Sun article alleging Indian deportation of Maldivian nationals “mischievous” misinformation: High Commissioner Mulay

Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives D M Mulay has accused local news outlet Sun Online of attempting to “mischievously” spread misinformation, after it published an article alleging that India had begun to deport Maldivian nationals.

On Tuesday (March 19), Sun published an article claiming that the Indian Bureau of Immigration had been informing Maldivians – who are residing in India without a specific reason – to leave the country.

The article entitled ‘More difficulties for Maldivians living in India’ has attracted criticism from both the Indian High Commission and the Maldives Foreign Ministry, who have both denied any knowledge of such practices being undertaken.

Speaking to Minivan News, High Commissioner Mulay claimed that the Sun article was an attempt to spread incorrect information between both India and the Maldives.

“We have not received any such reports from our country regarding this matter. The article is a mischievous attempt to spread misinformation between the two countries,” said Mulay.

The article reported that Mohamed Ashraf, a Maldivian who has been living in India with his family since 2008, was suddenly told by Indian immigration to leave the country within seven days.

When Ashraf had asked for the reason for his sudden deportation, Indian immigration allegedly told him they were not required to give any reason to foreigners living in the country, the article states.

The article further claimed that a Registration Officer had told Ashraf that “more Maldivians will be issued such orders in the future”.

A media official from the Maldives Foreign Ministry said that it had not received any information regarding the issue, stating that “these things are all rumours”.

Responding to the criticism, Editor of Sun and Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) President Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir stated that the news outlet did not speculate or provide misinformation through its reports.

“The information we published is from the interview we got from the guy [Ashraf]. It is a practice of freedom of expression,” he said.

“We have received a lot of complaints from people living in India and they say they are having difficulties with visas. We are carrying people’s opinions.”

While Sun was able to obtain a copy of the document ordering Ashraf to leave the country, the article does not state whether any relevant government officials had been contacted for comment.

An official from within the Indian High Commission further denied that the Indian government was “clamping down” on Maldivians living in the country.

“There is no clamp down, except on those who flagrantly violate visa conditions. For example, people running guest houses on dependent visas.

In regard to the published article, the official asked: “Since when do we start believing in all media news? Most ‘news’ is published without checking with relevant parties.

“Incidentally, I still do not see any progress on any of India’s concerns like the seizure of passports [in the Maldives],” he added.


Corrupt immigration practices, unregulated agencies fueling migrant worker abuse

Corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers are limiting efforts to curb abuse of migrant workers and prevent illegal practices such as retaining staff passports, a Maldivian trade union has alleged.

The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) has claimed that while companies are not permitted to retain the passports of foreign workers, some hospitality operators – as well as unregulated third party agencies and government ministries – are still keeping employee travel documents without consent.

The comments were made as a source with knowledge of the current immigration system told Minivan News that the practice of retaining passports – a long-standing habit of Maldivian employers – was a key contributor to human trafficking in the country.

The source, who wished to remain anonymous, said despite improvements late last year among some state employers, the issue still needed significant work from government and private enterprise if it was to be resolved.

Last year, the Department of Immigration and Emigration issued a notice (Dhivehi) expressing concern at the rising numbers of undocumented workers in the country, and set out a revised visa system to try and combat potential people trafficking.

The document included a clause stating that under no circumstances should a passport or travel documents be possessed by anyone other than the rightful owner, and threatened legal action against anyone found to have infringed these rights on the grounds of human trafficking.  An unofficial translation can be read here.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

In October last year, a senior Indian diplomatic official 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.

Tourism workers

With the tourism industry one of the largest employers in the Maldives, TEAM Secretary General Mauroof Zakir alleged that relevant authorities in the country were either not able, or unwilling, to address abuse of foreigners.

“The issue of abuse of migrant workers is not being addressed by concerned authorities very much. We have a corrupted Immigration Department that is not able to handle these issues,” he said.

According to Mauroof, the practice of resort operators keeping worker passports was a “complicated issue” due to the common practice of outsourcing the hiring of foreign staff to agencies. He contended that a number of resorts and hotel operators were either keeping passports of staff themselves, or doing so through third party employment agents.

“Passports are being kept, often for stupid reasons. While passports should not be kept by employees, I am sure companies are doing this anyway,” he said.

Mauroof claimed that even this week, TEAM had received complaints that one multi-national hotel operator in Maldives was insisting on retaining the passports of its foreign staff, in some cases against their wishes.

Mauroof also criticised the use of third party employment agencies in particular, alleging that by relying on unscrupulous labour suppliers, resorts risked inadvertently hiring illegal workers.

“One complaint we received involved a resort paying a group of migrant workers US$100 as a monthly basic salary,” he claimed, adding that this did not include service charge payments.

A common human rights abuse involved the housing of foreign staff in substandard conditions. In one example, a group of labourers from Bangladesh were not provided with a toilet in their accommodation, forcing them to use the facilities at nearby mosques.

According to Mauroof, although TEAM’s constitution did allow for foreign workers to become members, only a small number of migrant employees had so far joined the union.

TEAM said it was at present handling three cases relating to the treatment of foreign staff.

