Visa restrictions “signal” Maldives must address expatriate concerns: Indian High Commission

Indian authorities have said that tightened restrictions over providing medical visas to Maldivians are a “signal” for the country’s government to address a number of concerns about the nation’s treatment of migrant workers.

The Indian High Commission in the Maldives, which this month tightened rules on granting medical visas for Maldivians, has today claimed the action was taken to draw attention to fears over the treatment of workers from India by both local employers and authorities.

The High Commission has claimed that the tightened restrictions were in line with a bilateral agreement signed back in 1979 and its appropriation by Maldivian authorities in the intervening years.

The Department of Immigration and Emigration has today said it was presently working to address some of the issues raised by Indian authorities.

However, some of the High Commission’s concerns have been played down by Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who earlier this week dismissed allegations that Indian workers had experienced difficulties in coming to the Maldives.

Diplomatic tensions

Amidst increased diplomatic tensions between the Maldives and India in recent months, members of the public have this month found themselves queuing outside the Indian High Commission in Male’ in order to obtain visas to travel for medical treatment.

In some instances, local people have complained of queuing for over 24 hours outside the high Commission’s building in Male’ to try and get a limited number of daily tokens for obtaining an Indian medical visa.

A high commission source speaking to Minivan News today claimed that critically ill patients seeking urgent medical attention outside of the Maldives were being cleared for travel immediately, while other cases were being prioritised depending on the severity of their illness.

The source also contended that all visas given to Maldivians for travel to India were provided free of charge – a courtesy claimed to have not been extended to Indian citizens coming to the Maldives for work.

The commission spokesperson added that the introduction of the tighter regulations was in line with the visa agreement signed back in 1979 and was imposed as a clear “signal” from Indian authorities that the concerns it had over practices in the Maldives such as the confiscation of passports of migrant workers, needed to be brought to an end.

On November 26 this year, a public notice had been issued by the Maldives Immigration Department requesting no employer in the country should be holding passports of expatriate workers.

The Maldives has come under strong criticism internationally in recent years over its record in trying 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.

Back in October, a senior Indian diplomatic official in the Maldives had expressed concern over the ongoing practice of confiscating passports of migrant workers arriving to the country from across South Asia – likening the practice to slavery.

The high commission also claimed this year that skilled expatriate workers from India, employed in the Maldives education sector, had continued to be “penalised” due to both government and private sector employers failing to fulfil their responsibilities.

Meanwhile, a senior Indian medical working in the country has also alleged that expatriate professionals were regularly facing intimidation and fraud in the country from employers and some members of the public.

“Real progress”

Sources with knowledge of the High Commission’s present discussions with Maldivian authorities have nonetheless expressed hope that “real progress” was being seen in trying to address both countries’ respective grievances over the medical visa issue.

Minivan News understands that discussions were being held to ensure that aside from verbal commitments, Maldivian authorities would directly address the concerns Indian authorities held about the treatment of its citizens.

The Department of Immigration and Emigration today said it was presently working to try and resolve some of the concerns raised by the Indian High Commission over treatment of expatriates coming to work in the Maldives.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali confirmed to Minivan News that his department was looking into issues such as Maldivian employers confiscating passports of Indian workers.

“We are working on that,” Dr Ali responded when asked if officials were working on issues such as retaining the passports of Indian Expatriates in the Maldives. The immigration chief did not clarify the exact nature of the work presently being carried out by his department on the matter.

Speaking to local media on Thursday (December 27), Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed dismissed accusations from the high commission that Indians were facing difficulties in travelling to the Maldives – as well as claims that some 50 nationals from the country had been deported this year.

Dr Jameel pointed to recent tourism ministry statistics that he said indicated 4,180 Indians had travelled to the Maldives to date this year.

“If you look at these numbers, there is ground to believe that it’s relatively easy for Indians to travel to Maldives. Moreover, the policy is the same for other neighbouring countries,” he was quoted as telling newspaper Haveeru.

Dr Jameel was presently out of the country and unable to respond to calls from Minivan News at the time of press.

However, the High Commission, in a statement released yesterday (December 28) said that the home minister had incorrectly stated figures of visitor numbers to the Maldives

“The [home minister’s] statement contains incorrect facts and figures. While it states that only 4,180 Indians have travelled to Maldives so far this year, as per statistics published by the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, 26,199 tourists from India have arrived in Maldives during the period January – November 2012,” the commission’s own statement read.

“Regarding the deportation of Indian travellers from Male’ International Airport, the High Commission of India stands by its figures. The high commission urges that the above figures may be verified and, the general public may be apprised of the correct facts.”