Border loopholes benefit human traffickers: Immigration Controller

“If one country has a loophole, all countries suffer,” said Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid, referring to the Maldives’ lack of a border control system amidst rising concerns over human trafficking. “The present border control system is only helping human traffickers.”

Authorities have reported a daily increase in human trafficking to the Maldives, particularly in the case of expatriate workers. The industry has a calculated value of US$123 million, making it the second largest contributor of foreign currency.

“This is a serious issue, there are about 40,000 illegal workers in the Maldives right now,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem. “A border control system would be useful, especially in the future for maintenance. But there is a lot to do within the country as well, and we are currently trying to address these matters.”

The Maldives currently uses an eight year-old, outdated border control system. Plans to upgrade to a modern system have been delayed for over a year on allegations of corruption.

In November 2010, the government approved a Rf500 million (US$39 million) Border Control System by Malaysia’s Nexbis Limited, proposed by the Department of Immigration and Emigration.

Shortly thereafter, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) requested that the agreement be halted due to “a serious public complaint” alleging corrupt dealings. The President upheld the ACC’s request in January 2011, by in May the Cabinet approved the program.

The ACC subsequently renewed its concerns and filed a case at the Civil Court and submitted a report to the Prosecutor General’s (PG) office earlier this month. The report accuses Former Controller Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim and Director General of Finance Ministry, Saamee Aqeel, then head of the Tender Board, for allegedly abusing their authority for undue financial gain.

Nexbis threatened legal action over the delay, citing millions of dollars in losses over equipment already imported to the Maldives. Shahid noted that the equipment is still sitting in Customs.

Immigration matters

Shahid said the public misconception that Immigration is a mundane department doing no-brainer tasks has led to a general misunderstanding of need for a border control system.

“Immigration personnel have to be trained to detect forgery, to profile passengers–we recently had courses for officers on how to detect physical alterations like makeup.

“In general, the public is not aware of the system’s value. It is to everyone’s benefit, even distant countries, to have a strong border control system in the Maldives. Terrorism and human trafficking involve other countries and their borders. If we have good communication, starting at Immigration, and a system, then we have good results.”

Currently a passport check requires an individual to manually scan hundreds of photographs, Shahid said. Without the key components of a modern system – facial recognition, finger-print identification technology, and eye scans – “people who were deported on criminal violations can re-enter the country. If they have a new or fake passport, we rarely detect them with our current system,” Shahid explained.

“A passport is just a piece of paper nowadays. The modern system, with the recognition technology, is almost a 100 percent guarantee of proper identification,” he added.

Nearby Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia have been using modern systems for years.

“I think the proof is strong enough”

Shahid believes that cases against Ibrahim and Aqeel will be difficult to ignore in a court of law.

When the Nexbis system was first considered, a proposal was sent by Immigration to the National Planning Council. According to Shahid’s review of the documents, the final contract drafted deviated significantly from the initial proposal.

“The proposed system could be implemented in six months for US$4-5 million, with the company charging a further US$150-200 thousand per year for maintenance,” he asserted.

“According to this, the Maldives would pay US$8 million in the first year to Nexbis. Over 20 years that would be US$4 million paid annually. That’s fair. But right now the Nexbis plan is one-third of the budget.”

Taxes are also a consideration, particularly given the high numbers of foreigners and expatriates traveling through the Maldives.

“In 2011 we are reaching 1 million foreign arrivals. If we charge US$2 for arrival and US$2 for departure, that’s US$4 per person. Annually, the government would collect US$4 million for Nexbis. It would break even.”

Nexbis proposed these charges as part of its 20-year contract with the government in 2010.

“This means that neither the government nor the Maldivian public have to pay in exchange for a state-of-the-art border security protection,” Nexbis earlier claimed.

Shahid also noted that GMR is expanding Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) to accommodate 3 million arrivals annually, indicating that revenue will increase.

Nexbis also planned to levy a US$15 fee for expatriate identification cards. With the current 100,000 registered expatriates, Shahid said, the company receives US$1.5 million annually from expatriate cards alone.

“Nexbis will get US$27.5 million in 2025, according to the current statistics,” he said. Calculating for a gradual increase of arrivals over the next 20 years, “the generated revenue could build an airport of GMR’s standards and implement an up-to-date border control system.”

According to Shahid’s calculations, the approximate cost in the first year of installment and operation (US$8 million) of a Nexbis-quality border control system is far lower than the cost proposed in the final contract (US$39 million).