With a majority of the country’s tourism workforce made up of foreign staff, Mauroof expressed concern that a large number of immigrant workers could see their basic rights infringed by employers with no realistic chance of seeking legal redress.

Societal attitude

A source with knowledge of the Department of Immigration’s work over the last several years said that while employers, including government ministries, had stepped up efforts to cease retaining passports, it would take “some time” before the issue was resolved.

The source claimed that the practice of retaining passports had been part of the employment culture in the Maldives for a long time, and that changing wider societal attitudes was challenging.

“Withholding passports infringes the basic rights of workers. We are talking about someone’s identity here. Addressing the matter is also the first step in working to prevent human trafficking,” the source claimed. “[Retaining passports] has been part of the culture here for a long time – the Education Ministry and Tourism Ministry have all done this. Keeping passports has been practised since foreign experts began coming to the Maldives.”

The source told Minivan News that the Department of Immigration and Emigration has sent “numerous memos” against the practice of retaining passports, but alleged that certain agencies favoured keeping worker documentation to better manipulate them.

“This is a common practice seen all over the world. But it creates major problems. If a foreigner wishes to go to law enforcement agencies for assistance, they will be asked to identify themselves with a passport,” the source said.

Third party agencies appeared to want to keep the passports to be able to “manipulate” foreign workers for their own financial advantage, the source explained.

“I do not believe that people are aware [keeping passports] is such a bad thing. Big companies, government employers and resort companies are all known to have done it,” the source claimed. “There has been an improvement that we have seen since late 2012 towards stopping the retention of passports. We have talked with government ministries and tried to resolve the matter, however when passports are being kept for visa processing they are not always returned.  This is a big challenge for employees in the outer atolls.”

The same source stressed that while ministries were showing improvements in returning passports to foreign workers, it may take “some time” till the matter was addressed properly.

Minivan News understands at present that the Department of Immigration is temporarily unable to renew work visas for expatriates, and is instead providing a three month extension period to foreign workers as a stop-gap measure. The temporary measures were imposed as a result of ongoing disputes over the controversial implementation of a new border control system provided by Malaysia-based IT firm, Nexbis.

Sources within the immigration department warned Minivan News that the country could have to resort to a “a pen and paper system” for monitoring immigration if the country’s courts approve a parliament vote to scrap the Nexbis deal, without providing an adequate replacement.

Resort challenges

Several resort operators in the Maldives, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while they did not use employment agencies themselves, the level of bureaucracy faced in hiring staff – especially for properties far from Male’ – did sometimes require third party assistance.

The general manager of one resort told Minivan News that the property had its own HR department to obtain documentation for its foreign employees, rather than relying on a third party.

“We do all the application processes ourselves and we have staff passports here in a fire-proof safe,” he claimed. “Staff can have these documents back whenever they request them.  If they do not want to be here, they are welcome to leave.”

Despite having opted against the use of employment agencies, the general manager added that, particularly for resorts in the country’s outer atolls where travel to the capital was difficult, some hospitality operators had little choice but to turn to employment agencies.

“In their defence, the state uses such a bureaucratic system that the government plays a part in these problems,” he claimed. “They have to simplify the [visa application] process. I would say some 70 percent of the rules they have are a joke.”

Another multi-national resort operator with properties across the Maldives confirmed that it did make use of some employment agencies, but favoured sourcing staff either internally from other operations, or from local islands. A source from the resort stressed that in the two years they had worked at the property, they had received no complaints concerning employment agencies they had used to bring in foreign workers.

Blue Ribbon Campaign

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this month inaugurated an initiative targeted at raising awareness of the human trafficking issue in the Maldives.

Entitled ‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’, the strategy is expected to include activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community.

The Foreign Ministry announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with multiple local media outlets in the country as part of the campaign’s aim to raising awareness of human trafficking and other related issues.

The Maldives has come under strong criticism internationally in recent years for the prevalence of people trafficking, and the  country has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row.


Foreign Ministry claims resolution found to Indian visa “difficulties”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said recent difficulties experienced by Maldivians in trying to obtain medical visas for travel to India have been resolved through ongoing discussions between the two countries.

Late last month, Maldivian citizens wishing to apply for visas allowing them to travel to India for medical treatment were forced to queue outside the Indian High Commission in Male’, sometimes for days, as a result of tightened restrictions by Indian authorities.

Indian authorities stressed last week that tighter visa restrictions for Maldivians were  a “signal” for the country’s government to address a number of its concerns about how the nation treated migrant workers.  Among its key concerns was the practice of Maldivian employers confiscating the passports of foreign workers.

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

Ibrahim Muaz Ali, Communication Director for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, told Minivan News this week that talks with the Indian High Commission were ongoing in an attempt to resolve difficulties facing people wishing to travel to India for treatment.

He confirmed that the discussions were focused in areas such as facilitating the transfer of Indian prisoners suffering from ill health.

Muaz added that the issue of tighter restrictions for medical travel had been “directly linked” to concerns raised by the Indian High Commission.  He added that although no agreements had as of this week been made on issues such as prisoner transfer, Maldivians were once again able to travel for medical care without facing significant queues.

