“Help me gain my freedom”: ex-immigration chief’s passport held in stalled corruption charge

The criminal court has held former controller of immigration Ilyas Hussein Ibrahim’s passport for a third consecutive year over stalled corruption charges, preventing him from visiting his family in New Zealand or sending them money through banks.

Ilyas, who served as the controller from 2008 – 2012, is accused of abusing authority for undue financial gain in a US$39 million border control system project. The charge carries a penalty of imprisonment, banishment or house arrest not exceeding three years.

“But my liberties have been constrained for a period nearly as long as a guilty verdict. I’ve been deprived of seeing my family, of spending on them. I cannot send them any money,” Ilyas told Minivan News.

Ilyas’s wife and two daughters have been residing in New Zealand since 2011.

At the case’s last hearing in 2012, chief judge Abdulla Mohamed said a verdict would be delivered at the next hearing, but three years later, Ilyas was told a new judge was now in charge of the case.

Judge Abdul Bari Yoosuf met with Ilyas and told him Judge Abdulla had failed to keep any record of case proceedings.

The case is symptomatic of the severe delays in completion of trials in the Maldives’ criminal justice system. In February this year, an Indian woman, arrested over the death of her child was released after four and a half years in pre-trial detention.

“I appeal to human rights organisations, both local and international, to empathise with my plight and help me gain my freedom,” Ilyas said.

He says he was threatened with death by anonymous sources when charges were first filed in 2012: “I cannot bring my family back here. If I do, I fear they too may be targeted.”

The criminal court was not responding at the time of going to press.

The prosecutor general’s office says it has no influence in expediting cases once charges are filed at the criminal court.

“We can only order the police to speed up investigations and file charges at the court promptly,” public prosecutor Ahmed Hisham Wajeeh said. “In a majority of criminal cases, liberties and freedoms are held. We would like to see cases reach completion as soon as possible. But there are delays with the criminal court, they do have a lot of challenges.”

Human rights NGO Maldivan Democracy Network said Ilyas’ case was an example of lack of justice in the Maldives. Serious corruption charges must be swiftly investigated and prosecuted, the organisation’s executive director Shahindha Ismail said, adding: ‘The court’s incompetence is no reason for the accused to suffer.”

Ilyas’ charges relate to the 2010 agreement signed between the Maldives and Malaysia-based Nexbiz Pvt Ltd for a border control system.

Under the agreement, the government has to pay Nexbiz US$2 for every foreigner processed through the system and US$15 for each work permit over the project’s 20-year life span.

The Anti-Corruption Commission ordered a halt to the project, claiming it would cost the Maldives US$162 million in potential lost revenue over the lifetime of the contract.

The ACC filed for an injunction and the Supreme Court in 2013 ruled the watchdog has no authority to suspend contracts. But by then, the parliament had voted to terminate the contract and replace it with the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES) provided by the US government.

Ilyas was appointed as the state minister for defence months after his brother Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan assumed the presidency in 2012.

“My wish is to be free of the torture this brutal government is inflicting on me. To be able to live a dignified life with my wife and children,” Ilyas said.


Half of workers in Maldives are foreigners: Economic Development Minister

Minister of Economic Development Mohamed Saeed has said that there are over 116,000 expatriates working in the Maldives, amounting 50 percent of the working population.

Speaking at an event held to celebrate the inauguration of a programme to train 2000 salespeople, Saeed said that 81,000 Maldivians are currently registered as employed at the pensions office – equal to 23 percent of the population.

The preliminary results of last year’s census officially recorded the number of foreign workers at 58,000, though the government has previously admitted the figure to be much higher, even after the removal of 8000 undocumented workers last year.

Saeed noted that while 81,000 expatriates in the Maldives worked with proper visa and documentation, approximately 35,000 were working illegally, reported Haveeru, costing the Maldivian economy MVR1.28 billion (US$83 million) annually.

The government’s drive to build the economy on ‘Maldivian work for Maldivians’ has seen a restriction on foreign photographers working in the country, while it will be illegal to hire expatriates as cashiers from April onwards.

