No labourer permits for those who retain passports, warns immigration department

The immigration department has warned that permits allowing employers to bring expatriate workers into the country could be withheld if they are found to be forcefully retained.

Local media has reported the department as noting that the practice remains common, as does the practice of some employees demanding money before passports are released.

Such methods appeared on a list of grievances compiled by the Indian High Commission in Male’ early this year. Indian authorities said at the time that tightened restrictions over providing medical visas to Maldivians were a “signal” for the country’s government to address a number of concerns about the nation’s treatment of migrant workers.

The immigration department’s warning comes as the incoming government attempts to improve relations with the Indian government, with the Indian Prime Minister today extending an invitation to new President Abdulla Yameen.

Bangladesh recently lifted a ban on worker migration to the Maldives after a government delegation was sent to investigate allegations of fraudulent recruitment, forced labour and migrant unemployment.

The country had temporarily blocked its nationals from migrating to the Maldives in September – 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.


Bangladesh to reopen worker migration to the Maldives

Bangladesh will lift the ban on worker migration to the Maldives after a government delegation was sent to investigate allegations of fraudulent recruitment, forced labour and migrant unemployment.

In September Minivan News reported that the Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) had prohibited immigration over concerns that labourers were being lured to the Maldives with the promise of jobs, only to find themselves unemployed and unable to return to their home country.

BMET Director General Begum Shamsun Nahar told the Dhaka Tribune that “a delegation went to Maldives recently and found that our workers are all employed there.”

However he noted that the wages in the Maldives were low while the migration cost was high, with the average worker spending around Tk 2,00,000 (US$2500) to go to country, despite earning only US$150-190 per month.

The Dhaka Tribune noted that while the Maldivian government’s data put the number of Bangladeshi workers at 80 000, BMET had only recorded the departure of 28,000 workers since 1976.

The head of the delegation to the Maldives, Deputy Secretary of the Expatriates’ Welfare Ministry Badiur Rahman told the Tribune that workers were using middlemen to bypass immigration procedures, “and overcome the limited interest of Maldivians in becoming labourers.”

According to Mohamed Ali Janah, former President of the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI), the lack of a functioning labour management system combined with this domestic labour shortage prohibits employers from recruiting legitimate workers amongst the expatriate population.

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.”

The Maldives was this year placed on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for the fourth consecutive year.

As with last year’s report, the country avoided a downgrade to the lowest tier “because [the] government has a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

However US Ambassador-at-large for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Luis CdeBaca, noted during the release of the report that the six countries again spared a downgrade would not be eligible next year – including Afghanistan, Barbados, Chad, Malaysia, Thailand and the Maldives.


Fictitious labour demand fuelling “systematic” migrant abuse in Maldives

Registered companies across the Maldives are freely abusing visa regulations by wildly exaggerating or even fabricating construction or business projects to traffic foreign workers into the country, an immigration source has alleged this week.

The source told Minivan News that almost no human verification was being undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.

This lack of verification was allowing paper companies in the Maldives to submit fictitious contracts or structural designs to the immigration department to obtain a disproportionately high quota of foreign workers.

In theory, a Maldivian company could submit design plans for an existing structure such as Manchester United’s 75,811 seat Old Trafford Stadium – and then be assigned a computer-generated quota of foreign workers, the source claimed.

“Companies are recruiting people [abroad] for their own financial benefit,” the immigration source said. “They are producing the image that they are in need of labour.”

Fictitious applications could be made with little fear of a company or individual facing legal action,  due to the lack of any formal verification process for new building or work sites once authorised by a staff member at the immigration department, the source alleged.

“A company can simply produce a document or structural drawing from the internet, which they can submit online to obtain a work quota,” the source claimed. “If you tried using a design for a building like Velenagee, that is obviously known, but out on the islands [in the country’s outer atolls], verification is much harder,” he said.

The Maldives has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three consecutive years. Should the Maldives 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.

Minivan News was told that even with the implementation of an online visa registration system, the immigration department was failing to cross reference companies registered with the Maldives’ trade ministry to ensure that their stated businesses and labour requirements were genuine.

In one case detected this year, the source said that immigration officials had discovered that one ten-storey construction project in the capital had been given a quota of 120 foreign workers despite already being fully built and furnished.

“If someone is not going to check projects in person, this system is completely open to abuse,” the immigration source added.

Foreign workers were paying as much as US$4,000 to labour brokers to come and work in the Maldives, explained the immigration source, creating an incentive for the creation of false jobs on the Maldivian side. This fee is then divided between traffickers operating in the source country and the Maldives.

