The Maldives Department of Immigration and Emigration has detained 75 illegal workers this week, and is currently investigating how many are victims of corrupt employment practices.
An immigration official, who asked not to be identified, said an unspecified number of the 75 expatriate workers detained in Male’ on Tuesday (June 4) had already been released as authorities sought to clarify the exact reasons for how they had ended up working in the capital’s market area.
Foreign nationals are not permitted under Maldives law to work at the market area, according to the Immigration Department.
Despite this, a total of 57 foreign workers were seized by authorities in April this year after having been found working at the market area of Male’.
A police media official confirmed yesterday (June 5) that officers had assisted in detaining 75 “illegal aliens” from the local market area of Male’, referring all further enquiries to the country’s immigration service, which has taken responsibility for the workers.
Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press to confirm how many of the detained foreigners were presently expected to be sent to the department’s “processing centre” – a gated compound on the island of Hulhumale’. Unregistered expatriates are usually kept at the centre before being sent back to their respective countries.
Immigration Department Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz – charged with overseeing the service’s monitoring and repatriation efforts – has meanwhile said that authorities were expecting to decide within the next 48 hours how many of the 75 expatriates may face deportation. With investigations ongoing into the case, he said that no further details on the detained workers could be made public at present, with an official announcement expected in the next few days.
The Maldives has come under increasing pressure to tackle the issue of unregistered expatriates, with the country appearing on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking. The country has appeared on the list for three years in a row.
Immigration Controller Dr Ali has previously told Minivan News that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrive under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.
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.
The immigration source claimed that the country’s expatriate monitoring service was in the process of trying to individually identify whether the detained workers should be released, or deported.
The source said all those detained had not been registered to work in the market area, although some were suspected of being illegally made to do so by their legal employers.
“The paperwork is being done now to try to identify the people who are being put to work at these places by their employers,” the Immigration Department figure added. “These people are working in places where they are not registered to do so and we need to know why is this happening. Some of the employers are giving [the department] a different story to those provided by the expatriates.”
The anonymous source said that authorities would also be looking to take action against employers who may be supplying illegal labour.
The same source has claimed that the majority of the 75 detained workers were suspected of having absconded illegally from their Maldivian employer to seek better paid work elsewhere in the country.
Late last month, Immigration Department CEO Munaaz said his department had recently become aware of individuals posing as recruitment agents who were travelling to airports to poach foreign workers by promising them resort positions or higher pad jobs than the work they may have originally been brought to the country for. Whether these jobs really exist is unknown.
“Now we have started to identify how this is being done and we are working to stop this,”Munaaz said at the time. “We know there are agents living here in Male’, some who are foreign nationals from the same countries, and they are bringing people over. We are in the process of breaking these rings.”
Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by such brokers, paying a ‘recruitment’ fee or entering into debt – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin, most significantly Bangladesh.
In many cases the workers are then brought into the country ‘legitimately’ by a specially-created paper company, created using the ID of a complicit or unwitting Maldivian national, for the stated purpose of working on a ‘construction project’ of dubious existence.
Senior immigration sources have confided to Minivan News that almost no human verification was undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.
Moreover, despite the size and scale of the practice, not a single recruitment agent or labour trafficker has appeared before a Maldivian court.
While the government earlier this year launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, NGOs and institutions continue to identify human trafficking as a significant issue needing to be addressed in the country.
Human rights groups in the Maldives have for instance continued to criticise the present and former governments for failing to pass legislation that would allow authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking. The legal measures to do so are presently under review in parliament.
In February, former President Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) Mohamed Ali Janah claimed that 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.