Almost 8,000 undocumented workers deported, says defence minister

The department of immigration has deported or repatriated 7,962 undocumented foreign workers so far this year under a voluntary departure programme, Minister of Defence Colonel (Retired) Mohamed Nazim has revealed.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Nazim claimed that the benefit of the deportations to the domestic economy was worth US$24 million a year.

“122 companies and private parties have been fined for hiring foreigners illegally and they have been prohibited from bringing in further [foreign workers],” he added.

Additionally, 21 places were raided in an operation to deport illegal migrant workers, he continued, which took place in Addu City, Laamu Atoll, Kaafu Atoll, and Alif Alif Atoll.

A fine of MVR50,000 (US$3,242) is specified in the law for hiring illegal migrant workers and deported foreigners are not allowed to return to the Maldives for ten years.

The immigration department deported 6,400 undocumented workers between January and July this year.

On April 24, Nazim announced a special operation to deport undocumented workers, promising that “the whole of Malé will be cleaned [of migrant workers]” within three weeks.

In December 2012, former President Dr Mohamed Waheed transferred the immigration department from the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Ministry of Defence and National Security.

Of the 7,962 deported workers, Nazim noted that 6,590 voluntarily requested repatriation, 69 left due to poor health, and 890 were deported for violations of the law.

A further 407 workers were deported due to various problems, he added.

Census results and human trafficking

Asked if the preliminary results of the national census conducted in September – which found the expatriate population to be 58,683 – were accurate, Nazim said the figure did not match the government’s official records.

Nazim suggested that census takers were unable to gather accurate information due to either lack of cooperation from expatriates or failure to locate foreign workers.

“Looking at our total statistics, our records show that there are 120,000 foreigners,” he revealed, adding that the estimate for illegal or undocumented workers was 30,000.

Some members of the public were hiding undocumented workers, he continued, urging the public to work with the government to tackle the issue.

In a recent visit to Raa atoll, Nazim said island councils in three islands informed him that there were about 150 undocumented workers hidden from the authorities by their employees.

“So this can be done if councils, islanders, and the government work together to deport foreigners,” he said.

Nazim also revealed that MVR181 million (US$11 million) had been collected as work visa fees by the end of October, MVR198 million (US$12.8 million ) as security deposits, and MVR30 million (US$1.9 million) was given out for deposit refunds.

A secondary passport verification system was meanwhile established at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) and the foreign employment section of the immigration system with the help of the International Organisation for Migration.

In addition to the repatriated or deported foreign workers, Nazim said 1,172 individuals were denied entry to the country – including 82 individuals with invalid passports, 503 individuals without employment approval, and 582 individuals turned away for other reasons.

While 3,102 individuals were granted business visas, Nazim said 770 individuals were granted special visas.

A MoU has been signed between the immigration department and National Centre for Information Technology (NCIT) to strengthen the expatriate online system.

Nazim also said efforts were underway to locate expatriates involved in human trafficking who were based in the capital Malé, including Indians, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshis.

However, attempts to use the Maldives as a transit point or “gateway” for human trafficking – including sending foreign fighters to Syria – have proven unsuccessful due to the new passport verification system, he said.

“However, individuals traveling to the Maldives on fake or fraud visas were stopped and sent back,” he said.

In four cases of human trafficking investigated this year, Nazim said five victims were identified and 77 staff were trained to investigate such cases.

In June this year, the Maldives was removed the US State Department Tier 2 watch list for human trafficking and avoided relegation to Tier 3 along with the accompanying sanctions.

The 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report noted that an unknown number of the approximately 200,000 expatriate workers in the country experienced forced labour.

Among the advice given in the report was the development of guidelines for public officials to “proactively identify” victims, noting that thousands of migrants have been deported recently without adequate screening for indications of trafficking.


LGA recommends making councillors part-time

The Local Government Authority (LGA) has recommended making councillors part-time with the exception of council presidents and vice presidents.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Defence Minister Colonel (Retired) Mohamed Nazim – who chairs the institution tasked with monitoring councils and coordinating with the government – said the LGA has proposed amending the Decentralisation Act to pay part-time councillors an allowance for attending council meetings.

“For example, a teacher or a headmaster level person or someone with higher educational qualifications, they will have the opportunity to contest [council elections]; or for example if it’s a skilled person, a boat builder, they will only have to come for meetings and they’re done after giving their advice and opinion,” Nazim explained.

“The president and vice president will operate the council. Instead, now they have to leave their profession – the teacher, headmaster or boat builder has to give up his job.”

As a consequence, Nazim contended, the councillors’ time was not put to productive use.

“The benefit of [the changes] is that the councillor has to work a very short amount of time and be free to work productively for the island’s development,” he added.

Wage bill

The president of island councils currently receive a monthly salary and allowance of MVR15,000 (US$973) while council members receive MVR11,000 (US$713). The mayor of Malé is paid MVR45,000 (US$2,918) a month.

The president and vice president of councils are elected from among the members by secret ballot.

A total of MVR717 million (US$46 million) was allocated in the 2011 national budget to pay salaries and allowances for local councils, which accounted for 17 percent of the annual wage bill.

Under article 25 of the Decentralisation Act, a five-member council is elected in islands with a population of less than 3,000, a seven-member council for islands with a population between 3,000 and 10,000, and a nine-member council for islands with a population of more than 10,000.

City councils comprise of “an elected member from every electoral constituency of the city” and atoll councils comprises of “elected members from the electoral constituencies within the administrative division.”

The current model of more than 1,000 elected councillors approved in 2010 by the then-opposition majority parliament was branded “economic sabotage” by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government, which had proposed limiting the number of councillors to “no more than 220.”

The new layer of government introduced with the first local council elections in February 2011 cost the state US$12 million a year with a wage bill of US$220,000 a month.

Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad told parliament’s Budget Review Committee last year that President Abdulla Yameen favoured revising the local government framework to reduce the number of island and atoll councillors.

In November 2013, the incoming administration proposed merging island and atoll councils, with the latter to be composed of a representative from each island of the atoll.

President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz said at the time that “the president’s thinking is not to cut down on the number of councillors. But to elect councilors based on the population of the islands. This is a move to curb state expenditure.”

However, parliament did not move to amend the Decentralisation Act ahead of the local council elections on January 18, which saw 1,100 councillors elected for  three-year terms.

Three-year terms

Nazim meanwhile told the press yesterday that the LGA’s recommendations have been shared with the government and the legislature.

While the proposals were intended to reduce the state’s recurrent expenditure – which accounts for over 70 percent of the budget – Nazim said the LGA does not support changing the council’s term from three to five years.

Contending that the legal responsibility of local councils was implementing the government’s policies, Nazim said voters should have the opportunity to change their elected representatives during an ongoing five-year presidential term.

“Citizens get an opportunity to see what kind of results the council produced and the extent to which they upheld the government’s policies,” he said.

Nazim said that LGA Deputy Chair Ahmed Faisal’s public remarks concerning combining the local council and parliamentary elections represented his personal opinion.

The defence minister noted that the Elections Commission has yet to announce official results of the local council elections – held eleven days ago – and that conducting the polls simultaneously would create present difficulties for the commission.

In December, the World Bank warned in a report that the Maldivian economy was at risk due to excessive government spending, with an already excessive wage bill ballooned by 55 percent in 2013.