Immigration Department denies vital components missing from replacement border system

The Department of Immigration and Emigration has rejected accusations that a replacement border control system provided by US authorities will not be fit for purpose without “enhancements” currently being made to the technology.

An immigration source speaking on condition of anonymity last week told Minivan News that the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) – provided free of charge by the US government – was not an adequate replacement for the previous system provided by Malaysia-based Nexbis.

The PISCES system would only provide one of several functions afforded by the “total solution” installed by Nexbis under an agreement recently scrapped by the government, alleged a local source experienced in working with both border control systems.

“Nexbis provided a total solution that not only allowed for checking of biometric data, but would also be used to process visas and work permits,” the source claimed at the time.

Enhancements underway

Chief Superintendent of Immigration Zubair Muhammad today confirmed that enhancements were continuing to be made to the functionality of the PISCES since its installation as a direct replacement for the Nexbis system earlier this month.

Asked for more details on the nature of changes being made to PISCES, Zubair responded that a press conference had been scheduled for Sunday (September 1) at which representatives from the Ministry of Defence, the National Centre for Information Technology (NCIT) and immigration officials would discuss the ongoing work.

He also declined to provide details on whether any Immigration Department systems would have been affected by the changeover from the dismissed Nexbis technology at the present time.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali meanwhile declined to comment on the PISCES technology when contacted today, and Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim had not responded at the time of press.

Nazim earlier this month claimed that both US and local authorities were continuing to develop PISCES since its introduction at Ibrahim Nasir International airport (INIA) to ensure it could meet the technical criteria required by immigration officials in the country.

“During training [to use the system], we realised that we needed to do enhancements,” he said at the time.

Asked if the country’s border controls could be open to abuse while these enhancements were being implemented, Nazim had responded that several amendments were expected to have been completed over the last week.

Immigration Department Spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf at the time said that the country’s border controls had been transferred from Nexbis’ technology to Pisces without many issues.

He added that PISCES was nonetheless reliant on data from the Nexbis system, with technical staff from the Malaysian firm and the immigration working on transferring the necessary information.

Nexbis agreement

Nexbis’ border control system, used at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) since September 2012, was replaced on August 20 following the government’s decision to terminate its concession agreement for the use and management of the system.

Nexbis has rubbished the Maldivian government’s reasons for terminating their agreement to build and operate a new border control system, accusing human traffickers – fearful of a more comprehensive system – of being behind the decision.

In June, the Maldives was placed on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for the fourth consecutive year.

The PISCES system, designed by US tech firm Booz Allen Hamilton, has already been implemented in numerous other countries around the world, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Thailand.

Nexbis’s statement also took issue with Defence Minister Nazim’s claims that the installation of its system was causing “major losses” to the state – this claim was reported in local media on August 6 when the Malaysian company was informed it had 14 days to vacate the country.

The company argued that its system was also installed and operated free of charge, and that the US$2.8million it had billed the government was the amount due for the arrival and departure of foreigners as per the original agreement.

The Nexbis deal has been dogged by allegations of corruption since it was agreed under the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2010.

The failure of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to conclusively prove foul play in this respect has exonerated Nexbis from such charges, the company has claimed.


Maldives a mid-point for illegal immigration to Europe, money laundering: Immigration Controller

Controller of Immigration Mohamed Ali  on Monday expressed concern that the Maldives was being used as a mid-point for money laundering and illegal immigration to Europe.

Speaking at the Fifth Meeting of the SAARC Immigration Authorities, Ali said that while it was a rising concern that illegal immigrants were making their way to Europe via the Maldives, there was also the matter of African nationals attempting to enter the Maldives itself illegally.

Ali pointed out that people from African countries like Nigeria were entering the Maldives, which he said would lead to problems.

“Now for example, if people like those from Nigeria start entering the Maldives, you all know what sort of problems this can give rise to. That is because Nigerians don’t have much of a reputation when it comes to certain things,” the Controller said.

Stating there was a chance that Maldivians were involved in assisting the illegal immigration, Ali said this should therefore be a matter of huge concern for the country.

“We haven’t received any information about Al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, we have been getting other sorts of information,” Ali said.

“There is all sorts of organised crime coming in now from all sides. It isn’t just terrorism,” he said.

Ali went on to say that people on the Interpol watch-list had been intercepted attempting to enter the Maldives a number of times. A few of these persons have been found after entering the country.

