Government proceeds with Nexbis signing despite ACC complaint

The Maldives has signed an agreement with Malaysian-based mobile security solutions vendor Nexbis to supply an advanced border control system for the immigration department.

The Maldives was this year placed on the US State Department watch list for human trafficking, which may narrowly eclipse the fishing industry as the second-largest contributor to the Maldivian economy after tourism.

The new system will allow the immigration department to store and retrieve the biometric data of expatriates working in the country, using fingerprint and facial recognition technology, effectively circumventing the abuse of paper documentation.

“We currently have a large number of illegal expatriates running around the country,” a source at the immigration department told Minivan News. “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, is a key benefit of the new system, the source explained.

“Since people discard documents and flee when police get hold of them, it can be hard to identity who someone is unless he says so himself. Likewise we deport a lot of people, sometimes for serious crimes, who come back in the next day on a new passport. It’s a loophole.”

“Right now were are also seeing a lot of underage domestic workers coming from countries like Nepal, who have passports definitely stating they are over 18. Under 18s are considered minors and can’t work under Maldivian law, but still the trend continues. In many cases these workers are abducted and trafficked, and this new system will help us address that. We’re also trying to get a visa officer stationed in Bangladesh.”

The new technology will allow police and island officials across the Maldives to determine a worker’s identity and visa status using facial recognition software and an authorised mobile phone connected to an immigration server.

“It does not require special gadgets, and will allow people like the island or atoll councillor to get data on a runaway, and see if their visa has expired or is pending,” the source said.

The 20 year contract with Nexbis will not require upfront investment from the government; instead, Minivan News understands that the government will pay Nexbis a US$15 fee for every work permit issued under the new system.

Nexbis did not disclose terms for national security and confidentiality reasons, however the firm said it expects to begin generating revenue from the project this financial year.

The immigration department will retain full control of the system, with technical assistance provided by Nexbis during the first stages of the project.

ACC criticism

Yesterday’s signing ceremony between Immigration Controller Ilyas Hussein Ibrahim and Nexbis CEO Johan Yong ran into opposition from the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which alleged it had received “a serious complaint” regarding “technical details” of the bid.

“We faxed a letter twice and sent another letter to the department at 9.35am after we received a complaint over the bid evaluation process. So we asked to put the signing ceremony on hold as we needed time to investigate the matter,” ACC Deputy Commissioner Muawwiz Rasheed told newspaper Haveeru.

“The law gives us the authority to take actions if our decision is violated. We have to take action if our decision is violated.”

A source within the immigration department confirmed that the ACC had sent a note to the department.

“The bid evaluation went through all the government processes. It was an international bid and included technical and financial evaluations,” the source said. “There were no issues until another independent commission was formed to evaluate some of the bids. This was not done by immigration – all bids were evaluated at the finance ministry by their pool of technical experts.”

The source claimed that there “may have been a few staff within the immigration department who have sent a letter to the ACC using their influence within [the department]. There is some sort of intention to stop the project that could have political motivations behind it.

“When we prosecute court cases and deport people for serious crimes, under the new system they will be unable to return simply by using a new passport. This will benefit police, the ministry of labour, even the tax department. I see the potential for a large improvement.”

Nexbis shares were today trading 1.43 percent higher at $0.071.