Human traffickers sabotaging border control deal: Nexbis

The Malaysian IT company at the center of legal wrangling over a deal to provide a border control system (BCS) to the Maldivian government has alleged “criminal elements” could be behind efforts to scupper the agreement.

Vice President for Nexbis Nafies Aziz told Minivan News that “intelligence” received by the company suggested groups backing the country’s lucrative human trafficking industry could be seeking to stymie the introduction of its BCS to undermine national security controls.

The comments were made following an appeal hearing held at the country’s Supreme Court on January 9 to block an unanimous vote by parliament to terminate Nexbis’ agreement with the government over allegations of “foul play”.

The country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) said that regardless of its concerns about human trafficking in the Maldives, a case regarding the Nexbis’ deal had been submitted to the Prosecutor General (PG’s) Office under the previous government.

Meanwhile, a source with knowledge of the present immigration and border control system said that should parliament’s termination decision be upheld, the Immigration Department would be returning to “a pen and paper system” for monitoring arrivals to the country.

The Maldives has come under strong criticism internationally in recent years for the prevalence of people trafficking, and the  country has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row.

In a statement to Minivan News, Nexbis Vice President Aziz said that the company was now awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision concerning its appeal hearing on January 9.

“The ACC in the previous Supreme Court hearing submitted that there was no implication on Nexbis or any corruption whatsoever in the contracting state of the Border Control System project,” he said. “The Border Control System is fully implemented and is operational in Male’ International Airport.”

Responding to allegations of wrong-doing in its signing of a border control agreement with the Maldives government, Aziz alleged that “criminal elements supporting human trafficking” had been identified through its “intelligence” as potentially funding a campaign to halt its agreement.

“Stakeholders across the political spectrum have in the recent past all highlighted the growth of human trafficking in the Maldives and pointed out to hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal gains made by the criminal elements behind the growth of human trafficking in the Maldives who stand to lose out the most from the full implementation of the Maldives Immigration Border Control System,” he claimed. “To that end, as the public can clearly see, there is an elaborate amount of money that is being spent to campaign against the Border Control System and the security it will bring to the country.”

Aziz also contended that any attempts to weaken border controls in the country would only serve detrimental to the nation due to not only an “influx of illegal immigrants to the country,” but also the nation’s international standing.

“In addition to this, the Maldives has been on the US State Department’s Tier 2 Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years running now and may possibly be re-classified this year into Tier 3, which is the worst category, if proper controls and systems are not put in place,” he said.

“The implications are far reaching and would again impact the people of Maldives as countries around the world begin imposing stringent visa requirements on Maldivians.”

Aziz said it had become “imperative” for Maldives’ national security that supposed efforts by human traffickers to sabotage its agreement did not succeed.

“The full implementation and operation of the Nexbis BCS will undoubtedly help curb issues of human trafficking, identity fraud as well as weak enforcement controls. The Border Control System encompasses a total end-to-end solution for a Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) contract term as stipulated by the National Planning Council,” he said.

“This is a proven and internationally certified system, and shall provide the required border control capabilities including foreign worker management and mobile enforcement features, which will increase the efficiency of the current immigration processes. The biometric capabilities of the system are certified to be of the highest performance worldwide for speed and accuracy,” he said.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was not responding to calls at the time of press.

However, a source with knowledge of the current immigration and emigration system – who asked not to be identified – told Minivan News that border control authorities were facing “lots of problems” in performing their function. These problems were said to have arisen due to ongoing wrangling over the Nexbis deal.

While not wishing to comment on Nexbis’ allegations of possible criminal involvement in efforts to halt the project, the source claimed that a failure to implement a BCS like that being offered by the Malaysia-based firm would “strengthen the hand” of human traffickers operating in and out of the country.

The source said that the biometric systems included within Nexbis’ system were a step towards curbing a common practice of returning illegal immigrants – in some cases with criminal convictions – to the Maldives under new identities.

With the Supreme Court yet to decide on the legality of parliament’s decision to terminate the Nexbis agreement, Minivan News understands the company’s BCS is still being used at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) to screen arrivals.

However, the source said that Nexbis technical staff who had implemented the border system had been removed from the project, meaning that any bugs or issues with the technology were unable to be resolved.

“We need the system to capture biometric details from passengers in cases where people are changing names. This would make it impossible to create false passport under separate names as people are doing right now,” the source said.

The same source also said the automated system would allow authorities to run background checks on passengers on incoming flights.

A decision to uphold parliament’s decision to cancel the Nexbis agreement – a stance the government has said it will honour – would see immigration officials having to use “a pen and paper system” for monitoring immigration, the source claimed.

ACC view

The MVR 500 million (US$39 million) BCS project moved ahead last year after a series of high-profile court battles and delays that led Nexbis to last year threaten legal action against the Maldivian government should it incur losses for the work already done on the project.

The Malaysia-based mobile security provider has come under scrutiny by political parties who claim that the project is detrimental to the state, while the Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) has alleged corruption in the bidding process.

Despite Nexbis’ claims that “no implication” of corruption had been registered by the ACC, the corruption commission’s President Hassan Luthfee said his department would only have previously sent a case to the PG’s Office if it held concerns with the agreement.

However, Luthfee also conceded his department had been made aware of issues regarding human trafficking in and out of the country.

“We have received complaints about people smuggling to the country, but we have not been able to start an investigation as the size of such a case is beyond our capacity,” he claimed, adding that the ACC was not tasked to investigate such matters.

“This is just too big a case. [For example] there have been some claims that ships from Sri Lanka and India are travelling to the Maldives around 20 kilometres from Male’ and transferring people to fishing vessels, and from there they are distributed as laborers across the country. These are reports I have received.”

Migrant concerns

Speaking on January 13 at a ceremony to celebrate National Day, President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik stated the Maldives was being “forced” to take measures against changes to the “national character” due to the rising number of migrant workers in the country.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this month inaugurated an initiative targeted at raising awareness of the human trafficking issue in the Maldives.

The strategy, entitled ‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’ is expected to include activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community.

The Foreign Ministry announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with multiple local media outlets in the country as part of the campaign’s aim to raising awareness of human trafficking and other related issues.

Meanwhile, late last year, Indian authorities told Minivan News that tightened restrictions on providing medical visas to Maldivians was a “signal” for the country’s government to address a number of concerns about the nation’s treatment of migrant workers.