Saeed is reported to have told those in attendance yesterday that Maldivians must be willing to work in all types of job.

“Maldivians need to make jobs a high priority. One can’t be a resort owner in one day,” he said.

“A road sweeper could become a manager of a big office tomorrow. You need courage to be successful,” said the waiter turned cabinet minister, sharing his personal story of success.

He stated that the economic growth for this year “stands at 10.4 percent”. Figures from the Maldives Monetary Authority estimate last year’s growth as 8.5 percent.

Youth employment has been a major focus of the Yameen administration, which has pledged to create 94,000 new jobs during its five year term.

Local youth-led NGO Democracy House states unemployment among the youth (aged 15-24) may be as high as 43 percent, with the group having highlighted a “disconnect” between the current school curriculum and life skills.

While the government has established a youth unemployment register with 13,000 individuals, youth minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal has reported complaints from businesses about individuals failing to attend interviews and quitting jobs within a few weeks.

Former Maldives Airports Company Ltd head Bandhu Ibrahim Saleem – dismissed last month – told a Majlis committee in December that difficulties with local staff had resulted in a dependence on foreign employees, to keep the international airport running.

Also speaking at yesterday’s ceremony, Minister of Finance and Treasury Abdulla Jihad suggested that the government’s Special Economics Zone (SEZ) Act would also create large numbers of jobs.

“36 percent of the Maldivian population is the youth,” Haveeru reported Jihad as saying. “The SEZs is an example of how much the government prioritises the youth’s welfare”.

The controversial legislation, which promises to deregulate as-yet unspecified areas of the country in order to attract foreign investors was passed in August last year.

Despite a lack of investments having resulted as yet, governing coalition leader Ahmed ‘Sun Travel’ Shiyam claimed last weekend that the government would bring investments, the likes of which the country had not seen before.

Related to this story

Foreigners barred from cashier jobs as President promises work for Maldivians

Almost 8,000 undocumented workers deported, says defence minister

Economic Ministry stops issuing work permits to foreign photographers


Dismissed Defence Minister’ passport held by authorities

The passport of former defence minister Mohamed Nazim has been held by the department of immigration and emigration through a Criminal Court order, say media reports.

State TV broadcaster MBC reported that Nazim’s legal team had confirmed immigration is holding the passport.

Nazim – who was also acting health minister and head of immigration – was dismissed from his post on January 20, three days after police raided his apartment in the Galolhu ward under a court warrant.

Speaking to the media on the day of his dismissal, Nazim said that recent events had shown that no Maldivian was assured of safety and security.

Minivan News contacted department of immigration’s spokesman Hassan Khaleel who stated that travel plans of individuals cannot be revealed and so refused to provide confirmation regarding reports that Nazim’s passport has been held.

Nazim himself refused to comment on the matter, referring Minivan News to his lawyer Azima Shukoor who was not responding to calls at the time of publication.

Criminal Court Spokesman Ahmed Mohamed Manik said the relevant authorities will receive such court orders and that he is unable to confirm anything more.

Following Nazim’s dismissal Maldives Police Services (MPS) told the press that they had found dangerous weapons at Nazim’s house during the search, though they denied knowing it was Nazim’s home before the raid.

“Nazim and some of his family members were questioned regarding the weapons but they failed to adequately respond to the questions,” said Spokesman for Commissioner of Police Ahmed Shifan.

Meanwhile on January 22 Nazim’s legal team published a statement stating that he did not commit any act in violation of the law and that “he would like to assure everyone that he would not do anything in violation of the law in the future.”

Immigration are also currently holding the passport of former Deputy Speaker of the Majlis and Progressive Party of Maldives MP Ahmed Nazim though police have not revealed the details of the investigation.

Related to this story

Nazim dismissed as defence minister, replaced by Moosa Ali Jaleel

Dangerous weapons found in Nazim’s house during raid, say Police

Police raid Defence Minister Nazim’s home in early hours

Opposition condemns Defense Minister Nazim’s apartment raid


Yameen bring changes to state institutions following Nazim dismissal

President Abdulla Yameen has brought changes to a number of ministries and state institutions in the aftermath of Colonel (ret.) Mohamed Nazim’s dismissal as defence minister.

