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.


Immigration department discontinues quota for house maids

The department of immigration has temporarily ceased issuing quotas to employment agencies for bringing in expatriate house maids or domestic servants.

According to local media, the department would not be issuing employment approval for house maids from August 21 to November 30 as part of efforts to clamp down on illegal immigrants.

The move follows a freeze on issuing quotas for farmers, tailors and barbers earlier this month.

An immigration official told newspaper Haveeru that house maids were often thrown out by their employers.

“These immigrants survive by doing odd jobs and any other kind of work they can find. Most of these immigrants have come as housemaids. Identifying the vocation with other vocations that may facilitate human trafficking, we have decided to discontinue allowing quota for housemaids even. This move will restrict illegal immigration,” the official was quoted as saying.

He added that the restriction would encourage hiring Maldivians for vacancies.

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

special operation to deport undocumented workers was announced on April 24, with Minister of Defence and National Security Mohamed Nazim – also in charge of the immigration department – promising “the whole Malé will be cleaned [of migrant workers]” within three weeks.


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.


Male’ immigration shelter opened as Maldives pressured over migrant rights

An immigration shelter intended to temporarily house unregistered and illegal immigrants is now up and running in Male’ as part of the government’s efforts to provide a more “humane” means of tackling immigration problems in the country.

Authorities have so far declined to provide exact details to media on the capacity or amenities available at the site, which the Maldives government has claimed will help to alleviate problems arising from the number of unregistered workers in the country at present.

With civil society, industry bodies and international experts continuing to raise concerns about the treatment and number of unregistered foreign workers in the Maldives in recent years, the country has come under increasing pressure to safeguard rights of migrants and curb people trafficking.

The Maldives has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row. Should it drop to tier three – the worst category- then the country is expected to face significant reductions in aid and potential travel restrictions on its citizens.

According to President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad, the immigration shelter, which was opened last month on Orchid Magu in Male’, forms part of a strategy to try and clear up the problems associated with illegal immigrants in the Maldives.

Masood contended that illegal or unregistered migrant workers were proving to be a significant drain on the national economy, with the shelter providing temporary accommodation before they can be repatriated.

The President’s Office recommended specific questions on the shelter be forwarded to the Department of Immigration and Emigration.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali has confirmed to Minivan News that the site was now operational, but did not divulge any more information at time of press on how it would function or the facilities available.

“We will bring out a statement later,” he said. Minivan News is presently awaiting a response from immigration officials to a request to visit the shelter.

Shelter for undocumented foreign migrants, Orchid Magu, Male'

The government has in recent months launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, while also last month ratifying eight “fundamental” International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions intended to bring legislation on employee rights and trade unions in line with international standards.

However, independent institutions in the Maldives have maintained that the country is yet to ratify a core convention on protecting migrant worker rights, while no legislation is in place to punish those involved in smuggling workers though the country’s borders.

The Prosecutor General (PG’s) Office has also confirmed that a lack of legislation has meant no cases have been prosecuted against human traffickers in the Maldives at present.

“Corrupt immigration practices”

Just last month, a Maldivian trade union alleged that corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers was limiting efforts to curb abuse of migrant workers and prevent illegal practices such as retaining their passports.

The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) claimed that while companies are not permitted to retain the passports of foreign workers, some hospitality operators – as well as unregulated third party agencies and government ministries – are still keeping employee travel documents without consent.

At the same time, a source with knowledge of the current immigration system told Minivan News that the practice of retaining passports – a long-standing habit of Maldivian employers – was a key contributor to human trafficking in the country.

“This is a common practice seen all over the world. But it creates major problems. If a foreigner wishes to go to law enforcement agencies for assistance, they will be asked to identify themselves with a passport,” the source said.

Third party agencies appeared to want to keep the passports to be able to “manipulate” foreign workers for their own financial advantage, the source explained.


Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has accused state and private sector employers in the country of lacking consistency in their efforts to address human trafficking, preventing “real” change in controlling illegal migration.

Speaking back in February 2013, HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud told Minivan News that despite attempts under the present government to try and introduce new legislation, the Maldives had made little progress towards improving the treatment and rights of foreign workers over the last four years.

Addressing the current scope of unregistered foreign labour, Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) President Mohamed Ali Janah said an estimated 40 percent of the foreign employees in the sector were thought not to be legally registered.

Considering these numbers, Janah said he could not rule out the involvement of organised crime in certain employment agencies, which supply a large amount of foreign labour to building sites in the Maldives.


Foreign Ministry stalls return of 8000 “ownerless” passports

The Foreign Ministry has stalled attempts to hand over almost 8000 foreign passports to their respective High Commissions, claiming details regarding the owners whereabouts still needed to obtained by immigration authorities, local media has reported.

State Foreign Minister Hassan Saeed said the Foreign Ministry will only deliver the passports to the respective consular authorities once immigration clarifies the location of the owners, a task described as “huge” and “difficult” by Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali.

Saeed claimed the number of foreigners who had not left the Maldives while on temporary travel documents was close to the number of ownerless passports held at immigration, local media reported.