He highlighted the importance of working more closely with Interpol and of strengthening the border control system in order to prevent such crimes from continuing.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Mohamed Ali further said that he hoped the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) would now consider the implications of money laundering happening in the country.

“What I meant to say is that there are risks of all these activities happening in the Maldives. Our intention is for MMA to plan and start taking action about the issue of money laundering,” Ali said.

The current border control system is operated by Nexbis, and is at present a contentious matter. The Anti-Corruption Commission has recently approached parliament’s Finance Committee about the issue.

The Maldives has meanwhile been on the US State Department’s tier 2 watch list for human trafficking for three years’ running.


ACC approaches Finance Committee over Nexbis system

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has told Parliament’s Finance Committee that the deal with Malaysian mobile security provider Nexbis will cost the Maldives MVR 2.5 billion (US$162 million) in potential lost revenue over the lifetime of the contract.

The border control system is now up and running at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), after a Supreme Court ruling in early September favouring Nexbis ended almost two years of efforts by the ACC to block the project.

Under the ‘build operate and transfer’ (BOT) agreement with Nexbis, the government is obliged to pay Nexbis US$2 for every foreign passenger processed and US$15 for every work permit for the 20 year lifespan of the contract. Nexbis remains responsible for the upgrading, servicing and administration of the system.

Former Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid has expressed concern over both the cost and necessity of the project, calculating that with continued growth in tourist numbers Nexbis would be earning US$200 million in revenue over the 20 year lifespan of the agreement.

At five percent, royalties to the government would come to US$10 million, Shahid said, when there was little reason for the government not be earning the revenue itself by operating a system given by a donor country.

“The option was there to establish the system for free,” stated ACC President Hassan Luthfee, revealing that the US government had offered a free system in 2009.

“Even the Indian government had offered to do it for free. On the other hand this could have been done for MVR2.3-2.5 million. So we can’t believe that this should be done at such a high cost,” Luthfee told the committee.

Other contentions raised by the ACC included a “questionable” project evaluation, which the commission alleged violated protocols of the National Planning Council.

“The National Planning Council’s protocols say that anything passed by the council cannot be changed by any other relevant institution unless it is sanctioned by the Council itself or the ministerial cabinet. But without following the said two protocols, Immigration made major changes to the proposal,” ACC’s investigation officer Mohamed Sodig was reported as saying in local media.

Evaluations and bid criteria had been unclear, the ACC alleged, further claiming that the validity of the Nexbis bid had been 90 days which had expired at the time the price bids were opened.

“We tried to determine whether the validity of the proposal or bid of Nexbis had been extended. However, we failed to find a single document that had done so, and marks had been given for Nexbis’ price bid,” Sodig was reported as stating.

The commission also claimed that minutes for one government meeting to discuss the project had taken place during prayer time on Friday October 15, 2010, which the commission claimed was “highly suspicious in a 100 percent Muslim country”.

The ACC also contended that the charging of a fee for passengers and foreign workers constituted a tax and was in violation of Article 97 of the constitution, requiring parliamentary approval for new or altered taxation. In an apparent precedent, a similar ruling from the Civil Court in late 2011 overruled airport developer GMR’s ability to levy an Airport Development Charge (ADC), despite this being stipulated in the developer’s concession agreement with the government.

The Supreme Court has meanwhile cleared the way for the border control project, invalidating an earlier injunction from the High Court.

The move prompted complaints from the ACC, which expressed concern and frustration over the decision stating that it has put the commission in a state of limbo and deprived it of purpose.

“If this institution is simply an investigative body, then there is no purpose for our presence,” he said. “Even the police investigate cases, don’t they? So it is more cost effective for this state to have only the police to investigate cases instead of the ACC,” Luthfee said at the time.

Outside the dispute over its legality, with the project now running the collection of biometric data by immigration allows the government to identify people without paper documents – useful in a country where a third the population are imported workers, and where the confiscation of passports by employers is common practice.

The reaction from tourists to the new system has however been mixed.

“The immigration process now takes a lot of time to complete because they must now take fingerprints and pictures of people entering the country,” observed a German visitor.


“No legal barrier” to implement Nexbis system: immigration controller

Controller of Immigration and Emigration Dr Mohamed Ali has said there is “no legal barrier” preventing the implementation of a border control system (BCS) developed by Malaysia-based security solutions firm Nexbis.

Dr Ali told Minivan News today Nexbis could continue with introduction of a new biometric BCS system after the Supreme Court in June invalidated a High Court injunction blocking work on the project in May.