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Mohamed Shainee was today appointed to the vacated acting health minister’s position, while Minister of Home Affairs Umar Naseer has been appointed president of the Local Government Association (LGA).

Additionally, the Department of Immigration and Emigration – under Nazim’s remit as part of the defence ministry since December 2012 – has been reallocated to the Ministry of Economic Development.

Meanwhile, the President’s Office has revealed that Ibrahim ‘Bandhu’ Saleem has been removed from the post of Maldives Airports Company Limited’s managing director. Saleem confirmed this to Minivan News stating that no reason had been given for his dismissal.

President’s Office Spokesman Ibrahim Muaz explained that the president has the power and authority to appoint and dismiss political appointees and that specific reasons for a decision would be shared with the media when they were available.

Yesterday’s dismissal of Nazim came as a result of a police investigation into illegal weapons being kept in the minister’s home. He had been in the position since February 2012 – one of the first appointments made by President Dr Mohamed Waheed following the controversial resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed.

Nazim had been given the health portfolio after pro-government MPs blocked the renomination of Dr Mariyam Shakeela to the cabinet in August last year. Shakeela later alleged a conspiracy and smear campaign to remove her from office.

At the time of his dismissal, Nazim was also facing challenges from within the Local Government Authority, to which President Yameen had appointed him in November 2013. Last week fellow board members voted to remove him from the position of president following a contested vote of no-confidence.

Meanwhile, Haveeru has published corruption allegations against Nazim’s brother, State Trading Organisation Managing Director Adam Azim.

The paper reported that it has obtained a copy of an Anti-Corruption Commission report which says Azim attempted to use the state-owned company’s money to influence the Football Association of Maldives’ congress.

Haveeru suggested the report revealed attempts to have a relative appointed to the post of FAM president through sponsorship money given to football clubs with voting rights in the congress.

Elsewhere, the Judicial Services Commission today elected Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed as its chair.

Hameed was appointed to the judicial watchdog by President Abdulla Yameen yesterday after the commissions Supreme Court representative Adam Mohamed resigned from the commission on Sunday (January 18) citing personal reasons.

Related to this story

Nazim dismissed as defence minister, replaced by Moosa Ali Jaleel


Immigration department boosts efforts to curb undocumented workers

The Department of Immigration and Emigration has said that it is strengthening action taken against those who employ or provide housing for undocumented migrant workers.

Deputy CEO of Immigration Abdulla Munaz said the department is strengthening the implementation of existing regulations because the provision of employment and shelter is a major cause is rising numbers of undocumented workers in the country.

“We will take whatever action is necessary. The actions [to be taken] are very clear in the existing laws. The immigration act allows to fine anyone that employs or provide accommodation for immigrants residing in the Maldives unlawfully,” said Munaz.

According to the department, employers will be fined between MVR15,000 and MRV50,000 if found to be unlawfully employing or housing an immigrant, while the removal of the right to employ foreign workers can result from employing even a single undocumented worker.

Rather than blacklisting companies, the department now targets employers engaged in the unlawful employment of foreign workers, preventing them from employing any migrant worker under their name.

In addition to the approximately 110,000 migrant workers employed in the Maldives, the number of undocumented workers have been estimated to be as high as 44,000. Many workers live at congested labor quarters owned by locals.

While some of these workers are engaged in manual labor, others are employed officially by companies and by individuals working for various industries such agriculture, construction, and fisheries – an industry in which foreign workers are not allowed.

As per immigration laws and regulations, foreign employees can only do the type of work for which the visa is issued and only for the employers with whom they are registered.

Voluntary repatriation program

Munaz said that the intention of stricter regulation is not take action against as many people, but to resolve the issue.

He described the voluntary repatriation programme announced last December as an opportunity for employers to get things right, as the department understands how widespread the employment of such workers are in the country.

The programme – offering leniency for undocumented migrant workers who wish to return to their home countries voluntarily on their own expenses – received huge support, according to the department.