The Maldives does not presently have legislation allowing authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking – with legislation presently under review in parliament.

However, the immigration source said that it was still possible to penalise any Maldivian suspected of trafficking foreigners into the country on the grounds of contravening the Maldives Immigration Act, ratified in 2007.

“If a Maldivian tries to go against this law they should be penalised with very heavy fines. The law has been in place since 2007,” the source claimed. “Yet has anyone been fined for illegal immigration activity? The answer is no. The legal authority to do this is there.”

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali told Minvian News earlier this week that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrived under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.

Legislative challenges

Another source who has held senior positions in the Maldives criminal justice system, under both the current administration of President Dr Mohamed Waheed and the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed, said the country faces several challenges in prosecuting human traffickers.

Speaking to Minivan News on condition of anonymity, the source claimed that prosecutors were using outdated legislation set out in the country’s 1967 penal code that had not anticipated a crime such as human trafficking when it was first ratified.

In recent years, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) worked with foreign organisations such as the Australian government to help draft legislation against human trafficking and people smuggling, according to the source. The bill has also been viewed by their US government to ensure “conformity” with its own requirements.

As a result, the source said that in recent years the PG’s Office had dealt with several cases of alleged human trafficking, which notably included a group of foreigners  found with a large number of forged passports.

However rather than prosecuting the suspects of charges of human trafficking as alleged by the police, they were instead prosecuted on charges of forgery.

“In that case, forgery carried a heavier punishment than any other possible provisions that could be used to prosecute on ‘human trafficking’ charge (i.e Section 88(a) of the penal code). In the Maldives, we don’t have to charge someone for multiple offences if it was committed at the same time,” the source claimed. “Prosecutors have to choose the most dangerous crime and proceed.”

The legal source suggested that in other suspected human trafficking cases raised by police, alleged victims were still provided the opportunity to contact authorities or transfer money abroad, requiring much more scrutiny to identify if those involved may have been smuggled illegally into the country.

“Additionally, because there are no laws defining what human trafficking is, the risk was that if we prosecuted someone for human trafficking and tried to set a precedent, the judges were not exposed (or forward thinking) enough to convict someone of the crime,” the source claimed.

“It was too risky to try something new and risk putting someone so dangerous on the loose. So the general idea was to be cautious.”

With human trafficking legislation remaining under review in parliament, the legal source claimed that “smooth implementation” of any new laws was required to make sure all Maldivian authorities, as well as criminal justice systems across the region, understood their obligations towards prosecuting human trafficking.

Corruption was identified as another major concern by the source concerning the value of illegal labour to the Maldives economy. One former Bangladesh High Commissioner in the Maldives alleged back in 2010 that the exploitation of foreign workers in the country rivaled fishing as the most profitable sector in the national economy after tourism.

The government has in recent months launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers.

Addressing the current scope of unregistered foreign labour, Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) former President Mohamed Ali Janah said earlier this year 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.


UN Committee grills Maldives delegation on human rights commitment

A delegation from the Maldives headed by Attorney General Abdulla Muiz has reported to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which will release its findings in early September.

According to a UN report summarising the meeting, the delegation was questioned on “restrictions on the practice of religion, the rights of migrant workers, human trafficking, the lack of anti-discrimination laws in the country, the role of the Human Rights Commission and the requirement that all members be Muslim, citizenship laws and the stipulation that non-Muslims could not become citizens nor could they openly practice their religion, the discrepancy in secondary school enrolment rates between boys and girls, and the interaction between English common law and Islam in the legal system of the Maldives.”

The committee noted that the government’s historical position had “been to deny the existence of racial discrimination in the country as the Maldives has a small homogeneous population, of the same origin, pursuing the same religion, and speaking the same language.”

However it had acknowledged that a substantial increase in migrant workers “requires legislative attention”, the UN committee noted.

“In the absence of prejudices leading to racial discrimination in the Maldives, the government did not take specific steps in terms of education and teaching, and culture and information, to address racial discrimination. However, the report says in the Maldives the teaching of Islam promotes understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and all groups,” the committee noted.

The report was presented to the committee by Muiz, who emphasised the “enormous progress” the country had made in recent years towards guaranteeing “fundamental freedoms and individual liberties”.

He did, however, acknowledge the “enormous challenges” the Maldives faced in ensuring that those rights now protected by law were actually enjoyed in practice. In particular, the Maldives delegation identified these as including “fragile democratic fabric, infant democratic institutions, religious fundamentalism, heavy drug abuse, the vulnerability of the country to environmental threats and most recently, human trafficking.”