The controller made his comments after Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed maintained calls in local media to halt the BCS installation, citing allegations of corruption involving the deal.

Dr Jameel claimed a letter requesting work on the project to cease in line with the recommendations of Attorney General Aishath Azima Shakoor and the country’s Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) had been sent to the immigration controller.

“The government is also of the same view pertaining to the continuation of the project. We urge the project be taken forward with the recommendations of the AG and the ACC. As far as I’m aware, it is the stand of the government,” he was quoted as saying by Haveeru.

President’s Office spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza was not responding to calls at the time of press regarding the comments attributed to Dr Jameel.

The legal dispute between the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and Nexbis escalated last week after the High Court ordered police to investigate claims made to the ACC that Chief Judge of the High Court Ahmed Shareef met officials from the company in Bangkok.

The dispute concerns the deployment of a border control system, specifically the installation of an electronic border gate system in Male’s Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), bringing technological upgrades such as facial recognition, fingerprint identification and e-gates to the Maldives.

The Rf500 million (US$39 million) deal had stalled after the ACC alleged corruption in the bidding process, leading to a ongoing series of high-profile court battles and delays that led the Malaysian firm to threaten legal action against the Maldivian government should it incur losses for the work already done on the project.

In May 2012, the project was brought to a standstill by a High Court injunction and a raid on immigration offices by ACC staff. At the time the Rf10 million (US$650,000) first phase of the border control project had been completed, according to local media reports.

Speaking today, Immigration Controller Dr Ali claimed that, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule the injunction, Nexbis had continued its work to install the system from where it had previously been halted.

“In the absence of a legal order and unless I get a decision from the cabinet, there is nothing that I can do on this issue,” he said. “The government wanted a biometric system to stop the smuggling and trafficking of people.”

Dr Ali added that with the Maldives having already signed up to conventions pledging to try and more effectively combat Transnational Organised Crime like human trafficking, new systems were needed to help meet these aims.

“From our own experience, we have found people being trafficked back into the country even after they have previously been deported,” the controller claimed.  “A system like this should put a stop to that.”

Trafficking concerns

The Maldives last month featured in the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for the third year in a row.

Having “not demonstrated evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous year”, the country only narrowly avoided a descent to Tier 3 – the worst category – after presenting a written plan on its commitments, claimed a corresponding US State Department report.

According to the report, implementation of the government’s written plan, “would constitute making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”


Nexbis project one third completed despite ACC’s legal effort

Despite the legal complications surrounding the deal, the Nexbis border control project has completed its first phase, with Rf10 million’s (US$650,000) worth of installation work having been finished, according to Sun Online.

The project involves the installation of an electronic border gate system in Male’s Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), bringing technological upgrades such as facial recognition, fingerprint identification and e-gates to the Maldives.

Assistant Controllerof the Department of Immigration and Emigration Ibrahim Ashraf confirmed to Minivan News that “the first phase is, to a certain extent, finished.”

The Rf500 million (US$39 million) deal had been brought to standstill by the High Court earlier this month in the latest in a series of delays which have led the Malaysian firm to threaten legal action against the Maldivian government should it incur losses for the work already done on the project.

Sun reported a source as saying that there were three phases in the contract with Nexbis. The second phase involves the installation of further systems for an online visa service while the third phase would include improving passport mechanism services.

The deal ran into trouble soon after it was awarded in 2010, with the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) demanding the project be terminated and re-tendered, citing allegations of corruption in the bidding process.

Legal suit was filed in November 2011 after the government decided to begin work on the project against the ACC’s advice. The subsequent decision by the Civil Court was that the ACC did not have the authority to order the Department of Immigration and Emigration to stop the project.

Subsequent appeals to the High Court earlier this month resulted in an injunction against any further work until the case had been resolved. At the time, the ACC had expressed concern that the project could be completed before the conclusion of the High Court case.

Ashraf said that staff training for the new system was planned for May 10 but had been cancelled due to the injunction.

Hassan Luthfee, President of the ACC, said that the commission had not investigated into the work’s current progress but believed the work on the first phase had been completed prior to the High Court injunction, as did Ashraf. Luthfee said the ACC had appealed to the court to “delineate” the role of the ACC and expected a verdict by the end of this month.

According to the Anti-Corruption Act (Act No. 13/2008) under which the ACC was established, following any inquiry and investigation the commission is empowered to forward the case to the Prosecutor General for prosecution. It is also granted the power to order the institution in question to correct any failures in management that may have led to corrupt practices.

