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.