Furthermore, the delegation claimed, the country’s Human Rights Commission “was one of the most active national institutions in Asia” and “fully compliant with the Paris Principles”, apart from the requirement that all members of the Commission be Muslim.

“Maldivian law did not provide for freedom of religion, although in practice foreigners were allowed to practice religions other than Islam in private,” the delegation informed the committee.

Nonetheless, the Maldives was “a culturally diverse society” that protected its vulnerable migrant labour population by imposing duties on employers, “including responsibility for the employee during their stay and other requirements”, despite the absence of health and safety laws.

“The right to association and the right to strike were now guaranteed under the Maldives’ Constitution,” the delegation informed the committee.

It noted that while the Maldives did not have any laws prohibiting trafficking in persons “and no official studies or reports had been conducted”, the government had a “strong policy to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for traffickers.”

“Muiz asked the Committee to bear in mind that the democratic and legal framework of the Maldives was a work-in-progress,” the committee noted.

Delegation confronted

In contrast to the Maldives’ position that racial discrimination did not exist, the committee observed that cases of hostility and ill-treatment of the country’s increasingly large number of migrant workers – half the country’s total workforce – had been reported.

“The Maldives should consider acceding to conventions concerned with the rights of non-citizens and amend relevant regulations to allow non-Muslims to acquire Maldivian citizenship,” the committee suggested, and noted that there was “still no anti-discrimination legislation” active in the Maldives.

“It is necessary for the State party to enact legislation on prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred,” the committee stated.

The committee observed that there was a lack of demographic information on the Maldives, given the extensive size of its foreign labour force, and that “it would be useful to investigate whether there are tensions between Maldivian citizens and foreign workers.”

“Restrictions on the rights of migrants and other foreigners to prohibit the practice of religions other than Islam, except in private, were of concern as well. Was any one Maldivian citizen married to an individual practicing a different religion?” one committee member asked.

Delegation defends

In response to the committee’s questioning, the Maldives delegation contended that the Maldives had “capacity constraints” and “relied on the support of international organisations”, in which case the committee noted “a report longer than three pages would have been appreciated.”

Regarding the committee’s questioning on freedom of religion, the delegation noted that the Maldives maintained a reservation to article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of religion “and there were currently no plans to withdraw that reservation.

“This was a reflection of the deep societal belief that the Maldives always had been and wished to remain a 100 percent Muslim nation,” the delegation informed the committee, adding that “Muslims and non-Muslims lived harmoniously in the Maldives.”

“It was not true that under the new Constitution existing citizens could be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality if they were to stop practicing Islam. The Constitution was very clear on this point: no citizen could be deprived of his or her nationality under any circumstance. The Muslim-only clause under the citizenship article of the Constitution only applied to non-Maldivians wishing to become naturalised,” the committee reported.

The delegation acknowledged “increased reports of mistreatment of migrant workers by their employers”, but noted that the Maldives placed high importance on acceding to the eight core Conventions of the International Labor Organisation (ILO).

It also argued that “some of the rights and privileges enjoyed by foreign workers were even better that those enjoyed by Maldivians themselves”, such as those mandating the provision of food and accommodation for foreign workers.

“Foreign workers were not discriminated against in any way in the Maldives,” the delegation informed the committee.

In his concluding remarks, Muiz observed that the exercise of appearing before the committee “was tougher than even appearing before the parliament of the Maldives.”

Read the full summary


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.


Exploitation of Bangladeshi workers worth hundreds of millions, says former High Commissioner

Exploitation of foreign workers rivals fishing as the second most profitable sector of the Maldivian economy after tourism, according to conservative estimates of the number of Bangladeshi workers showing up at their commission in Male’ after being abandoned at the airport by unscrupulous employment agents.

Former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to the Maldives, Professor Selina Mohsin, who finished her assignment in July, 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. So naturally they come here to the High Commission.”

Most of the stranded workers were recruited in rural areas of Bangladesh by local brokers, who would work alongside a Maldivian counterpart.

“The Bangladeshi counterpart charges the worker a minimum of US$2000, but it goes up to $US4000. This money is collected by the counterpart and divided: typically three quarters to Maldivian broker and one quarter to the Bangladeshi counterpart,” Professor Mohsin explained, prior to her departure.

“Many workers sell their land, their property, even their homesteads – putting their wives in a relative’s house – and come here for employment they have been told will fetch them between $US300-400 a month. But when they arrive, they find they have no employment.”

Stranded in a foreign country and unable to speak English or Dhivehi, the workers either melt into the Bangladeshi community and become illegal workers, working for low wages in substandard conditions, or present themselves at the High Commission and beg for help.