Part of the roles and responsibilities of the ACC, as defined in the constitution, is “to perform any additional duties or functions specifically provided by law for the prevention of corruption.” The ACC’s objections to the Nexbis deal were based on its belief that the bidding process was flawed.

A source at the immigration department at the time of the ACC’s initial complaint in 2010 claimed that it was the finance ministry which evaluated all the bids. The same source also argued that the desire within the ACC to stop the project could have been politically motivated.

The ACC filed a suit against the Home Ministry in January, citing “unlawful practices” in the tender process while evaluating bids to set up partitions in the ministry’s office.


High Court issues injunction halting Nexbis project pending outcome of ACC appeal

The High court has issued an injunction temporarily halting the roll out of the Nexbis border control system, pending the outcome of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC’s) appeal against a Civil Court ruling that the ACC did not have the authority to halt the project.

The ACC in a hearing last week had requested an injunction, however Judge Azmirelda Zahir stated that such a decision could only be taken after both sides had presented their cases. The ACC had expressed concern that the project could be completed before the conclusion of the High Court case.

Immigration Controller Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim said he would not comment on the matter and referred Minivan News to Deputy Contoller Ibrahim Ashraf, who was not responding at time of press.

The case was delayed last week after the High Court ruled that Deputy Solicitor General Ahmed Usham could not represent the state in the case, as he had been a member of the tender evaluation board that had awarded the contract to Nexbis.

The case concerns a 20-year Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) agreement with the Malaysia-based mobile security solutions provider to upgrade border security in the Maldives with new technology including facial recognition and fingerprint identification, facilitating the identification and tracking of expatriate workers and eliminating the opportunity for people to enter the country with forged paper documents.

The ACC had earlier ordered a halt to the project following the signing of the contract in October 2010, announcing that it had received “a serious complaint” regarding “technical details” of the bid, and that the agreement presented “instances and opportunities” for corruption.

In December 2011, the Commission forwarded corruption cases against former – and now reappointed –  Controller Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim, and Director General of the Finance Ministry, Saamee Ageel, to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PG), alleging that the pair had abused their authority for undue financial gain in granting the contract to Nexbis.

On February 16 Illyas confirmed that the department would proceed with the border control project as there was no “legal obstruction”. He disputed the claims of corruption and insisted that the project was awarded to Nexbis through a transparent international bidding process.

The agreement stipulates that Nexbis will levy a fee of Rf30 (US$2) from arriving and departing passengers in exchange for installing, maintaining and upgrading its immigration system. The company would also charge a Rf231 (US$15) for every work permit card.

Former Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid has contended that this would deprive the Maldives of US$200 million in revenue over the life of the 20 year contract. Comparing Nexbis’ earnings to the government’s estimated revenue of US$10 million, Shahid proposed the government instead maximize its income by operating a system given by a donor country: “Border control is not something we are unable to comprehend,” he suggested.

Minivan News reported on February 16 that Nexbis had filed a case in the Civil Court seeking Rf 669 million (US$43 million) in damages from Shahid, alleging that its reputation had been tarnished by negative media coverage.


ACC cannot terminate Nexbis agreement, court rules

The Civil Court has ruled that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) does not have the legal authority to order the Department of Immigration and Emigration to terminate the border control system contracted to Malaysia’s Nexbis Limited in November 2010.

ACC filed a court case against the Rf500 million (US$39 million) Nexbis system in November 2011, two days after cabinet decided to resume the project.

The cabinet’s decision contradicted ACC’s earlier command to terminate the existing agreement with Nexbis and re-tender the project with the cabinet’s consent.

In December, the ACC forwarded a corruption cases against former Immigraiton Controller Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim and Director General of Finance Ministry, Saamee Ageel to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PG), claiming the pair had abused their authority for undue financial gain in awarding the Nexbis project.

However, in Sunday’s hearing Judge Ali Rasheed ruled that the ACC Act clearly allows the commission to investigate corruption cases, but does not give ACC legal authority to issue an order which can annul a formal agreement signed between one or more parties.

He asserted that it is “unfair” to the contractors if ACC can annul an agreement without the contractors’ say, adding that such a decision violates the protection granted to the contractors under the Maldives Law of Contract.

Following the court’s ruling, Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid told Minivan News that the ruling is subjected to the ACC and it does not directly relate to the department.

He noted that it is too soon to say how the department will proceed with the project.

