Maldives being used as a transit point by illegal recruiters: Philippines

The Philippines’ Bureau of Immigration has declared it is tightening monitoring of Filipino nationals traveling to the Maldives, over fears the country is being used as a transit point for labour trafficking of its citizens.

The government of the Philippines, which depends heavily on remitted income from its massive expatriate workforce, restricts its nationals from working in countries with a record of poor treatment of low-wage foreign workers, such as Lebanon and Jordan.

However the Bureau’s Immigration Minister Ricardo David Jr issued a statement revealing traffickers were circumventing this restriction by obtaining ‘legitimate’ employment papers for workers in Dubai and the Maldives, and routing workers to restricted countries through these destinations.

David revealed 17 Filipino workers were victimised in such a fashion by illegal recruitment agencies in June, noting that none of the workers had employment contracts and had instead only been ‘promised’ salaries of US$300-$1500 a month once they reach their destination.

The Maldives is recognised as a destination country for labour trafficking, and to a lesser extent, sex trafficking. Various reports into the practice have identified key appeals to traffickers in the form of poor oversight and monitoring of work permit requests, and a near-total lack of enforcement or investigation of traffickers in favour of swiftly deporting victims – many of whom go into substantial debt paying bogus ‘recruitment fees’ of up to US$4000.

However the statement from the Philippines suggests the country’s lack of oversight of foreign worker employment is also being exploited by traffickers to transit victims.

Domestically, “Recruitment agents in source countries collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labor of migrant workers”, read a recent report from the US State Department’s human trafficking monitoring office.

Despite widespread acknowledgement of the practice and the government’s submission of a draft anti-trafficking bill to parliament in December 2012, the Maldives still has no specific laws prohibiting human trafficking and “the government of the Maldives made minimal anti-trafficking enforcement efforts during the year.”

While forced labour was prohibited under the 2009 Employment Act, it was not penalised, the report noted.

“The government reported investigating four and prosecuting two sex trafficking cases in 2012, compared to no prosecutions recorded in 2011,” the report stated.

However “the government did not report any prosecutions of government employees for alleged complicity in trafficking-related offenses [and] the absence of government translators prevented foreign trafficking victims from pursuing recourse through the Maldivian legal system.”

The Maldives was placed on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for the fourth consecutive year, and faces mandatory downgrading to Tier 3 next year along with Afghanistan, Barbados, Chad, Malaysia, Thailand unless it addresses the problem.

Tier 3 countries are defined by the State Department as those which “neither satisfy the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking nor demonstrate a significant effort to do so”, and are open to non-humanitarian and non-trade international sanctions.


Human trafficking on the rise, warn police

Police have reported a day-by-day increase in human trafficking in the Maldives, pointing to the rising numbers of illegal expatriate workers as evidence of the practice.

So far this year 308 cases have been reported to police involving expatriates leaving their sponsors, and more than 4000 passports belonging to illegal migrants have been found.

On June 11 “a huge number” of expats were brought to the Maldives illegally using forged documents, police said in a statement.

An ongoing police investigation into labour trafficking this year 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 former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to the Maldives, Dr Selina Muhsin, had told police that many Bangladeshi workers were brought to the Maldives through the promise of high salaries and employment, which was not forthcoming, police said.

In today’s statement, police noted that the Maldives still lacked a specific law against human trafficking, but said that enslavement and forced labor was a violation of the constitution. An Anti-Trafficking Act was now being drafted, police observed, and called for a policy of information sharing between concerning institutions, as well as guideline for treating victims.

This year 35 police officers were trained to combat human trafficking and police took part in a workshop held on ‘Integrated Approach to Combating Trafficking in Persons, organised by the International Organisation for Immigration (IMO), the statement said.

During her visit to the Maldives last week, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay highlighted the plight of expatriate labourers in the Maldives, who make up a third of the population and in many cases have been lured to the country by unscrupulous employment brokers.

“The Minister of Foreign Affairs [Ahmed Naseem] is very aware of the suffering of foreign workers, and agreed that something needs to be done for these people,” Pillay said.

“You can’t have 60,000 people suffering here while performing work for the benefit of Maldivians and the tourism industry, and pretend this is invisible. The media has a role to give these people a voice so they can explain their problems.

“Many of them are trafficked and the little money they earn is exploited. This is of grave concern to me, because people like this are are protected under the UN Convention on Migrant Workers and their Families. I have urged the Maldives to ratify this, and regularise the presence of 60,000 people

“I also call for an end to the stereotyping of these people as a threat and unwanted.”

In July, members of Male’ City Council proposed solutions to “the nuisance and bother of expatriates [congregating] at the Republic Square”.


Dhaka Embassy to issue Maldives work visas pre-arrival in trafficking reduction effort

Bangladeshi nationals will be issued work visas by the Maldives High Commission in the national capital of Dhaka, in an attempt to address booming numbers of workers arriving in the country.

Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid told Minivan News that Bangladeshi workers would require additional documents verified and issued in Bangladesh before their work visas and ID cards could be issued in the Maldives.

Following the cabinet decision to implement the changes on Tuesday (June 7), Minivan News understands that the government will outline the particulars of the new system during a press conference early next week.

Newspaper Haveeru reported that the decision would also include a programme to identify and deport illegal workers currently in the country.

Shahid has previously estimated that the number of expatriate workers in the Maldives would reach 100,000 in June – a third of the population. The government has no figures, but estimates that up to half that number may be illegal.

The high percentage of foreign workers relative to the Maldives’ foreign currency income has forced the government to confront the country’s heavy reliance on expatriate labour as part of wider economic reforms.

recent report by economics lecturer and Assistant Manger of the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA)’s Monetary policy and Research Division, Ibrahim Ameer, estimated that each expatriate worker was remitting US$100 per month to their families back home.

Ameer estimated that this was draining the country of US$8 million in foreign currency every month – in comparison, a greater amount than the country was earning from the Tourism GST.

Stopping traffic

Former Bangladeshi High Commissioner Professor Selina Mohsin told Minivan News last year that 40 Bangladeshi nationals were arriving at reception daily, “having come to the Maldives and found they have nothing to do.”

In early 2010, as an experiment, Professor Mohsin stopped attesting work permit requests and observed that this hardly dented arrivals.

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.

“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,” Professor Mohsin said in an earlier interview with Minivan News, explaining that brokers would then charge individual workers between up to US$4000 to arrange their employment in the Maldives.

In many cases the family home and land was sold or mortgaged to raise this fee, split two-thirds in favour of the Maldivian broker.

One application that arrived on her desk – approved by the Ministry of Human Resources – was a request for 1800 workers for an unspecified construction project.

“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,” Professor Mohsin told Minivan News at the time.

One broker investigated last year by Bangladeshi authorities was thought to be involved in a labour trafficking operation to the Maldives worth upwards of US$3.6 million.

Shahid acknowledged that the forging of documents in both the Immigration Department and the Human Resources Ministry was the subject of an ongoing police investigation.

The new requirements would not impact the Maldives’ policy of issuing tourist visas on arrival, he said, as this was already policed by requiring visitors to have a pre-existing hotel reservation.

Meanwhile, immigration authorities today arrested three people for attempting to leave the country on fake passports, including a Malaysian man, a Chinese woman and her 18 year old son.

Haveeru reported that the Malayisan man was believed to have arranged false Taiwanese passports for the other two passengers that were arrested.

Police said the matter was a suspected case of human trafficking.