Shahid earlier estimated that maintaining a free system given by a donor country would cost at most several hundred thousand dollars a year, and said he was unsure as to why such an agreement had ever been signed.

“I don’t know much about the details of the ACC’s report,” he concluded. “Since I saw the contract for the Nexbis system, my argument has always been that the amount charged is ridiculous. It should not be done and must be halted. It is wrong.”

Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim declined to comment on the grounds that the issue was “politically risky.”

The Nexbis case is currently the largest corruption case before the courts and PG, the ACC confirmed. While corruption charges are regularly issued in the Maldives, resolution at the PG level is not so common. Speaking to Minivan News on the occasion of International Anti-Corruption Day, ACC President Hassan Luthfee said that of the 16 cases filed with the PG this year, zero have been addressed.

Vice President Muaviz Rasheed today said the ACC had received no information from the PG, but was hoping for the Civil Court’s ruling by the end of this month.

“The Civil Court has not been cooperative with the ACC on all counts, however the hearings ended in late November and we expect a ruling within the month,” Muaviz said.

Banana republic?

Although Shahid is confident in the court, he is unsure when the Maldives will take actual steps towards updating its border control system.

Without local capacity and expertise to produce a state-of-the-art border control system, the Maldives would turn again to the international market. Shahid said there are many options: “we could go anywhere, we could even get it as foreign aid.”

But after the dealing with Nexbis, withstanding international scrutiny could be difficult.

“Nexbis sees the Maldives as a banana republic that it can squeeze money out of,” Shahid observed.

With a score of 2.5 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and ranking 134th out of 185 countries, the Maldives may not be so inviting to foreign investors.


Fewer expatriate detainments post-visa reform

Fewer expatriates have been detained for unpaid visa fees before leaving the country since Immigration Control adapted its policy to “international standard procedure,” Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid has said.

Previously, expatriate workers have been allowed to leave the Maldives without paying outstanding visa fees, Haveeru reports. The policy allegedly cost the Maldivian government Rf 120 million (US$7.8 million) last year.

Shahid told Haveeru that the Maldives’ former policy allowing expatriate workers to leave with outstanding visa fees was a rare case within the international community.

Immigration recently required recruitment agencies to pay visa fees for expatriate workers for a minimum of three months in a lump sum.

Shahid said that fees are non-refundable if a worker does not stay for a visa’s entire duration.


Parliament commences preliminary debate on amendment to Immigration Act

The parliament has commenced preliminary debate on an amendment presented by the government to the Immigration Act.

The amendment was presented to the parliament by Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Chairperson and MP ‘Reeco’ Moosa Manik on behalf of the government, with the intention of easing the process for investors and foreign businessmen to settle down in the Maldives.

If the amendment is passed, residential visas will be issued for persons mentioned in article 6[a] of the Immigration Act: a foreigner married to a Maldivian, or a former spouse of a Maldivian citizen who is assigned the guardianship of their child by a court of law.

A foreigner who has invested in a business which is declared by the Economic Ministry as a large investment will also be allowed a residential visa according to the new amendment presented, or foreigners who have invested in a government project to enhance the economy of the country.

Speaking in parliament’s sitting today Peoples Alliance (PA) MP Abdul Azeez Jamal Abubakur expressed concern that the bill would allow Israeli nationals to live in the Maldives, and that it was a threat to the sovereignty of the country.

Jamal said that the bill needs to clearly define how the Economic Ministry will determine the distinction between large businesses and investments, and how many persons can have residential visas.

He also alleged that the amendment was drafted with the intention of letting specific foreigners in the Maldives have residential visas, and said he would not support the amendment.

Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) MP and Parliamentary Group leader Riyaz Rasheed also alleged that the government was attempting to deploy Israelis to the Maldives and “make them wear white jubba [Arab garment] and promote their religion in this country.”

He also claimed that the government was intending to issue the residential visas to foreigners brought to the country by Indian infrastructure giant GMR, which is managing and upgrading the country’s main airport.


Nexbis signals willingness to negotiate border control agreement

Mobile security system vendor Nexbis, which is behind the stalled build, operate and transfer agreement to upgrade the Maldives’ immigration system, has issued a statement welcoming the government’s decision to proceed with the project and said it is willing to negotiate the terms of the contract.

The upgrade was stalled earlier this year when the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) expressed concerns about the deal, claiming that there were “opportunities for corruption” during the bidding process.

