The Maldives has been placed on the US State Department watch-list for human trafficking, following the country’s failure to “investigate or prosecute trafficking-related offenses or take concrete actions to protect trafficking victims and prevent trafficking in the Maldives.”
The State Department’s 2010 Human Trafficking report, which comes less than a month after the Maldives was given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, is scathing of government inaction, particularly regarding forced labour and exploitation of Bangladeshi nationals.
“An unknown number of the 110,000 foreign workers currently working in the Maldives – primarily in the construction and service sectors – face fraudulent recruitment practices, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, or debt bondage,” the report noted.
“Diplomatic sources estimate that half of the 35,000 Bangladeshis in the Maldives went there illegally and that most of these workers are probably victims of trafficking.”
The report noted that even legal workers were vulnerable to conditions of forced labor, and that the Maldives did not provide services such as shelter, counseling, medical care, or legal aid to foreign or Maldivian victims of trafficking.
The government’s “general policy” for dealing with trafficking victims was deportation, the report said, “and it did not provide foreign victims with legal alternatives to their removal to countries where they might face hardship or retribution. On an ad-hoc basis, it provided extremely short-term housing for migrants immediately before deportation.”
The Maldives did not comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, however the US State Department conceded that the government “is making significant efforts to do so.”
“Despite these efforts, the government lacks systematic procedures for identifying victims of trafficking among vulnerable populations, and during the reporting period it did not investigate or prosecute trafficking-related offenses or take concrete actions to protect trafficking victims and prevent trafficking in the Maldives,” it said, placing the Maldives on a ‘tier 2 watch list’ alongside Afghanistan, Brunei, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Little progress had been made to identify and prosecute trafficking offenders, the report noted, classing three types: “families that subject domestic servants to forced labor; employment agents who bring low-skilled migrant workers to the Maldives under false terms of employment and upon payment of high fees; and employers who subject the migrants to conditions of forced labor upon arrival.”
The report acknowledged “a small number” of women from Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, China, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and former Soviet Union countries that had been recruited “for forced prostitution in Male”, while underage Maldivian girls were reportedly also trafficked to Male from other islands for involuntary domestic servitude, “a corruption of the widely acknowledged practice where families send Maldivian girls to live with a host family in Male for educational purposes.”
However in numercial terms, the bulk of country’s human trafficking revolved around illegal recruitment of migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, who paid on average between US$1,000 to US$4,000 in recruitment fees in order to migrate to the Maldives, potentially indebting them to an employer or agent and making them vulnerable to forced labor.
The government had made “limited” efforts to enforce anti-human trafficking laws during the last year, the report said, noting that while the country did not have explicit laws prohibiting human trafficking, the Constitution forbade forced labour and slavery.
“However, the government did not investigate or prosecute any trafficking cases and the only prescribed penalty for labor trafficking offenses is a fine,” it observed.
It noted that the Labor Tribunal, created as part of the 2008 Employment Act, heard eight cases involving foreign workers whose wages had not been paid, but lacked the legal authority to enforce its decision.
“In addition, employment tribunal members and employees expressed concerns about their ability to resolve cases involving foreign workers because all their proceedings were conducted in [Dhivehi],” it added.
Moreover, the report said that the Maldives may have “inappropriately incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalised” unlawfully trafficked persons because of a lack of comprehensive victim identification procedures.
“The government did not conduct any anti-trafficking or educational campaigns and it did not take steps to create an inter-agency structure – such as a committee or plan of action – for coordination on anti-trafficking matters,” it said, adding that government additionally made no effort to reduce demand for forced labor on the islands.
It noted that in 2010 the Maldives had enacted a provision requiring all employers to use employment agents, and recommended it take steps to ensure that employers and labor brokers “were not abusing labour recruitment or sponsorship processes in order to subject migrant workers to forced labour.”
President of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), Ahmed Saleem, said the US State Department’s report did not reflect well on the country.
“This is something the government had not believed was happening in the Maldives [until recently],” he said.
“This doesn’t reflect well on us, and it’s an issue that has to be addressed. I’m glad the issue of trafficking has been recognised.”
Saleem acknowledged a deeper “cultural issue” concerning the exploitation of Bangladeshi expatriates, one he noted “is getting worse on a daily basis.”
“Usually Maldivians are very tolerant of expats coming and working here,” he observed.
He added that the commission was currently compiling a report on human trafficking in the Maldives, and noted that while the State Department’s report was highly critical of the Maldives, the US itself had committed “gross human rights violations”, and “should hold itself to the same standards to which it holds other countries.”
“They should also expect criticism,” he said.
Introducing the report, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that 2010 was the first time the United States had included itself in the rankings,
“The United States takes its first-ever ranking not as a reprieve but as a responsibility to strengthen global efforts against modern slavery, including those within America. This human rights abuse is universal, and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it,” she said.
Bangladeshi High Commissioner Professor Selina Mohsin said “unscrupulous brokers” were bringing Bangladeshi nationals into the country by photocopying legitimate work visas – bearing her signature -“hundreds of times”, which authorities were continuing to accept at the border.
“I’ve tried to meet the Human Resources Minister [Hassan Latheef] and ask him to stop accepting photocopies of work permits,” she said.
“I haven’t signed a single work permit since the beginning of April – how is it workers are still coming into the Maldives? Just today I found a copy of my signature on a photocopied work permit. Unless the original is brought over by the employee, we can’t stop this,” she said, suggesting there was “some problem” occurring at either the labour ministry or immigration.
“All they have to do is stop letting [illegal expatriates] into the country. It is ridiculous that this is happening – why can’t the government only accept original work permits?”
Prof Mohsin said the situation was a result of brokers and employers, both in the Maldives and overseas, running “huge scams” reaching up to several hundred million US dollars.
“I just tried to have a Bangladeshi agent deported – I caught him almost red-handed – but his Maldivian friends have taken him to court so he can stay in the country,” she said, noting that the case was still ongoing.
Few of the local authorities had Bangla speakers, she noted, making communication an issue as well. For example, the employment tribunal was conducting cases in Dhivehi and the expatriates involved could not understand what was going on, she said.
“It should be the government providing interpreters, rather than us,” she claimed. “In places like the UK there are policemen who speak other languages.”
When workers arrived and became unemployed, “they can’t be deported because that costs money, and if there’s no employment, people turn to crime,” she noted.
Prof Mohsin was also critical of HRCM, commenting that she “hardly saw [Saleem] anywhere. If he is invisible, what use is it in having a Human Rights Commission?”
Minister for Human Resources Hassan Latheef had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.