By last week, approximately 4,400 workers out of 5,134 that registered for the programme had left the Maldives. Under the scheme, they will be allowed to return within six months of departure. According to immigration, on average 50 of these workers are now leaving Maldives daily.

“The reason we started that programme is because we noticed that a lot of foreign workers who are staying in Maldives unlawfully are forced to do so. They are not doing it intentionally, but circumstances they faced lead them to be in that situation,” explained Munaz.

“If we are to investigate each and every case to see if it was intentional or not, it would take a lot of time to achieve the primary objective of reducing the number of undocumented workers,” he continued.

Some workers are recruited unlawfully at the airport before they even meet the actual employer by promising higher wages and providing false information, said Munaz.

“These people don’t have documents and they actually want to leave. But they can’t. They don’t have their documents. So we helped them through their consulates to create a one way travel document so they could leave. We received a good cooperation from all embassies.”

Munaz said cases identified as human trafficking are forwarded to the police, and cases where there are labour right violations such as non-payment of wages are forwarded to the labour relations authority for further investigation.

“Sometimes employers let their foreign employees go, stop paying them wages, and ask them to go out and seek work on their own. In such cases the employees will not have any place to go, they may not have much savings.”

“Recently there was a case where a group of migrant workers were taken from Malé to another island to work, and after completing the work the employers went to another island and just left them there,” said Munaz.

Workers in such situations who voluntarily approach the department are provided with accommodation at the ‘Bidheysee Hiyaa’ safe house until their travel arrangements are made from the employer’s deposit at the department.

Those who are caught by the department are held at the Immigration Removal Center at Hulhumalé Prison until they are deported.

The People’s Majlis passed the country’s first anti-trafficking legislation last December following international criticism of the Maldives’ moves to prevent the practice.


“Good response” to voluntary repatriation program

On average one hundred workers are registering for the Department of Immigration and Emigration’s ongoing voluntary repatriation program for undocumented migrant workers each day, the department has said.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Deputy CEO of of the department Abdulla Munaz said although response had been low initially, more workers are registering now with more than 250 workers requesting for registration by Monday afternoon.

The voluntary repatriation program was designed to provide an opportunity for undocumented migrant workers to return to Maldives within six months and arrange their travel documents with ease.

If undocumented workers are deported they would not be allowed to return for ten years.

The program started on 23 December and will continue till 31 December 2013, and will reopen from 5 – 6 January 2014. Registration will go on from 0900hrs – 1700hrs on these days at Dharumavantha School, Male’.

Workers will be sent back to their countries within two days of registration. Repatriation under this program is voluntary and on the workers’ own expense. The government expects to repatriate between 5,000 – 10,000 workers.

Munaz said there are some undocumented workers who are in that situation because they were mistreated by local employers, and the department will start more rigorous monitoring and taking action against locals who employ and harbor undocumented workers.

“Our goal is not to take action against as many people, but this is a national issue and we will do whatever it takes to tackle this.” Munaz said.

He said that starting from January 2014, action will be taken against employers who are reported for not paying salaries for two consecutive months.

Instead of blacklisting agencies for malpractices, the department will start to ban the person responsible for such activity from future recruitment and will work with the Labor Relations Authority and Maldives Police Service to take all necessary action against such individuals.

The Immigration Act empowers the department to fine anyone who contravenes the act with an amount not exceeding MVR 50,000/- and the Controller of Immigration is given the authority of with \holding such a person’s passport.

Under the “Work Visa Regulation” the Controller of Immigration and Emigration has the authority to deport all migrant workers employed by an employer who contravenes the regulation. And with the Anti Human Trafficking Act coming to power, agencies and employers involved in acts of trafficking, exploitation and debt bondage will face criminal charges.

A connection between increasing number of undocumented migrant workers have been suggested by the Human Right Commission of the Maldives and the US State Department who have put Maldives on their Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for the fourth consecutive time this year.

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives earlier this year expressed concern over a mass repatriation program, saying that the state should provide such workers with their due wages and compensation before sending them off. A Labor Relations Authority and a Employment Tribunal was established under the Employment Act created to address such issues.


