Maldives off US State Department trafficking watchlist

The Maldives has been removed from the US State Department’s Tier 2 watch list for human trafficking following the introduction of legislation last December.

This year’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report – regarded as the key global measure of anti-trafficking efforts – sees the Maldives avoid relegation to Tier 3 along with the accompanying sanctions.

“The Government of Maldives does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” read the report.

The report – released yesterday (June 20) – saw Venezuela, Malaysia, and Thailand join 20 other countries deemed to be making no significant efforts to reduce trafficking.

Other states on Tier 3 include Zimbabwe, North Korea, Russia, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia.

While the introduction of the Anti-trafficking Act in the Maldives was lauded, as well as the opening of the Maldives’ first shelter for trafficking victims and the first conviction for the offence, the report made a number of recommendations for further improvement.

“Serious problems in anti-trafficking law enforcement and victim protection remained,” said the TIP report, which noted that an unknown number of the approximately 200,000 expatriate workers in the country experienced forced labour.

Among the advice given in the report was the development of guidelines for public officials to “proactively identify” victims, noting that thousands of migrants have been deported recently without adequate screening for indications of trafficking.

A voluntary repatriation programme started last December for undocumented workers, while the government has pledged to detain and deport all undocumented workers in the capital Malé over the coming months.

The report called for greater efforts to ensure victims are not penalised for acts committed as a result of being trafficked as well as a systematic procedures for referring victims to care providers.

Recruitment and prosecution

It was noted that the newly introduced legislation made progress towards victim protection – including health care, shelter, counselling, and translation services, in addition to a 90-day in which victims can decide whether to assist authorities in criminal cases.

However, the report’s researchers observed that “victims were often afraid of making statements to the police because they did not believe effective action would be taken on their behalf.”

Blacklisted recruitment agencies – who often recruit migrant workers for up to US$4000 for non-existent jobs – often re-emerged under different names, the report explained.

A government report in 2011 revealed human trafficking to be the Maldives’ second most lucrative industry after tourism – worth an estimated US$ 123 million a year

“Observers reported that Maldivian firms could recruit large numbers of workers without authorities verifying the need for the number requested; this led to an oversupply of workers,” said the State Department report.

Minister of Defence and National Security Mohamed Nazim – also in charge of the Immigration Department – has previously announced that, within twelve months, recruitment quotas will only be issued to agencies rather than individuals.

Immigration Controller Hassan Ali was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

It was also noted in the US report that authorities had again failed to criminally prosecute any labour recruitment agents or firms for fraudulent practices.

“Passport confiscation was a rampant practice by private employers and government ministries, who withheld the passports of foreign employees and victim witnesses in trafficking prosecutions the government did not prosecute any employers or officials for this offence.”

Furthermore, the State Department received reports of organised crime groups – some of whom were said to run prostitution rings – receiving political support.

Yesterday’s report also reiterated suggestions previously given to Minivan News by government officials regarding the disruption caused by the transfer of anti-trafficking efforts to the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

Questions over the state’s ability to implement the landmark legislation were evident throughout the Maldives country profile, as was the law’s failure to distinguish between smuggling and trafficking.

“Observers noted that trafficking-specific training was needed government-wide, especially for investigators, prosecutors and judges,” read the report.

The report’s final recommendation was that the Maldives acced to the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol which supplements the 2000 Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.


Bangladesh halts worker migration to the Maldives

Bangladesh has temporarily blocked its nationals from migrating to the Maldives – 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.

The ‘Dhaka Tribune’ newspaper reported yesterday (September 23) that the country’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) had decided to halt migration to the Maldives over concerns nationals were arriving in the country only to find promised jobs were not available.

It was believed that Bangladesh nationals were – in certain cases – becoming unwitting victims of a “section of unscrupulous recruiting agencies,” the report added.

BMET Director General Shamsun Nahar was quoted in local media as claiming that the number of workers from Bangladesh within the Maldives was thought to be at the “maximum limit” for such a small country.

The High Commissioner of Bangladesh in the Maldives, Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal, today confirmed that the decision was made to check on the eligibility of workers.

“This is a temporary measure for review, genuine job seekers will be allowed to come through the proper procedure,” he said, adding that there were no plans to inspect the wider employment practices of Bangladesh nationals in the country.

Maldives Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali said he had not received any notice of the decision, while other sources in his department were only aware of the matter through media reports.

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by brokers, paying a ‘recruitment’ fee – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin.

In June, the Maldives was placed on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for the fourth consecutive year – the US State Department noting conditions of “forced labour: fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage” of expatriate workers.

Employer view

Former Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) President Mohamed Ali Janah said he was “shocked” by the position taken by Bangladesh authorities to halt migration.

“This represents the ongoing failure of labour management in the Maldives over the last two decades,” he said. “We have seen rampant corruption in how the labour management business has been run by organised criminals for a long time.”

Janah alleged that, as a result the action by Bangladeshi authorities this week, many businesses in the industry were likely to suffer “collateral damage” from the impact on the available foreign workforce.

