Syrian refugees show up Maldives’ immigration failings

Rising numbers of refugees seeking to use the Maldives as a transit point has laid bare the country’s need to review its immigration procedures, says the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM).

“The government needs to bring policies into line with human rights conventions,” said HRCM member Jeehan Mahmood.

“The current procedures do not ensure the refugee’s safety – this is not correct, this is not right. The government needs to review and re-visit procedures to ensure its actions to not violate human rights.”

The most recent example of the government’s inconsistent approach to the issue involved a Syrian Palestinian man named Ubaid* who travelled with his family from Dubai, arriving in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

A family member told Minivan News that Ubaid had travelled to the Maldives after seeing media reports of another family who had been granted asylum in Sweden after seeking transit via the Maldives.

The family source explained that Ubaid was a third generation refugee, with a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)-issued refugee card which shows he was formerly resident in the Yarmook camp, just outside of Damascus.

“He was injured while in his home at that camp/suburb and so his left arm is somewhat paralyzed with 20 metal screws and metal plates holding remnants of his bones together, and lots of pain-killers. He does have x-rays to show those metal screws and plates.”

“His concern is that if the Maldivian authorities do what they said they would do – send him and his family back to Dubai – then Dubai would send him directly to Syria. And with an injury like what he has, the government would suspect him of being with the rebels, which he is not. He’s too old to be fighting,” the source continued.

The previous Palestinian refugees arriving in the Maldives were eventually granted asylum in Sweden after an appeal from the UNCHR.

Despite having legitimate travel documents, Ubaid’s family was kept in detention at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport before being flown back to Dubai.

HRCM member Jeehan argued that the government’s current inconsistency was resulting in discriminatory practices inappropriate to a country aspiring to uphold its human rights obligations.

Problem in transit

Local lawyer Abulla Shaairu – who took up the family’s case – described their return to Dubai as “one of the saddest days in my career.”

Shaairu has argued the Criminal Court had denied the family was in detention, making them ineligible for the constitutional right to appear before a judge within 24 hours.

“Detention is defined as restrictions on the freedom of movement – they had no freedom of movement,” said Abdulla Shaairu – an argument that was echoed by Jeehan.

Shaairu stressed that the party had not been seeking asylum in the Maldives, but were hoping for transit to Switzerland.

He claimed that he had been denied their right to meet with him, and that the Criminal Court had refused to provide a written response detailing its decision.

“There are no specific regulations to deal with the situation. People in this type of situation don’t know how they will be treated,” he said.

“I think at this moment it is very necessary – so many people arrive because of civil war.”

The extent of the recent fallout from the Syrian civil war on arrivals to the Maldives has been revealed in a leaked document from the department of immigration.

The confidential document details the cases of 12 Syrian nationals arriving in the country since mid-July, with the document revealing that all but four have been immediately sent back to their last point of departure.

As a tourist hub granting tourist visas upon arrival – and with a large number of flights to and from the EU every day – the Maldives is increasingly attractive as a transit destination, the document revealed.

The powers of the Immigration Controller do not override the constitution, nor human rights law, argued Jeehan.

“These people are just searching for a safer place for their family and children.”

*name has been changed


Palestinian refugee family to remain in Maldives while authorities assist with resettlement

Four Palestinian refugees who arrived in the Maldives on July 9 will remain on the airport island of Hulhule’ until authorities can resettle the group in another country, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced.

The Palestinian nationals, who Minivan News understands had previously fled to Syria, arrived in the country earlier this month on a flight from Dubai with a “questionable” travel document supplied by Syrian authorities.

The arrival of the refugees to the Maldives has been described by former Maldives Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed as a relatively unprecedented development for the nation, which has never previously entertained asylum seekers or refugees – mainly due to a lack of individuals seeking such a status.

“There does not appear to be an official mechanism to deal with such claims either,” Dr Shaheed explained today.

“However, those who have drifted into the Maldives by sea have been repatriated to their home countries, and it is only those whose nationality has not been identified who have remained in limbo in Maldives, sometimes under detention, as the case with some alleged Somali pirates.”

In a statement issued today, the foreign ministry said that under local laws, individuals travelling to the Maldives with false documentation were to be refused entry to the country.

However, the ministry said it had been informed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on July 14 that the Palestinian family were believed to be registered as refugees. The family has also told government authorities that they are listed with the United Nations Relief and Works Agencies for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The Foreign Ministry said it understood the Palestinian nationals had been living until recently in Syria, before seeking to leave the country due escalation of conflict between government and rebel forces.

“Upon receiving request from UNHCR, the ministry intervened and requested the Department of Immigration and Emigration to allow the family to remain in the Maldives, as returning the family from the same route as they came in would leave to high probability of the family being returned to war-torn Syria,” read the foreign ministry statement.

“[Returning the family to Syria] is not acceptable to the government of the Maldives.”

Citing involvement with the case “purely on a humanitarian basis”, senior officials in the government have since met with the family, who have said they had no intention of staying in the Maldives indefinitely.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the Palestinian nationals have sought relocation to Europe, where other members of their family are already believed to have settled.

“Deputy Chief of Mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Mr Hans Friedrich Schodder and Mr Abid Mohudin, Interviewing Officer, arrived in the Maldives on July 23 2013, and have met with the family,” the ministry stated.