“A number of further gross inaccuracies continue to be perpetrated, whether intentionally or through ignorance, particularly regarding the cost of the contract,” Nexbis said in its statement.

“Despite sensationalist claims in the media regarding [the tender process], the terms agreed to by the parties, or the suitability of the system being provided, Nexbis will be delivering a state-of-the-art, flexible and cost-effective security solution.”

Under the 20 year agreement, Nexbis levies a fee of US$2 from arriving and departing passengers in exchange for installing, maintaining and upgrading its immigration system, and a fee of US$15 for every work permit card.

“This means that neither the government nor the Maldivian public have to pay in exchange for a state-of-the-art border security protection,” Nexbis claimed.

The company said that “although the bid proposed a fee to be applied to all travellers including Maldivians”, the company waived the charges for Maldivians “as a goodwill gesture.”

“In addition Nexbis is providing a five percent revenue share to the government should passenger numbers grow. In stark contrast to some of the other bids, we have not requested a guaranteed minimum volume of passengers. Essentially the company must bear the cost risk should the number of visitors to the Maldives drop as has previously occurred during the tsunami and financial crisis.”

Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid has expressed concern over both the cost and necessity of the project, calculating that with continued growth in tourist numbers Nexbis would be earning US$200 million in revenue over the 20 year lifespan of the agreement.

At five percent, royalties to the government would come to US$10 million, Shahid said, when there was little reason for the government not be earning the revenue itself by operating a system given by a donor country.

“Border control is not something we are unable to comprehend – it is a normal thing all over the world,” Shahid told Minivan News.

“There is no costing of the equipment Nexbis is installing – we don’t know how much it is costing to install, only how much we have to pay. We need to get everything out in the open.”

Nexbis meanwhile argues that “reasonable persons will likely realise that once the hidden costs after are taken into account and adjusted for inflation, the benefits and efficiencies of the Nexbis system will far outweigh the risk, inadequacies and uncertainties of any such alleged cheaper system.”

“This frees up the [Department of Immigration] from managing systems and securing the budget year in, year out to ensure the system is maintained. This will prevent interruption of service and avoid potential corruption as there will no longer be a need to purchase equipment every year.”

Shahid however estimates that maintaining a free system given by a donor country would cost at most several hundred thousand dollars a year, and said he was unsure as to why such an agreement had ever been signed.

“Airport charges are calculated based on government expenditure – such as the cost of the immigration counters. The US$18 collected as an airport tax is included in the ticket, and in the end [under this agreement] the amount for immigration will be going to Nexbis,” he said.

He further noted that despite Nexbis offering not to charge Maldivians for use of the service as a “goodwill gesture”, there was no mention in the contract that Maldivians would have to pay at the border: “the contract says every foreigner,” he said.

Shahid would not comment on the specifics of the pending negotiations with Nexbis, but said that the Immigration Department had the government’s full support in the matter.

Nexbis meanwhile said it had agreed to review the government’s additional requirements, “and have expressed our willingness to accommodate any such changes within commercially viable terms.”

“We have this requires some changes to the solution we ultimately provide, then it is within the scope of our agreement to accommodate these changes,” the company said.

Meanwhile, an ongoing police investigation into labour trafficking in the Maldives last week uncovered an industry worth an estimated US$123 million, eclipsing fishing (US$46 million in 2007) as the second greatest contributor of foreign currency to the Maldivian economy after tourism.

Police discovered several thousand passports confiscated from expatriate workers during a recent raid of 18 ‘paper companies’, created to fraudulently apply for work permit quotas. The imported workers, many of them illiterate and from rural Bangladesh, are then typically employed for a pittance under substandard conditions or else simply abandoned at the airport after having paid up to US$2000 to bogus recruitment agencies.


Human trafficking worth US$123 million, authorities estimate

An ongoing police investigation into labour trafficking in the Maldives has uncovered an industry worth an estimated US$123 million, eclipsing fishing (US$46 million in 2007) as the second greatest contributor of foreign currency to the Maldivian economy after tourism.

The authorities’ findings echo those first raised by former Bangladeshi High Commissioner Dr Selina Mohsin, reported by Minivan News in August last year, and which saw the country placed on the US State Department’s Tier 2 watchlist for human trafficking.

However prior to the current investigation, ordered by President Mohamed Nasheed and which involved the military taking over immigration and human resources duties for a two week period, few facts were known about the Maldivian side of the operation.