In some cases workers are collected from the airport by the brokers and have their passports confiscated before being dumped on the streets of Male’, Professor Mohsin explains. Typically the worker arrives with a local mobile phone number – inevitably disconnected – and does not know the name of the broker.

“They eventually end up at my office,” she says, pointing to the Commission’s reception area. “Often they are in a state of shock at arriving to discover they have no employment. I try to put them in a guest house for 7-10 days and see if they can be repatriated, but many can’t and because they owe sums of money they take any job they can – sometimes US$70-80 a month.”

Taking into account the Bangladeshi broker’s cut, and based purely on the numbers of stranded expatriates presenting themselves at the high commission, indicates an employment trafficking scam worth upwards of $43.8 million year.

Even at conservative figures based on the numbers of Bangladeshi nationals presenting at the commission, this rivals the country’s US$46 million fishing industry (2007, Department of National Planning) as the country’s second largest export earner after tourism.

That could likely be just the tip of the iceberg – Professor Mohsin believes the true figure is far higher, pinpointing one operation as bringing in upwards of $100 million.

Work permit discrepancies

Under Maldivian law foreign workers arriving in the Maldives must have a work permit issued by the Immigration Department. This is obtained through an employer or agent, who must first request a foreign worker quota from the Ministry of Trade and Human Resources.

These are obtained “very easily”, Professor Muhsin contends.

“The Maldivian [side] gets into connection with the Bangladeshi brokers, gets a business permit from the Ministry of Human Resources, says they want to recruit and gets a quota for more workers than they require – if they require any at all – and then ask a Bangladeshi counterpart to bring in the workers.”

In an effort to control the flow of workers into the country, some High Commissions – such as Bangladesh – also require that work permits for their nationals be attested by the local commission before they are considered valid.

First Secretary at the Indian High Commission, Naryan Swamy, told Minivan News that the Indian High Commission ceased attesting work permits 3-4 years ago, although the policy remained in place in certain Gulf countries to reduce the exploitation of female domestic servants.

“Our major problem is not forged documents, but people who are given a rosy picture in India about working in the Maldives and want to go abroad. They might be earning US$200 in India, but are told they can earn US$400. When they arrive they get US$120-140,” Swamy says, adding that the burgeoning domestic economy in India has markedly reduced the number of workers falling into such a trap.

“On average we receive 2-3 people a day with this problem. Most of the time we can talk to the employers – usually workers are unsatisfied with the conditions.”

Where the Indian High Commission can identify the employment brokers, “we don’t give up easily,” he hinted. “If we have a case we don’t just write letters – we follow up. The system sometimes takes a long time, but we don’t give up.”

Professor Mohsin acknowlegdes that India “has a far better system than ours, and we allow far more innocent people to come through. But even in India’s case, professionals like doctors on many of the islands are treated badly and looked down on.”

However with the system of attestation in place, the importing of Bangladeshi workers now depends on forged documentation, she contends.

“I haven’t attested a single work permit since April. How are they entering? Why are they still coming at all?” she asks.

“Recently I caught one Maldivian man who was bringing in over 1800 people. I asked him, ‘what will you do with them?’ He said there were ‘many projects’. I asked him to show me the projects and he couldn’t.

“I asked him if he had cleared this with the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports. I rang to check and it had – it was attested by one of the ministries of this government.

“I signed but had questions in my mind – why were the terms and conditions so small? There should be pages and pages – for 1800 people there should be hundreds of pages, and details of the project.

“But I had doubts in my mind so declared my signature null and void within Bangladesh within 4-5 days. I checked the company – it took me months – and then I found out the whole thing was a scam totalling over US$300 million.

“Those people would have come [to Male’] had I not checked. Had I not done it, 1800 people would have sold their homes and become delinquent in the Maldives. This did not bother a Maldivian broker – hell is not good enough for the people who are doing this.”

Maldives placed on human trafficking watch-list

Most cases that arrive at the High Commission involve trafficked workers. The problem is large enough to have attracted the attention of the US State Department, which placed the Maldives on its watch-list for human trafficking following what it described as the government’s “failure to investigate or prosecute trafficking-related offenses or take concrete actions to protect trafficking victims and prevent trafficking in the Maldives.”

In its 2010 Human Trafficking report – published less than a month after the Maldives was given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council – the State Department estimated that half the Bangladeshis in the Maldives had arrived illegally “and most of these workers are probably victims of trafficking”.