“We have not even received the documents. We will look into the matter legally,” Shahid said, adding that the court’s decision does not does indicate whether the agreement with Nexbis is “good”.

The 20-year Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) agreement with the Malaysian-based mobile security solutions provider was to upgrade border security in the Maldives with new technology including facial recognition and fingerprint identification, facilitating the identification and tracking of expatriate workers and eliminating the opportunity to people to enter the country with forged paper documents.

The Maldives currently receives three times its population of 350,000 in tourist arrivals each year. It has lately begun addressing a rise in human trafficking.

The day after the October 2010 signing of the concessionaire contract, ACC announced it had received “a serious complaint” regarding “technical details” of the bid, and issued an injunction pending an investigation into the agreement citing “instances and opportunities” where corruption may have occurred.

After the investigation, the commission deemed the procedure of awarding the project to Nexbis was corrupt, and ordered the Immigration department to terminate the project.

Nexbis shares immediately plunged 6.3 percent on the back of the ACC’s announcement. The company subsequently issued a statement claiming that speculation over corruption was “politically motivated” and had “wrought irreparable damage to Nexbis’ reputation and brand name.”

“Nexbis’ shareholders own and manage multi-trillion dollar assets globally and will not jeopardise their reputation for an investment return,” the company said at the time.

Claiming financial loss Nexbis subsequently threatened legal action over the stalled border agreement, prompting the cabinet to resume the project after reviewing the existing agreement with Nexbis to address the concerns raised by the department.

In earlier interviews with Minivan News, Shahid had expressed concern over both the cost and necessity of the project, calculating that as tourist arrivals continue to grow Nexbis would earn US$200 million in revenue over the project’s 20-year lifespan.

Comparatively, at five percent royalties to the government would come to US$10 million, Shahid said, when there was little reason for the government not be earning the revenue itself by operating a system given by a donor country.

“Border control is not something we are unable to comprehend – it is a normal thing all over the world,” Shahid told Minivan News at the time.“There is no stated cost of the equipment Nexbis is installing – we don’t know how much it is costing to install, only how much we have to pay. We need to get everything out in the open.”

The agreement allows Nexbis to levy a fee of Rf30 (US$2) from arriving and departing passengers in exchange for installing, maintaining and upgrading its immigration system. The company would also charge a Rf231 (US$15) for every work permit card.

Shahid estimates that maintaining a free system given by a donor country would cost at most several hundred thousand dollars a year, and said he was unsure as to why such an agreement had ever been signed.

However, Nexbis said in a statement that neither the government nor the Maldivian public have to pay in exchange for a state-of-the-art border security protection and suggested that “reasonable persons will likely realise that once the hidden costs after are taken into account and adjusted for inflation, the benefits and efficiencies of the Nexbis system will far outweigh the risk, inadequacies and uncertainties of any such alleged cheaper system.”

Nexbis also said it had agreed to review the government’s additional requirements, “and have expressed our willingness to accommodate any such changes within commercially viable terms.”

“While this requires some changes to the solution we ultimately provide, it is within the scope of our agreement to accommodate these changes,” the company said.

Meanwhile, yesterday’s court’s ruling set a precedent on the question raised by some legal experts on whether ACC has the authority to halt or terminate a government project agreement.

Civil court is hearing a similar case against the ACC by Thilafushi Corporation Limited (TCL), which contested the legality of ACC’s decision to halt the US$21 million reclamation project awarded to Heavy Load Maldives, owned by MDP Chairperson Reeko Moosa Manik, on suspicion of corruption.


Cabinet moves ahead with Nexbis border control deal despite ACC objections

The Maldivian cabinet has reportedly decided to move ahead with implementing a border control system designed by Malaysia-based Nexbis after overruling concerns raised by the Anti-Corruption Commission that halted the deal earlier in the year.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair told newspaper Haveeru today that after two weeks of discussions, the cabinet had decided to move ahead with the Nexbis agreement originally signed back in October 2010. Zuhair was unavailable for comment on the decision when contacted by Minivan News.

The Nexbis deal had been bought to a halt soon after being signed as the ACC ordered a halt on a contract between the Department of Immigration and the Malaysia based mobile security firm over claims that were instances where corruption may have occurred. The ACC order was upheld by President Mohamed Nasheed in January, who requested that the Department of Immigration and Emigration adhere to the ACC’s guidance until it rules over the next step for the project

The ACC’s claims were vehemently denied by Nexbis, which announced days later that it was consider taking legal action against unspecified parties in the country that it alleged had “wrought irreparable damage to [the company’s] reputation and brand name” alleging attempts to halt the deal were “politically motivated” in nature.