“People have been creating fraudulent companies and using them to apply for fraudulent work permit quotas, and then diverting these quotas to keep bringing in illegal workers,” said President Nasheed’s Spokesperson, Mohamed Zuhair.

“A would-be worker [overseas] pays money and ends up here on fraudulent papers obtained by a bogus agent, from quotas at a non-existent company,” Zuhair said. “Sometimes they are expected to work for 3-4 years to make the payment – workers have told police that this is often as much as US$2000.”

Authorities currently estimated the industry to be worth US$123 million a year, he said.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam told Minivan News that many illegal workers identified by police through the investigation – the majority from Bangladesh – had sold their land, their property and moved their families to pay the fees demanded by the bogus recruiters.

When they arrive they find the job a totally different prospect from what they were led to expect, he said.

“Sometimes there is no job and they are released straight onto the street. We found some people who had paid before coming – they arrived at the airport and nobody came to pick them up,” said Shiyam. ”The case is very serious – this is not the way things should be, and it has been going on for a long time.”

Zuhair said that in some cases workers brought to the Maldives were themselves recruited to help enlist others from their country – in addition to seven Maldivians, 12 expatriates have been arrested during the case so far.

Paper companies and ministerial corruption

The expansive investigation has seen 18 ‘paper companies’ raided by the police commercial crime unit, headed by Inspector Mohamed Riyaz, who revealed to the media last week that police had seized 4000 passports confiscated from trafficked workers.

Two of the seven bogus companies identified as trafficking workers, Ozone Investments Pvt Ltd and Arisco Maldives Pvt Ltd, had brought in 3000 workers between them.

Using the fake companies, the traffickers fraudulently obtained work permit quotas for non-existent projects from the Human Resources Ministry by stealing the identities of unwitting Maldivians, or even the deceased. Police had received many complaints about such forgeries from the confused third party, Riyaz told the media.

Moreover, many of the quotas requested from the Human Resources Ministry had been approved despite obvious warning signs such as the importing of construction workers for specialised IT projects, Riyaz said.

Zuhair told Minivan News that while he was unable to “point fingers” as the investigation was ongoing, the current findings implicated senior officials in both the Immigration Department and the Ministry of Human Resources.

In addition, the persistent use of fraudulent companies implied further scrutiny of the Ministry of Trade was required, Zuhair said.

Trade Minister Mahmoud Razee confirmed to Minivan News that the Ministry was providing information to police as requested. Establishing a company in the Maldives carried few requirements under existing laws, he explained, “and even before this we have been proposing amendments to company law to require additional clearances for directors, based on their records.”

Even for those individuals found guilty of the crime labour trafficking presently represents a violation of the Employment Act, and only carries a small fine.

Zuhair said punishment was a matter for the judiciary “and I’m confident justice will be done”. However he acknowledged that the greatest impact would come from exposing those involved: “The people involved will be named and shamed,” he pledged, which would limit their capacity for further fraud or criminal enterprise and hopefully ward off further victims.

The investigation was ordered by the President, he noted, as the Immigration Department and the Human Resources Ministry “were each accusing the other for the problem. The government has stepped in as a neutral party to conduct a holistic investigation, without incrimination.”

He said the government would need to “seek assistance” to deport the large numbers of illegal workers the investigation was likely to uncover.

“The origin countries also have a responsibility to repatriate their nationals,” he said.

Minivan News asked Zuhair why the government had only acted after several years of accusations that labor trafficking was prolific in the country – the US State Department recently renewed the Maldives’ position on the trafficking watch list for the second year running.

“The accusations have been apparent for the last few years, but the extent to which the situation has developed, and the lines between system error, human error and intentional fraud have been unclear. It has now become clearer,” he said.


Government to conduct management audit of immigration department and human resources ministry

The government is to conduct a management audit of both the Human Resources Ministry and the Immigration Department this weekend, following a two-week investigation targeting corruption and the facilitation of labour trafficking.

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) assumed desk duties at both the ministry and the department a fortnight ago, while police conducted the investigation. The MNDF’s involvement has since been scaled down and immigration staff have returned to their duties.

Local media reported over the weekend that a senior individual working at the Human Resources ministry had been arrested. Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam confirmed that a number of foreign nationals and Maldivians involved in labour brokering had been arrested, but did not confirm whether one of these individuals was a ministry official.