“We have a number of foreigners who have left the Maldives on temporary travel documents. But if that number does not match with the passports and if we try to hand over the passports there will be complaints, and questions asked over the quantity of the passports and the whereabouts of the holders,” Saeed was quoted as telling local newspaper Haveeru.

Dr Ali told Minivan News on Tuesday that it would be a “huge task” to obtain the details needed before the passports could be handed over to the respective High Commissions.

Asked if it was realistic to expect immigration to find the whereabouts and details of the owners of all 8000 passports, Ali said such feat would be a “difficult task”.

According to local media the exact number of expatriates in the Maldives is unknown. However immigration statistics show there are 120,000 registered expatriates who regularly pay their visa fees and a further 40,000 illegal immigrants.

Ali told local media that the majority of the passports are from Bangladesh, however there were passports from India and Sri Lanka as well.

An official from the Indian High Commission said the passports should be returned to the respective governments, as they posed a security risk.

The official condemned the practice of Maldivian employers – including some government departments – withholding the passports of their employees: “Keeping someone’s passport is a threat on a private level.

“Passports should belong to the person and no one else. It is a security risk for individuals to not have their passport in their possession,” the official said.

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

The Maldives has come under strong criticism internationally in recent years over its lack of effort to prevent people trafficking, with the country appearing on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking three years in a row.

Speaking at the recent inauguration of the Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Abdul Samad Abdulla stated the initiative formed part of a larger plan to try and addressing human trafficking in the Maldives.

“We have been conducting a lot of work to deal with the issue, though it may be generally a little known fact,” Samad claimed. “Our intention now is to work together with local media outlets and create more awareness about the issue. I would like to request media cooperate in this initiative.”

The Foreign Ministry also announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with multiple local media outlets in the country to conduct the Blue Ribbon Campaign.

Minivan News was awaiting a response from the Foreign Ministry at time of press.


Immigration head calls for “clean-up” of Thilafushi over crime fears

Controller of Immigration and Emigration Dr Mohamed Ali  has said that a raid on the island of Thilafushi yesterday which uncovered 134 unregistered foreign workers reflects wider fears over criminal operations being conducted on the island.

Dr Ali told Minivan News that the group of foreign workers, mostly Bangladesh nationals, had been uncovered after the Immigration Department had made continued warnings to employers on the island to have their workers “regularised” with the correct papers by the end of August.

Beyond failing to register workers, the immigration controller said the raid reflected wider concerns over addressing potential criminal operations on Thilafushi – popularly referred to in international media as the Maldives’ ‘rubbish island’.

“Right now there are just so many issues to be addressed on Thilafushi,” he claimed. “We need to clean it up in all aspects. We believe there are a number of illegal operations there.”

According to the immigration department, these alleged activities are thought to include the  shipping of illegal goods and drugs.

Dr Ali added that the expatriate workers found without correct papers were presently being kept for processing in Male’.

“At present they’re employers are working to take them back and have them processed,” he said.

The immigration controller did not have the exact figures on the number of workers presently being kept at a centre in Male’ while their papers were undergoing processing.

“These workers are not being detained, they are being kept comfortably and fed while processing is going on,” he added.

The High Commissioner of Bangladesh, Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal, said he had been aware of the raid that had taken place yesterday by the Department of Immigration and Emmigration, but was awaiting for information on the matter at the time of press.

Back in May, 47 Bangladeshi nationals working for a local security were seized by the Department of Immigration as part of a wider crackdown on illeal immigrants after being found to have been incorrectly registered in the country.

Police Spokesperson Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed that it had worked with the Department of Immigration and Emmigration on the raid as part of a joint operation.

Haneef added that this joint operation with immigration officials would be continuing in the future, but would not be focused solely on Thilafushi

Back in July, the Maldives was included on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for a third year in a row.


Police release suspects in human trafficking case

Police have released suspects arrested for their alleged involvement in the human trafficking network that exposed last month, Haveeru reports, after the Criminal Court found no grounds to detain them.

The number of suspects released is unknown.

Five Maldivians and 12 expatriates were previously arrested for their alleged roles in the human trafficking network, said to worth up to US$123 million. The ring reportedly to forged over 70 local investments using copies of national identity cards belonging to individuals who were uninformed or deceased.

None of the suspects released today were expatriates involved in that particular case, Haveeru News reports.

Minivan News earlier reported that human trafficking has replaced the fishing industry as the Maldivian economy’s second greatest contributor of foreign currency.


Immigration department receives complaints of foreigners selling local produce

The Department of Immigration is receiving complaints from the public of foreigners selling local produce brought to Male’ from the atolls.

Controller of Immigration Ilyas Hussein told Voice of Maldives that owners of stalls at the local market had requested the deportation of illegal migrant workers in the market area.

Ilyas said local businesses have been informed not to employ foreigners without valid work visas.

Meanwhile, the Human Resources Ministry has launched a joint operation with police to identify illegal immigrants in the atolls, reports Haveeru.

Deputy Minister Hussein said the ministry was collecting information from island offices and confiscating passports, which will be sent to the Department of Immigration.

The deportation process will be handled by the department using deposit funds, he said, adding that the ministry received a list of about 30 people last week from Laamu and Seenu atolls.

The Human Resource Ministry estimates that there are 16,000 illegal immigrants in the country.