“UNHCR officials have already gathered information from the family on refugee status determination and has assisted in the resettlement submission.”

Government authorities are now working with the UNHCR to try and help the family resettle in Europe in collaboration with the Palestinian Embassy in Colombo also assisting.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the embassy had already provided assurances that all necessary travel documents would be provided to the family once the UNHCR has resolved the process of their resettlement.

Meanwhile, the family continue to be held at an unspecified location on the airport island, with authorities pledging to provide food, medical assistance and other necessary facilities, the Foreign Ministry has said.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was on leave when contacted for a comment today, forwarding request for further information to department Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz.

Munaaz was not responding to calls at time of press.

International rules

Former Former Minister Dr Shaheed, who has served in the role under the governments of both former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed, said international rules on refugees were governed by the 1951 Refugees Convention and the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention.

He added that the Maldives was not a party to such treaties. However, Dr Shaheed said that certain requirements in dealing with refugees were included in customary international law, requiring all nations to abide by them.

“The most important such customary international law principle is that of non-refoulement, whereby an asylum seeker should not be sent back to a country where he or she would face threats to his/her life or freedom,” he said.


Maldives included in United Nations’ US$2 million anti-piracy project

United Nations Trust Fund for the Fight against Piracy has approved a US$2 million package of projects for affected nations, including the Maldives.

The aim of the five projects, approved April 30, is to ensure ongoing piracy trials are conducted in a fair and efficient manner and that the human rights, health and safety of individuals suspected of piracy are protected. This includes facilitating the repatriation of detainees suspected of piracy from the Maldives to Somalia.

Other initiatives involve providing support to law enforcement authorities and prosecutors in “front-line States” to investigate illicit financial flows from piracy. Biometrics-based fishermen database systems will also be implemented to support monitoring and surveillance of fisheries resources, while also providing important information to counter-piracy forces. Projects have been approved for Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Seychelles, and the Maldives.

United Nations Assistant-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Tayé-Brook Zerihoun acknowledged the gains made in controlling piracy, but stressed that the international community “should not be under any illusion that piracy has been conclusively brought under control” during the announcement of the projects in New York.

“The dramatic decline in pirate attacks is clear evidence of years of hard work by United Nations Member States, international and regional organizations, and actors in the shipping industry,” said Zerihoun.

“The international community should continue to support the efforts of Somalia and States in the region to strengthen their maritime law enforcement capacities and their rule of law sector.

“With the Trust Fund’s resources largely spent, now is the time to replenish the Fund to bridge critical gaps in counter-piracy efforts,” he added.

The United Nations Trust Fund for the Fight against Piracy was established in 2010 and have received approximately US$17 million in contributions from member states and the maritime industry. The funds have been used for 31 projects, totalling approximately US$16 million, and “short-term needs related to unforeseen expenditures”.

The purpose of the trust fund is to “defray expenses” associated with prosecuting suspected pirates and undertaking other activities to fight piracy.

The trust fund’s Board is comprised of 10 voting member States – Germany, Italy, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Norway, Qatar, Seychelles, Somalia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom – and three non-voting entities, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS).

Piracy threat

The Maldives is situated at a strategic intersection of sea trade routes, and a significant amount of global maritime traffic passes through or near the country’s northern atolls.

Due to increasing pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean and the frequent encounters with Somali castaways in Maldivian territory, maritime experts have speculated that the piracy threat is growing in Maldives.

“We are very concerned about piracy in the Maldives since we are located in the Indian Ocean, one of the major areas [at risk],” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali told Minivan News today (May 6).

“The Maldives has already raised these issues with international organisations and international media,” he added.

Ali confirmed that although recent joint military exercises with neighboring SAARC countries, such as India and Pakistan, were not solely for anti-piracy purposes, that issue was included.

“We are seeking protection [from pirate attacks] from SAARC countries,” said Ali.

In an effort to address the growing threat of piracy and rising concerns over the security within Maldivian territorial waters and the wider Indian Ocean, the Government proposed an anti-Piracy bill in January 2013.

The stated purpose of the bill is to establish a legal framework to deal with piracy within the territorial waters of the Maldives amidst concerns at the growing risk of maritime crime in the Indian Ocean over the last few years.

The bill also seeks to outline legal procedures to deal with individuals suspected of committing acts of piracy within Maldivian territorial waters, give that such procedures do not presently exist in the country’s legal system.

Pirate attacks

The Maldives experienced the first confirmed case of piracy within its waters back in March 2012, when a Bolivian-flagged vessel headed for Iran was hijacked by Somali pirates. The vessel was released a few days later.

The Maldives’ government first expressed concern over the growing piracy threat in 2010 after small vessels containing Somali nationals began washing up on local islands.

In March 2012, 40 Somali castaways in the custody of Maldives authorities refused to return home despite arrangements that were made for their safe repatriation.

“Some of the Somali refugees are not in the Maldives. I can’t say exactly how many have been repatriated. The process has been ongoing. The Home Ministry and so many others are involved,” explained Ali.

In January 2012, an American luxury passenger line en route to the Seychelles was stranded in the Maldivian waters due to an alleged “piracy risk”, while the passengers departed to the Seychelles through airline flights.