“We will be giving details on the case very soon,” he said.

Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid confirmed the arrest of a human resources ministry official.

“The MNDF still have to release a report,” he said. “Also this [coming] Sunday, on direction of the President, both the Immigration Department and the Human Resources Ministry will be subject to a management audit.”

Shahid has previously stated that the country’s 40,000-50,000 suspected illegal expatriate workers are costing the government Rf130 million (US$8.4 million) annually in lost permit fees.

If accurate, this would amount to almost half of the countries expatriate population, which sources in the Maldives Monetary Authority estimate already remits US$8 million out of the country every month, exacerbating the Maldives’ ongoing foreign currency shortage.

Meanwhile, the Maldives remains on the US State Department’s tier two watch list for human trafficking for a second year.

The report, updated in June, noted that migrant workers from Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, India, are being subjected to forced labour in the Maldives, primarily in the construction and service sectors, while women and girls are also being subjected to sex trafficking.

An unknown number of the up to 110,000 foreign workers in the country – a third of the population – “face conditions indicative of forced labor: fraudulent recruitment practices, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, or debt bondage,” the report noted, adding that 30,000 workers had no legal status in the country.

Former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to the Maldives, Professor Selina Mohsin, who finished her assignment in July last year, told Minivan News that every day 40 Bangladeshi nationals were turning up at reception, “having come to the Maldives and found they have nothing to do”, often after having paid between US$1000-US$4000 to fraudulent recruitment brokers based both in Bangladesh and the Maldives.


Military mans immigration during departmental and ministerial corruption probe

Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid has confirmed that corruption of the work permit system is a major focus of an ongoing investigation into the Immigration Department and Human Resources Ministry.

Front-line staff at both immigration and the area of the ministry handling employment have been sent home, and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has taken over their duties.

President Mohamed Nasheed has said the police investigation – which has already resulted in several arrests of suspected traffickers – is expected to take two weeks. Afterwards, staff will be invited to return to work, the President’s Office said in a statement.

Shahid told Minivan News today that people had been found to be attempting to enter the country with falsified permits.

“We believe we have 40,000 illegal immigrants, and we know two departments are involved: Immigration and the Human Resources Ministry,” he said.

“Something has gone wrong in one of these departments, and we are going to find out what it is.”

The Immigration Department’s records for expatriates working in the country show 21,000 people unaccounted for in records held by the Human Resources Ministry, he said, a discrepancy representing six percent of the country’s entire population.

Shahid acknowledged that the relationship between the Human Resources Ministry and the Immigration Department prior to the MNDF’s intervention had been “strained”, and that there was no shared IT system linking the records of both.

“We know there are a lot of loopholes and minor things that have been overlooked,” he said. “For example, 10 days ago an immigration officer was arrested after collecting a deposit which disappeared from the system the next day.”

Shahid said he expected the police investigation would discover “a lot of things.” A report will be presented to the President on conclusion of the two weeks.

The investigation, he said, was a very time-consuming task “involving a lot of data.” In the mean time, he acknowledged there had been some delays at the airport and “hiccups” as the MNDF took over immigration duties.

“We did some orientation for them, but this is not a permanent situation,” he emphasised.

Shahid dismissed the idea that tourists arriving at the airport would be intimidated by the sight of the military.

“They work uniforms of the MNDF are very similar to the immigration uniforms,” he said.

Nexbis upgrade

The government last year signed a contract with mobile security technology vendor Nexbis whereby the immigration system would be upgraded to include biometric identification of work visa applicants, reducing the reliance on potentially-forged documentation.

The upgrade was stalled when the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) expressed concerns about the deal. Cabinet has since requested the Immigration Department review the project, and if necessary, renegotiate.

“We will enter negotiations soon – we can’t agree with the figures [in the contract],” Shahid said. “The ACC has from the very beginning said it is wrong.”

“The contract says we will charge arriving and departing passengers US$2 – this year we expect a million foreigners, so that is US$4 million. Then for every work permit card we issue we pay Nexbis US$15 – currently we charge Rf50 (US$4). At present rates of arrival that US$5.5 million per year.

“The Nexbis contract is a 20 year contract – which means the total cost to the country at present-day arrivals is US$110 million. If you calculate the increased percentage of arrivals over the 20 years, it’s more like US$200 million.”