Voluntary repatriation program announced for undocumented workers

The Department of Immigration and Emigration has announced a special repatriation program offering leniency for undocumented migrant workers who wish to return to their home countries voluntarily on their own expenses.

The program is set to begin tomorrow (December 23) and will allow migrant workers to return to the Maldives within six months of departure. However, if workers are deported, they are not allowed to come back to the Maldives for ten years.

According to the Immigration department, the purpose of the new program is to register and regulate undocumented migrant workers.

The likelihood of repatriated workers returning to the Maldives to work illegally will be slim due to increased monitoring, Deputy CEO of Immigration Abdulla Munaz told local newspaper Haveeru

Munaz said that, even if a thousand workers are sent off each month, it would take the government 35 months to send off all undocumented workers.

While there is no  official data available on undocumented migrant workers, estimates have put it as high as 44,000.

The current program’s target is to repatriate 5,000 – 10,000 workers.

Registration will take place from 23 – 31 December 2013 and 5- 6 January 2014, on all working days between 0900hrs – 1700 hrs at Dharumavantha School, Male’. Workers are to be sent home within two days of registration.

On December 5, Immigration Controller Hassan Ali announced that the institution’s biggest focus in the first 100 days of Yameen’s government would be to address the issue of illegal immigrants.

The Maldives has been on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for four consecutive years. The US says the Maldives is a destination country for human trafficking, including sex trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage.

The Immigration department’s 100 day plan includes offering illegal immigrants a chance to change employees, and increasing the number of illegal immigrants who will be deported in 2014.

The immigration controller also revealed plans to re-register undocumented workers, establish an online system of obtaining work visas from Kulhudhuhfushi Island in northern Maldives and forming a single office to deal with all work related to migrant workers.

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives has previously expressed concern over a mass repatriation program this year. The commission said the state should provide such workers with their due wages and compensation before sending them off.


Bangladesh halts worker migration to the Maldives

Bangladesh has temporarily blocked its nationals from migrating to the Maldives – an action described by one key local employer as a response to decades of failure by Maldivian authorities to deal with “human trafficking” and labour management.

The ‘Dhaka Tribune’ newspaper reported yesterday (September 23) that the country’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) had decided to halt migration to the Maldives over concerns nationals were arriving in the country only to find promised jobs were not available.

It was believed that Bangladesh nationals were – in certain cases – becoming unwitting victims of a “section of unscrupulous recruiting agencies,” the report added.

BMET Director General Shamsun Nahar was quoted in local media as claiming that the number of workers from Bangladesh within the Maldives was thought to be at the “maximum limit” for such a small country.

The High Commissioner of Bangladesh in the Maldives, Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal, today confirmed that the decision was made to check on the eligibility of workers.

“This is a temporary measure for review, genuine job seekers will be allowed to come through the proper procedure,” he said, adding that there were no plans to inspect the wider employment practices of Bangladesh nationals in the country.

Maldives Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali said he had not received any notice of the decision, while other sources in his department were only aware of the matter through media reports.

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by brokers, paying a ‘recruitment’ fee – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin.

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 US State Department noting conditions of “forced labour: fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage” of expatriate workers.

Employer view

Former Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) President Mohamed Ali Janah said he was “shocked” by the position taken by Bangladesh authorities to halt migration.

“This represents the ongoing failure of labour management in the Maldives over the last two decades,” he said. “We have seen rampant corruption in how the labour management business has been run by organised criminals for a long time.”

Janah alleged that, as a result the action by Bangladeshi authorities this week, many businesses in the industry were likely to suffer “collateral damage” from the impact on the available foreign workforce.

“We need at least 2,000 to 3,000 workers in the next two weeks for a number of projects overseen by my company,” he said.

Janah said that while his company wished to employ a larger number of Maldivian staff, even if he paid wages of MVR10,000 (US$650) he claimed there was limited interest among the local population to be labourers.