“We need at least 2,000 to 3,000 workers in the next two weeks for a number of projects overseen by my company,” he said.

Janah said that while his company wished to employ a larger number of Maldivian staff, even if he paid wages of MVR10,000 (US$650) he claimed there was limited interest among the local population to be labourers.

While 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.”

According to Janah, the alleged mismanagement of foreign labour in the country could be resolved within months if local authorities took a genuine effort to resolve the problems through measures such as proper screening of foreign nationals or even DNA testing.

He argued, however, that such a focus would require an elected government with a democratic mandate to conduct such work.

Earlier this year, the Immigration Department confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the year.

This pledge to return a predetermined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were being punished for the actions of employers and agents acting outside the law.


Trapped in the Maldives: foreign nationals stranded due to employers, state failing to resolve visa issues

A growing number of foreign nationals are finding themselves forbidden from leaving the Maldives by immigration staff, due to the failure of state and private employers to renew visa documentation.

The Indian High Commission in the Maldives told Minivan News it was now demanding government intervention after receiving complaints from expatriates claiming they have been blocked from boarding planes at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), and stranded in the country indefinitely.

Minivan News has learned of cases where expatriates from India, the UK, the US and the Philippines have been blocked from leaving the country due to issues with visa documentation attributable to the negligence of state authorities and employers – in some cases, government ministries.

Unable to leave – and in some cases fined extortionate sums on behalf of the employer – foreigners are complaining of being trapped without funds, accommodation or legal representation.

As employers are responsible for arranging work permits on behalf of their foreign employees, foreign nationals are unable to submit or collect their own visa documentation, effectively stranding them in the Maldives at the mercy of their employers and state authorities while renewals are underway.

One UK national, seeking to ensure his own work permit was processed, even told Minivan News he was refused service at the immigration office on the grounds of “Where’s your owner?”.

An Indian High Commission source this week accused authorities of persecuting foreign nationals for the failure of the state and private employers to correctly renew or register foreign staff in the required time, depriving expatriates of their freedom of movement.

In just the past few days, the high commission said two Indian nationals had missed flights and been stranded in the Maldives while waiting for employers and government authorities to resolve the outstanding issues with their paperwork.

One of those affected, licensed pathologist at the state-run Indira Ghandi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), Dr Anjula Jain, was prevented from returning to India last week after completing her contract with the Ministry of Health.

She was forced to wait several days before receiving approval to book another flight with her own money.

Dr Jain has since filed an official complaint over her treatment with the Indian High Commission.

A High Commission source said Dr Jain had been told at immigration counter that she could not leave the country as her work visa had expired, despite the Health Ministry being in the process of renewing her documents.

Despite possessing papers showing the renewal process was ongoing, the doctor was still refused permission to leave.

Dr Jain was then asked to obtain a letter from the Health Ministry confirming the renewal of her documents was underway, before finally obtaining clearance from the Department of Immigration to leave the country days later.

The High Commission source said it was extremely concerned that Maldives employers, especially state authorities such as the Health Ministry, were continuing to employ foreign nationals even after their visas had expired, resulting in serious difficulties for the workers.

“There is a serious problem here for expatriates working for private and government companies where a visa is not renewed in time, with some people even having their bank accounts frozen and being deprived of their rights,” the source said.

“One call is too many,” the source said. “Concerns have been raised with [State Foreign Minister] Hassan Saeed as some similar cases have been brought to our attention. [The commission] will be checking with authorities that a systematic resolution can be found by the government to resolve this issue.”

Trapped in Male

Several foreign staff of varying nationalities working in areas ranging from tourism to the NGO sector have told Minivan News they are effectively barred from leaving due to problems with paperwork they are unable to resolve without the assistance of ambivalent employers and immigration staff.

One US national working in the NGO sector told Minivan News that she remains blocked from leaving the country due to a delay in obtaining a visa stamp in her passport, after discovering at the immigration counter that a previous employer had failed to pay outstanding visa charges.

Speaking to Minivan News on condition of anonymity, the woman said that during a recent attempt to fly to Sri Lanka for a medical reasons, immigration staff  had summoned an airline official, who had ripped up her ticket in front of her.

“I spent a year working for my former employer. It took six months of demanding my passport be returned to me before it was, however I was constantly reassured all my documentation was in order and there were just processing delays. So I was very surprised to discover they had failed to pay the appropriate work visa fees,” she said.

“This has not only caused problems for my current employer, it has put me in a very vulnerable position as an expatriate worker. I’ve been prevented from leaving the country – urgently for health reasons – by the Immigration Department because of these unpaid fees resulting in my documentation not being properly updated.”

The US national said she was now effectively at the mercy of previous employers to resolve the outstanding payments, as she was unable to afford the the MVR 15,000 (US$1000) in fines demanded by immigration authorities to allow her to leave the country.

