationally accepted standards, it is yet to be approved and used at a national level.
“No, we do not have such a standard at the moment,” Hassan Ali told Minivan News this week.
“However, our staff have taken part in programmes conducted by organisations like IOM [International Organization for Migration] and ILO [International Labor Organization] on human trafficking. They are well aware of indicators of trafficking and have identified some cases and forwarded those to the police,” the controller continued.
The 2014 US State Department’s Trafficking In Persons Report highlighted lack of procedures to identify victims among vulnerable populations, and inadequate training for officials.
The report stated that “the government penalized some victims for offenses committed as a result of being trafficked and also deported thousands of migrants without adequately screening for indications of forced labor.”
Until deportation, most workers are detained at Hulhumalé prison, or sometimes in the police custodial centers, the immigration department explained.
Hulhumalé prison, which also holds a number of convicted criminals, is being used as a detention facility for undocumented workers as the immigration department lacks its own facility.
Article 48 of the Constitution outlines rights of a person during arrest or detention – rights extended to immigrants – which include the right to an attorney, and to be brought before a judge within 24 hours to determine the validity of the detention.
Referring to the phrasing of the article, which states that only “a person detained for being accused of a crime” has the right be brought before a judge, Hassan said it does not apply to immigration detention of undocumented workers.
“I don’t even want to call this detention. We are sending them back as soon as we can, sometimes immediately, sometimes within a day. But sometimes it takes longer than that,” he said.
He added that the department was authorised under the Immigration Act and the Parole Act.
Article 21 of the Immigration Act states that it is unlawful for anyone without proper documentation to remain in the Maldives, authorising the controller to detain such persons, at a place of his choosing, until deportation.
Prominent lawyers have noted that, while the detention is valid, it is important to ensure it does not extend beyond a reasonable period of time and that the HRCM should ensure their rights are guaranteed during that period.
Minivan News understands the Hulhumalé Prison was recently visited by HRCM, who are mandated to monitor places of detention under the Human Rights Commission Act, the Anti-Torture Act, and the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.