“Before there have been lots of difficulties [with getting medical visas],” he claimed. “But we have now been given 50 to 60 ticket numbers a day [for processing the documents].”

Muaz said that with discussions ongoing, the foreign ministry has been able to start a phone service allowing applicants seeking a medical visa to India to SMS their details to a special number. Under its agreement with the High Commission, the ministry has said it can then follow up with each person using the service to facilitate medical travel.

Muaz added that in cases of serious illness, such as patients wishing to travel abroad for cancer treatment, patients were receiving fast tracked entry into India.

High Commission concerns

Asked about the efforts being undertaken to address concerns raised by the Indian High Commission – such as the transfer of prisoners – Muaz said that the Foreign Ministry had been looking at the issue.

Local media reported Thursday (January 3) that efforts were being made by Maldivian authorities “within the contours of the law” to release Indian nationals imprisoned in the Maldives in cases where they were found to have been in ill health.

Muaz added that after having been asked to facilitate such a transfer by the High Commission, no decision had yet been taken on how the request would be handled.

“What we have been asked to do at present is a very broad request [from Indian authorities],” he said. “It is an ongoing process and we are looking at the issue, but we have not yet confirmed any agreement.”

Speaking to Minivan News last week, a spokesperson for the Indian High Commission said that the issue of transferring ill prisoners was one of a number of concerns it hoped to see addressed.

“This is one of the areas [for the Maldives to address] and we have requested for either a pardon or repatriation as per an agreement signed during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister in November 2011,” the spokesperson said.

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

The High Commission also claimed during 2012 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 fulfill their responsibilities.

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


Maldives “enslaving” migrant workers by withholding passports, warns Indian official

A senior Indian diplomatic official in the Maldives has 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 diplomatic source, who wished not to be identified, has told Minivan News that although several government ministries were critical of the practice of withholding the passports of foreign staff coming to work in the country, the state had taken no action.

Some Ministries – such as the Education Ministry – themselves routinely confiscate passports of migrant workers.

“I’ve not met a single government minister who says that such a system [withholding passports] is legal,” the source said, claiming that they had seen little “real progress” from authorities in trying to address these concerns over the last 10 months.

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.

In the report, the Maldives is mainly flagged as a destination country for victims of labour exploitation, particularly from Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, India, but was also noted as a destination for sex trafficking.

“An unknown number of the 80,000 to 110,000 foreign workers that government officials estimate are currently working in Maldives – primarily in the construction and service sectors – face conditions indicative of forced labour: fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, or debt bondage,” the 2012 report notes.

According to the source within the Indian High Commission, by impinging on a person’s right of movement – such as by taking their right to travel freely between different countries – migrant workers without passports were essentially being subjected to “slavery” in the Maldives.

“Slavery is of course not permitted under Islam, but this system also incurs cost for the Maldivian people,” the source claimed, pointing to the rising costs of trying to attract skilled workers such as teachers to the country, when compared to other countries like Sri Lanka.

According to the High Commission, Indian workers experienced similar treatment with regard to their passports being withheld when they first began migrating to nations within the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

“This was at a time when there was not much opportunity for work for skilled Indian workers,” he said. “However, now they have the choice of where to work and conditions have greatly improved.”

The diplomatic source said that countries such as Saudi Arabia had moved away from keeping the passports of migrant workers, as well as ensuring improved working conditions so they could attract the best staff for positions.

From the perspective of the Maldives, the high commission representative likened the attitude of many of the country’s employers towards hiring foreign staff as being synonymous with “ownership”, something he said did not reflect the critical need for foreign workers in the Maldives – both skilled and unskilled.

“If you are giving visas to these people then they are obviously needed. But if you need something you must also value it. Should you buy a expensive piece of electronic equipment, you would not go throwing it around and treating it badly,” the source suggested.

Contacted about the passport issue, Abdul Razak Ibrahim, Director General for the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth, and Sport, forwarded enquiries to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, which he said now dealt with employment issues.

Both Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali and Deputy Controller Ibrahim Ashraf were not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

Indian concerns

The issue of retaining passports is one of a number of concerns about the wider treatment of migrant workers from India and the South Asia region in the Maldives.

Earlier this year, the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Male’, Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal, questioned the treatment of workers from the country, who he said were regularly being brought to the Maldives to perform unskilled work, usually in the construction industry. Awal alleged that upon arriving, expatriates from Bangladesh were suffering from the practices of “bad employers”.

“This is a real problem that is happening here, there have been many raids over the last year on unskilled [expatriate] workers who are suffering because of the companies employing them. They are not being given proper salaries and are paying the price for some of these employers,” he said.

Rear Admiral Awar added that it was the responsibility of employers to ensure expatriate staff had the proper documentation and suitable living standards.

Concerns about the treatment of expatriates from across the South Asia region were also shared by Indian High Commissioner Dynaneshwar Mulay. Speaking to Minivan News, Mulay has previously raised concerns over the general treatment of Indian expatriates in the Maldives, particularly by the country’s police and judiciary.

Mulay claimed that alongside concerns about the treatment of some Indian expatriates in relation to the law, there were significant issues relating to “basic human rights” that needed to be addressed concerning expatriates from countries including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.