A growing number of foreign nationals are finding themselves forbidden from leaving the Maldives by immigration staff, due to the failure of state and private employers to renew visa documentation.
The Indian High Commission in the Maldives told Minivan News it was now demanding government intervention after receiving complaints from expatriates claiming they have been blocked from boarding planes at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), and stranded in the country indefinitely.
Minivan News has learned of cases where expatriates from India, the UK, the US and the Philippines have been blocked from leaving the country due to issues with visa documentation attributable to the negligence of state authorities and employers – in some cases, government ministries.
Unable to leave – and in some cases fined extortionate sums on behalf of the employer – foreigners are complaining of being trapped without funds, accommodation or legal representation.
As employers are responsible for arranging work permits on behalf of their foreign employees, foreign nationals are unable to submit or collect their own visa documentation, effectively stranding them in the Maldives at the mercy of their employers and state authorities while renewals are underway.
One UK national, seeking to ensure his own work permit was processed, even told Minivan News he was refused service at the immigration office on the grounds of “Where’s your owner?”.
An Indian High Commission source this week accused authorities of persecuting foreign nationals for the failure of the state and private employers to correctly renew or register foreign staff in the required time, depriving expatriates of their freedom of movement.
In just the past few days, the high commission said two Indian nationals had missed flights and been stranded in the Maldives while waiting for employers and government authorities to resolve the outstanding issues with their paperwork.
One of those affected, licensed pathologist at the state-run Indira Ghandi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), Dr Anjula Jain, was prevented from returning to India last week after completing her contract with the Ministry of Health.
She was forced to wait several days before receiving approval to book another flight with her own money.
Dr Jain has since filed an official complaint over her treatment with the Indian High Commission.
A High Commission source said Dr Jain had been told at immigration counter that she could not leave the country as her work visa had expired, despite the Health Ministry being in the process of renewing her documents.
Despite possessing papers showing the renewal process was ongoing, the doctor was still refused permission to leave.
Dr Jain was then asked to obtain a letter from the Health Ministry confirming the renewal of her documents was underway, before finally obtaining clearance from the Department of Immigration to leave the country days later.
The High Commission source said it was extremely concerned that Maldives employers, especially state authorities such as the Health Ministry, were continuing to employ foreign nationals even after their visas had expired, resulting in serious difficulties for the workers.
“There is a serious problem here for expatriates working for private and government companies where a visa is not renewed in time, with some people even having their bank accounts frozen and being deprived of their rights,” the source said.
“One call is too many,” the source said. “Concerns have been raised with [State Foreign Minister] Hassan Saeed as some similar cases have been brought to our attention. [The commission] will be checking with authorities that a systematic resolution can be found by the government to resolve this issue.”
Trapped in Male
Several foreign staff of varying nationalities working in areas ranging from tourism to the NGO sector have told Minivan News they are effectively barred from leaving due to problems with paperwork they are unable to resolve without the assistance of ambivalent employers and immigration staff.
One US national working in the NGO sector told Minivan News that she remains blocked from leaving the country due to a delay in obtaining a visa stamp in her passport, after discovering at the immigration counter that a previous employer had failed to pay outstanding visa charges.
Speaking to Minivan News on condition of anonymity, the woman said that during a recent attempt to fly to Sri Lanka for a medical reasons, immigration staff had summoned an airline official, who had ripped up her ticket in front of her.
“I spent a year working for my former employer. It took six months of demanding my passport be returned to me before it was, however I was constantly reassured all my documentation was in order and there were just processing delays. So I was very surprised to discover they had failed to pay the appropriate work visa fees,” she said.
“This has not only caused problems for my current employer, it has put me in a very vulnerable position as an expatriate worker. I’ve been prevented from leaving the country – urgently for health reasons – by the Immigration Department because of these unpaid fees resulting in my documentation not being properly updated.”
The US national said she was now effectively at the mercy of previous employers to resolve the outstanding payments, as she was unable to afford the the MVR 15,000 (US$1000) in fines demanded by immigration authorities to allow her to leave the country.
“Despite being in constant contact with my former employer about these issues, and some of the members showing genuine concern, they have still failed to resolve the issue nearly seven months later. Instead they blame me for these issues, when it’s clearly their own professional incompetence. It’s a foul betrayal to have dedicated so much time and energy, as well as made numerous personal sacrifices, in order to partner with this organisation to achieve their mission, merely to be blatantly disrespected as a professional and individual,” she said.
“Foreign workers in the Maldives – of any nationality – are treated like slaves, or indentured servants at best. As a professional woman, it’s worse because you have to navigate the sexism and endure a lot of harassment – which would never be allowed if this was a country that respected its foreign employees.”
By contrast, the US national believed the only method to have visa documentation approved in a quick manner was to go through recruitment ‘agents’, alleging that corruption seemed to be endemic within the system, despite tight restrictions imposed on foreign professionals.
“The most ridiculous part of the situation is that in addition to my former employer’s incompetence, the department of immigration has been in a state of flux since Feb 2012, but this is not taken into consideration by the government. They don’t care. Illegal foreign workers are brought into the country and exploited in droves, but immigration punishes legitimate workers claiming they know what they are supposed to do,” she argued.
Employees must take responsibility: Immigration
The Department of Immigration confirmed it was aware that foreign nationals had been prevented from leaving due to their employers not having obtained visas correctly.
However, the immigration authority argued that the Maldives, like countries all over the world, required foreign nationals to have the correct visa documentation to enter or leave the country, even to their homeland.
Immigration Department spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf said all expatriates would be aware that, in order to stay in a foreign country, it was mandatory to have the correct and valid visa.
Ashraf said that there had been a “huge backlog” of visas that were required to be processed by employers such as the health and education ministries, claiming that immigration authorities had made special arrangements to fast track visa renewals.
“This should not be happening,” he said of expatriates being prevented from boarding flights out of the country.
Ashraf claimed the Immigration Department had not been made aware of any concerns raised by the Indian High Commission over the issue of stranded workers, suggesting some issues may have been related to a “huge misunderstanding” of the visa system by employers.
“Payments for visas have to be made to the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA), with passports then officially needing to be processed with the Department of Immigration once payment is complete,” he said. “The visa sticker has to be there in the passport.”
Ashraf stressed that a correct visa sticker was requested by airlines as well as foreign authorities to allow a foreign national to board any international flight.
Health Ministry backlog
Responding to the Indian High Commission’s concerns about Dr Jain, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health Geela Ali told Minivan News said she was unaware of the case.
However, she accepted there had been issues with foreign doctors not being able to leave the country as a result of problems relating to visa extension issues, such as the transfer of staff from health corporations established under the previous government back to the ministry.
Geela insisted there were no longer recurring problems with visa extension of expatriates working for the health ministry, despite a backlog of outstanding documentation preventing staff from leaving, and said many issues had been resolved.
“The matter is now under control, but obviously there will sometimes be employees who cannot leave over visa issues,” she said.
Geela said IGMH was responsible for its large foreign workforce, and any workers who were facing issues leaving the country.
Indian authorities meanwhile last year slammed the government and some private employers for failing to reissue visa documentation to expatriates who were forced in some cases to wait weeks in Male to return home for visits and emergencies, including one worker’s own wedding.
In January, the high commission provided local media with a list of 11 grievances affecting its relationship with the Maldives, including discrimination, the keeping of passports of Indian nationals by employers, and the failure to repatriate mortal remains of foreign workers.
The source expressed confidence that authorities would find a resolution to the various grievances raised, despite claiming that no progress had made on any of the issues raised at time of press.