While Janah estimated earlier this year that the country’s illegal foreign workforce was potentially at 100,000 people, he said the failure to implement a functioning system of labour management in the Maldives had made it hugely difficult to find legitimate workers among the expatriate population.

“Why would we want to hire potentially illegal labour, we don’t know who these people are,” he said. “We have a huge number of projects in the country right now, so we will have to find the people to work, even if it is from China or Cambodia or another country.”

According to Janah, the alleged mismanagement of foreign labour in the country could be resolved within months if local authorities took a genuine effort to resolve the problems through measures such as proper screening of foreign nationals or even DNA testing.

He argued, however, that such a focus would require an elected government with a democratic mandate to conduct such work.

Earlier this year, the Immigration Department confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the year.

This pledge to return a predetermined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were being punished for the actions of employers and agents acting outside the law.


Visa crisis hitting hiring and business, say resorts

Major resort operators in the Maldives have expressed serious concern with the country’s escalating visa crisis, claiming a failure to resolve the ongoing problems is leading to an inability to hire critical foreign personnel and stranding existing workers in the country.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, management for several exclusive resort properties in the Maldives expressed alarm that inefficiencies processing visas were not only preventing the hiring of foreign workers, but also preventing staff from being able to leave the country.

These concerns were aired as the Department of Immigration expressed confidence it would be able to clear a backlog of visa documentation for foreign workers, during an 11 day period in which it would not be accepting new applications.

Immigration authorities said the halt was necessary to improve service by clearing a backlog of documents uploaded online, however multiple resorts accused the department of being “inefficient” and “sporadic”.

A senior representative for one multinational group operating properties across the country said the company’s human resources team had raised issues with immigration not accepting visa applications between August 8 to August 18.

The source said the concerns reflected a wider problem with hiring foreign staff. The company said the delays had forced it to delay hiring vital staff, which was impacting the guest experience.

The general manager of another exclusive resort agreed that a failure to address ongoing problems obtaining visas for foreign nationals remained a “real issue”.

“We have staff members whose visas have now expired who cannot leave the country for various reasons such as annual leave, and sometimes really serious issues,” the manager said.

The source claimed that services provided by the country’s immigration department was “sporadic”, with individual applications taking an unpredictable amount of time to be processed.

“This all needs to be done by one government department instead of three, and the entire system needs less people working more efficiently,” the manager added.

The resort source said the decision of immigration authorities to suspend new applications for work visas for 11 days this month had hampered efforts to recruit needed staff during the busy Eid period.

Public sector

Despite the concerns raised by private employers, Health Ministry Permanent Secretary Geela Ali said state authorities had been consulted by immigration authorities in advance of not accepting visa applications.

Geela said that as a major employer of foreigners, both the health and education ministries had been given a period of two to three days to fast track any urgent requests for expatriate labour in order to minimise impacts to their operations while the visa system was “repaired”.

She added that while there would still be some difficulties for the ministries due to the ongoing work by immigration officials, the work was anticipated to allow for a more efficient visa system after completion.

Immigration Department Spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf told Minivan News that the expat online system remained functional this week, although users would be unable to submit any visa applications for processing.

“Thousands of documents have been uploaded and there seem to be a number of counterfeit documents among these,” he said. “We are confident this this backlog will be cleared and new staff have also now been trained to oversee work going forward.”

The immigration department has previously announced that it would be hiring 30 staff to help oversee a comprehensive audit of the visa system.

Ashraf claimed that there was particular concern about business and individual applicants looking to obtain a foreign worker quota or visa by uploading documents that were either incorrect, irrelevant or fraudulent .

Immigration officials earlier this year dismissed reports of a “flaw” in the country’s online expatriate registration system, instead expressing concern that the technology was open to abuse by registered companies.

The Immigration Department confirmed at the time that authorities faced challenges in verifying whether construction projects were real, or a front to smuggle foreign labour into the country, but told Minivan News it had expected to resolve the issue by July.

Trapped in the Maldives

Minivan News has in recent months been informed of a growing number expatriates working in both the public and private sector who have been stranded in the Maldives by immigration authorities due to a failure of state and private employers to renew visa documentation.