Such a deal was, Shahid said, “The worst possible thing we could do to border control. Sri Lanka’s system cost US$2.2 million to install and develop. We could get a luxury system [installed] for US$4 million. Why should the Maldivian government spend US$200 million over 20 years, when it’s highly unusual for an IT contract to last more than five? I will never agree to this – the contract should never have been signed.”

The ACC had “a lot of grounds” to investigate the deal, he suggested, adding that as the project involved imposing a tax, approval was also required from parliament prior to signing.

Nexbis shares fell 6.3 percent on the back of the ACC’s original announcement. The company subsequently issued a statement claiming that speculation over corruption was “politically motivated” and had “wrought irreparable damage to Nexbis’ reputation and brand name”, and revealed its intention to take legal action.


Cabinet decision not a green light for Nexbis project, says Immigration Controller

Cabinet’s decision last week to review the stalled Nexbis project did not necessarily mean it was going ahead, said Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid today.

The Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) agreement with the Malaysian-based mobile security solutions provider was to upgrade border security in the Maldives and facilitate the identification and tracking of expatriate workers without the use of potentially-forged paper documents.

However the day after the October 2010 signing of the concessionaire contract, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) announced it had received “a serious complaint” regarding “technical details” of the bid, and issued an injunction pending an investigation into the agreement citing “instances and opportunities” where corruption may have occurred.

Nexbis shares immediately plunged 6.3 percent on the back of the ACC’s announcement. The company subsequently issued a statement claiming that speculation over corruption was “politically motivated” and had “wrought irreparable damage to Nexbis’ reputation and brand name.”

“Nexbis’ shareholders own and manage multi-trillion dollar assets globally and will not jeopardise their reputation for an investment return,” the company said at the time.

Shahid said today that following the Cabinet decision the Immigration Department would be “looking into the ACC’s concerns and negotiating with Nexbis.”

“Cabinet did not say the project would proceed, but have announced that it would be reviewed. The ACC’s initial position was that the project would be re-tendered with the consent of Cabinet.”

Shahid acknowledge threats of legal action from Nexbis, but observed there was “nothing we can do on this issue – it was the ACC that intervened.”

He predicted that it would be “some time” before the review was completed.

Local media has claimed that key technical components, such as facial recognition, were missing from the project.

Minivan News is currently seeking comment from Nexbis.


Letter on draconian immigration

Dear Editor,

I am a Maldivian, who is studying in UK. I have been living in UK for the past five years and have always been keen in travelling and exploring other places and cultures of the world.

For much of the westerns and other nations, Maldives is heaven on earth. It is a paradise they all highly value and dream of visiting for once at least in their life time. For they are all true regarding this. And I have no doubt their dream holidays are nothing beyond perfect and excellent during their visit to Maldives.

But they don’t enjoy Maldives only because of its sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. Nor it is only due to the exotic resorts or the delicious food. It is all about the hospitality and the welcome they recieve as well. Maldivians are well known to host their visitors with utmost care and excellent treatment. From the time the forigners land in Maldives and until they leave, they are always treated with a smile. They never face any difficulties or problems at the airport, transit to their hotel, stay in the resort and journey back to the airport. We serve them well with proficiency and excellence. This is how Maldivians are.

But I would like to tell you all some of the experiences I have faced while travelling to other countries. I have to say unfortunately I didn’t face the very same hospitality I expected despite the fact I was also paying for my trip just like the way other foreign visitors do when they travel to Maldives. My passport clearly says on its first page that the Foreign Minister requests the bearer of it to pass Maldivian national to pass freely without any problems for me. I guess this must be their in every country’s passport and to be honest no one cares about what is written on that page.

I went on a trip to Europe trip this winter. I was travelling on a Schengen Visa. I visited Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy and France. I was travelling with my study friends who were all British citizens and there was one Malaysian citizen too with us.

At each airport of the above mentiones countries, the immigration stopped me and asked lots of questions which made me feel very unwelcome and uncomfortable. Despite having the Schengen visa and all other travelling documents like tickets and travel cheques, I found myself subjected to unnecessary scrutiny by these immigrations. The French and the German immigration were the worst. My British colleagues passed the immigration in less than a second, without facing a single question from no one. I am not surprised for them as they are EU nationals, but what surprised me was my Malaysian friend. He was treated just like the British nationals and he did not face any questions from them. He even didn’t need prior visa to enter these countries. I was very surprised.