According to Haveeru, ACC Deputy Commissioner Muawwiz Rasheed claimed following the cabinet’s decision today that only a Maldivian court could invalidate the decision to halt the project – even one with the reported support of the country’s executive arm.

“It’s mandatory for the department to follow our orders. The investigation is ongoing,” he was quoted as saying in the paper.


President upholds ACC’s postponement of border control shakeup

President Mohamed Nasheed has upheld the decision to postpone the roll-out of a new electronic border control system for the Maldives in accordance with concerns by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) over the project’s selection process.

The President’s Office confirmed to Minivan News that Nasheed has requested that the Department of Immigration and Emigration adhere to the ACC’s guidance until it rules over the next step for the project, with no appeal expected to be heard on the current decision.

Work on the project was suspended soon after being agreed last October, when the ACC raised concerns over allegations of corruption in the decision making process.

The ongoing criticism by the ACC of the Nexbis border control agreement has itself come under fire amidst accusations that it represents a politically-motivated attack on wider government reforms, according to a source within the immigration department.

A spokesperson for the ACC was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

However, the ACC this week sent a confidential letter to Immigration Controller Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim calling for approval from the Maldives Cabinet or National Planning Council (NPC) over concerns regarding corruption within the decision making process for the deal. The letter was also leaked to the press.

Prior to the President’s decision to hold the project, a source within the immigration department told Minivan News that it had remained confident that the project, signed with Malaysia-based Nexbis in October as part of attempts to prevent abuse of the working visa system, would be “greenlit” by either the cabinet or the NPC.

Having already been approved by two independent audits, the source claimed that President Nasheed had also indicated to local media this week that he saw no reason to oppose the existing agreement for the new border control system.

However, the immigration department said that it will comply with the President’s orders and wait for any further decisions by the ACC relating to border control.

Alongside refuting any suggestions that corruption had played a role within the decision to choose Nexbis, the Immigration Department insider claimed that technical criticisms of the system were part of wider political moves to try and disrupt the government’s reform of the border control system.

However, the anti-corruption body is said to have highlighted a number of issues concerning the different models used to identify travel documents such as passports under the visa scheme.

“The ACC does not have the technical background to be able to criticise and understand the [border control] system,” said the immigration department source. “More education is needed [within the commission].”

The Nexbis border control project had aimed to make use of fingerprint and facial recognition devices that according the Department of Immigration could be set up within four to six months as part of the first phase of the project focusing on working visas – essentially matching individuals to records without the requirement for paper documents.

However, the President’s decision means that the work will continue to remain on hold since the signing in October.

“On the very day we signed the contract, barely hours, maybe minutes later, the ACC had drafted a letter saying there was suspicions of corruption involved with the decision,” said the immigration department source, who asked not to be identified. “From that moment, we have stopped work on the system as requested by the ACC.”

When news of the disruption broke in November, shares in Nexbis immediately dropped 6.3 percent. Minivan News has since spoken to other foreign investors in the Maldives who have expressed concern that their share prices were at risk of becoming collateral in local politics.

The injunction issued by the ACC effectively places an indefinite delay on the project. The commission has not finalised an investigation since 2008.

Trafficking concerns

Immigration reforms, of which the Nexbis project was part, were intended in part to address the government’s serious concerns over labour trafficking.

Last year, the Maldives was placed on the US State Department watch list for human trafficking, a crime which may actually narrowly eclipse the fishing industry as the second-largest contributor to the Maldivian economy after tourism, US$43.8 million on paper but potentially reaching up to US$200 million.

The Nexbis system was said to allow the immigration department to store and retrieve the biometric data of expatriates working in the country, effectively circumventing the abuse of paper documentation and curbing the ability of workers – and traffickers – to operate in the country.

“We currently have a large number of illegal expatriates running around the country,” another source at the immigration department told Minivan News back in 2010. “Right now estimate that there are 100,000 foreign workers in the country, but there are no official figures on how many may be illegal.”

Workers were arriving in the country legally “but once in the country they discard the documents and flee to islands, and seek better payment.”

Many companies in the Maldives were benefiting “and facilitating” the problem, the source said, which was impacting those companies “who do operate legally and pay visa fees to the government.”

Ensuring that workers could be accurately identified, even without documentation, was the key benefit of the new system, the source explained.