It highlighted the construction and service sectors as primary offenders, and noted the prevalence of “fraudulent recruitment practices, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.”

Most trafficking in the country involves exploitation of foreign labour, according to Professor Mohsin, “but in extreme cases it has been for prostitution.”

After repatriating a Bangladeshi girl who had been forced into prostitution in the Maldives, Professor Mohsin ceased attesting work permits for Bangladeshi women altogether.

“I said I would allow no more women. I will not allow any more Bangladeshi women to come to the Maldives because they are used for the wrong purposes. I have even met young boys who work in houses and are physically assaulted. I have spoken to people to whom this has happened: I told one guy, just give me a complaint and I will catch the person. But he was too scared [of retaliation].”

Government complicity

Professor Muhsin acknowledged that government’s response to her outcry might be “Why is the Bangladeshi High Commissioner creating such a racket?”

“But tell me – if every day you are inundated with dozens and dozens of workers who are in a state of shock – then it becomes a very big issue for me. I have to know why they aren’t rigorous enough at the airport.”

With a single international airport funnelling foreign workers into the country, the Maldivian authorities should be able to fix the problem any time they want, Professor Mohsin contends.

“[Bangladesh] has many airports and a very porous border: we share thousands of miles with India. Some people even have houses half in Bangladesh and half in India, such was the border drawn by Sir Radcliffe. That’s why it is very easy to cross to South India and fly to the Maldives.

“But in Maldives there is only one international airport, and people have to come out of it. Tell me – if you don’t want me in your house, how can I enter? How can I enter if the door is locked?

“What I want to say is: stop them at the airport. If your database is correct, if you are rigorous, if you have scanned their passport as you say, then you at least have a copy of the passport. If you are the employer [to whom the quota is allocated] you know the broker. Nobody is taking this seriously enough.”


State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem said he was “very concerned” at the “strong wording” in the US State Department’s report, noting that human trafficking was “a very harsh term” to describe people brought to the Maldives by unscrupulous employers and agents.

“Anyone can get a [tourist] visa on arrival, and we don’t discriminate just because somebody is Bangladeshi,” he said.

He observed that all employment agents were registered with the Ministry of Human Resources: “I think they have a lot of knowledge about the problem and know exactly what is going on,” he said.

“We are researching the issues mentioned in the [State Department’s] 2010 report. There are a lot of illegals here and not enough jobs – we’re looking into the mater.”

Hussein Ismail, Deputy Minister for Human Resources, claimed it was “impossible” to enter the Maldives with forged documents, “because whatever employment approval we issue is electronically copied to immigration and checked against a person’s name. The database is shared, so they know when an employment visa has not been issued.”

When a work permit is approved it must be used within 50 days, “so there will be [arrivals] pending,” he noted, even if a High Commission were to cease attesting work permits.

Rights and treatment

The rights and treatment of Bangladeshi workers – including those employed legally – remains an issue for the Maldives.

“I once had somebody call me to say he was surrounded by 500 Bangladeshis because their salaries had not been paid for one year,” recalls Professor Mohsin. “I called the employer – I was very annoyed. He said to me: ‘I will not pay their salaries. What are you going to do about it?”

When workers fell into such a situation, she explains, they had little legal recourse or judicial instruments, and any civil case was conducted in Dhivehi to the bewilderment of the worker – even if they could find a lawyer.

“It is incumbent on the government of the Maldives to provide legal services to those who have been deprived of their rights to their salary – it should not be my business,” Professor Mohsin says.

Even the Immigration Department does not employ a Bangla speaker, despite the scope of the problem and their contribution to the economy, relying instead on the Bangladeshi High Commission to provide interpreters. An immigration official confided to Minivan News that while they were aware of problems with brokers, the language barrier made it difficult to determine what was going on when the worker arrived. Instead, he said, the Department relied on glimmers obtained from workers who approached authorities after they had acquired some Dhivehi, often when departing the country.

Professor Mohsin said she was at a loss to describe the abysmal treatment of Bangladeshi workers in the Maldives, given the centuries of close cultural association between the two countries.

“Historically things like tobacco smoking and rice eating were all learned from Bengal, because the Maldives had nothing but cowry shells,” Professor Mohsin says. “That was the Maldives’ only export – what would traders bring back in return? Rice, textiles, tobacco, wood… one of the country’s rulers was even a Bengali princess.

“I find it very painful now that a Maldivian coming from such a tiny country, and dependent on others for food, can look down on Bangladeshi workers who are doing all the menial work that no Maldivian will do. Why have they changed suddenly? What is this ethos that allows the country to employ workers from other countries and treat them so badly?”