Here I am visiting some countires in Europe who send thousands of tourists to my country every day and I have been treated like some alien trying to intrude in to their property or something. It was very upsetting and I hope no other Maldivian faces this. May be the Maldivian diplomatic passport holders might not face what I have been through, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t simple ordinary maldivians like me who do travel through europe. I believe its time the Maldivian goverment (I mean all of you) try and work more harder with the Schengen blog to include Maldives in their Visa Waiver List. This would make Maldivians travel free without hastle in the EU, just like for Malaysians.

The previous governments foreign minister Mr Fathuhullah Jameel has travelled all around the world on his diplomatic passport but never bothered to do this during his long FM job. But can you all (the new government) do this for us, for the sake of simple ordianry Maldivian Passport holders? I don’t think Maldivians are a risk for the EU as we have visa free entry to UK and Ireland as well. The government could bridge this as a promoting factor for us to get into the Schengen blog. Can you all please do your best to get us travel free and avoid the difficulties at immigration at EU countries? I hope you all will work hard for this and this is my request as a Maldivian from you all. I believe we also deserve to have freedom of movement and be treated with respect just the way we treat the EU nationals when they come to our country, don’t we?

The next I experienced was during last year summer. I was going back home, Male’ from London. My flight was stopping at Dubai and it was a long transit of more than 24 hours.

I didn’t want to stay this long period inside the airport building and so thought of going out to see the city of dubai during this long transit period. To my surprise I needed a visa to go out. I don’t understand why. A person from Lithuania doesn’t need a visa to enter Dubai but here I am, a Maldivian, whose country has more close ties with Dubai needs a visa to see the city for just 24 hours. Any ways I asked for a visa which they issued me for US$75.

Now that’s a lot for a visa of 24 hours, isn’t it? And not only this, the authorities who issued the visa were utterly rude and unprofessional. They were very nice and pleasant with the white Europeans but I noticed they were very different with tone and customer relations with the dark skinned asians. And I was one of them.

I could not believe all this and I was very dissapointed. I did visit Doha also a year ago and faced a similar situation. I had to pay a visa fee to enter Doha too just for two days. I don’t think this is the way we should be treated. Maybe it is an arab thing, I don’t know, but I didn’t deserve it. I don’t think Arabs are treated like that when they visit Maldives. First of all we give them more respect I think because they are Muslims. Secondly they all get to enter Maldives free of visa without having a penny to pay for it. So why did I have to face the opposite when I visited their coutries? They are more rich in natural resources than Maldives and yet I have to pay for visa to see their country but they don’t have to pay nothing to see my country.

This is not fair. Plus I have to face discrimination and rude behavious from them when we treat them with respect and dignity. I believe these things have to addressed at formal level by all of you with these Arab and other countries. And I don’t think its fair to give them free visas when they charge so much from us to visit their country. May be its time and best that Maldives government also charge a visa fee from them too. I am sure their nationals are capable of paying the same visa fee I paid to see their cities for few hours or days. Plus the visa fee could generate some income to our economy too just like the way ot helps theirs. So I think it is better to bring some changes to the famous ’30 day free visa on arrival to Maldives’, maybe make some countries not included in this famous logo.

Maldivians are not generally big time travellers. But there are lots of us who do travel, aspire travelling and wants to travel. If all of you and the government make travel easy for us by asking other countries to make us visa free and provide hastle free immigrations, it can put more maldivians into travelling. Travelling bridges societies and cultures. It opens hearts and unites people. It makes us realise about others in this world and helps us more to realise how much more is there to life. So please can you all work on this. Make travelling easy for us. Ask other governments to make visa free for Maldivian citizens. At the moment there are just a handful of countries where we can go without a visa. I was very surprised to know that I need a visa to enter even Morocco as a tourist, a country whose national made us all muslims. So I guess the foreign ministry needs to do a lot of work.

I appreciate the new look of the website of our foreign ministry. But its sad to know it doesn’t contain a list of the countries where Maldivian citizens can travel to, as a tourist, without a visa. I think this list is very important and should be there on the ministries website (always up tp date). Also surprisingly there is no proper contact email address (for Maldivians) of the ministry given on the website.

I hope this letter is not offensive to any one of you. The purpose of this letter is to let you all know how an ordinary maldivian feels when he is subjected to such taunt by other countries immigrations. And its not my fault that I need a visa to enter those coutries. I hope you all will try to work with other foreign governments to make us visa and hastle free when we travel to other coutnries. For we are all humans and we all deserve freedom of movement, respect and dignity.


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