“Despite being in constant contact with my former employer about these issues, and some of the members showing genuine concern, they have still failed to resolve the issue nearly seven months later. Instead they blame me for these issues, when it’s clearly their own professional incompetence. It’s a foul betrayal to have dedicated so much time and energy, as well as made numerous personal sacrifices, in order to partner with this organisation to achieve their mission, merely to be blatantly disrespected as a professional and individual,” she said.

“Foreign workers in the Maldives – of any nationality – are treated like slaves, or indentured servants at best.  As a professional woman, it’s worse because you have to navigate the sexism and endure a lot of harassment – which would never be allowed if this was a country that respected its foreign employees.”

By contrast, the US national believed the only method to have visa documentation approved in a quick manner was to go through recruitment ‘agents’, alleging that corruption seemed to be endemic within the system, despite tight restrictions imposed on foreign professionals.

“The most ridiculous part of the situation is that in addition to my former employer’s incompetence, the department of immigration has been in a state of flux since Feb 2012, but this is not taken into consideration by the government. They don’t care. Illegal foreign workers are brought into the country and exploited in droves, but immigration punishes legitimate workers claiming they know what they are supposed to do,” she argued.

Employees must take responsibility: Immigration

The Department of Immigration confirmed it was aware that foreign nationals had been prevented from leaving due to their employers not having obtained visas correctly.

However, the immigration authority argued that the Maldives, like countries all over the world, required foreign nationals to have the correct visa documentation to enter or leave the country, even to their homeland.

Immigration Department spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf said all expatriates would be aware that, in order to stay in a foreign country, it was mandatory to have the correct and valid visa.

Ashraf said that there had been a “huge backlog” of visas that were required to be processed by employers such as the health and education ministries, claiming that immigration authorities had made special arrangements to fast track visa renewals.

“This should not be happening,” he said of expatriates being prevented from boarding flights out of the country.

Ashraf claimed the Immigration Department had not been made aware of any concerns raised by the Indian High Commission over the issue of stranded workers, suggesting some issues may have been related to a “huge misunderstanding” of the visa system by employers.

“Payments for visas have to be made to the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA), with passports then officially needing to be processed with the Department of Immigration once payment is complete,” he said. “The visa sticker has to be there in the passport.”

Ashraf stressed that a correct visa sticker was requested by airlines as well as foreign authorities to allow a foreign national to board any international flight.

Health Ministry backlog

Responding to the Indian High Commission’s concerns about Dr Jain, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health Geela Ali told Minivan News said she was unaware of the case.

However, she accepted there had been issues with foreign doctors not being able to leave the country as a result of problems relating to visa extension issues, such as the transfer of staff from health corporations established under the previous government back to the ministry.

Geela insisted there were no longer recurring problems with visa extension of expatriates working for the health ministry, despite a backlog of outstanding documentation preventing staff from leaving, and said many issues had been resolved.

“The matter is now under control, but obviously there will sometimes be employees who cannot leave over visa issues,” she said.

Geela said IGMH was responsible for its large foreign workforce, and any workers who were facing issues leaving the country.

Indian authorities meanwhile last year slammed the government and some private employers for failing to reissue visa documentation to expatriates who were forced in some cases to wait weeks in Male to return home for visits and emergencies, including one worker’s own wedding.

In January, the high commission provided local media with a list of 11 grievances affecting its relationship with the Maldives, including discrimination, the keeping of passports of Indian nationals by employers, and the failure to repatriate mortal remains of foreign workers.

The source expressed confidence that authorities would find a resolution to the various grievances raised, despite claiming that no progress had made on any of the issues raised at time of press.


Comment: ‘Human-trafficking’ to the fore again, but hopes remain

The US State Department’s continued placing of the Maldives on the ‘Tier Two Watch-List for Human-Trafficking’ could not have come at a worse – or better – time for the country’s authorities, particularly those intent on finding a way out for good.

Coming as it does after specific issues flagged by India over the past months, the US warning that Maldives could automatically slip into the ‘Tier Three’ [watchlist] with consequential sanctions of a non-humanitarian kind should be seen as a wake-up call for Male’ to set right matters, which have been allowed to drift for decades now.

At the bottom of the Maldivian plight should be the surge in development and growth inconsistent with the expectations and consequent preparations of the nation – particularly in the tourism sector – over the past three or four decades.

While successive governments have continued with the original policy of allowing foreign investors in big-time resort tourism to expatriate their earnings in dollars, this has also made wages less attractive for locals, with their relative perception of higher educational qualifications, to take up those jobs that are otherwise on offer.

This has led to an anomaly. While local youth can do with more and better-paying jobs, to match the very high cost of living in the country, the employer class on all fronts are dependent on immigrant labour to meet their needs. Thus, for a nation of 350,000, Maldives has an additional expatriate labour population totalling a conservative 100,000.

The US State Department estimate puts the figure upwards of 150,000. It is also the only major ‘labour recipient’ nation in South Asia, with most of them coming from Bangladesh and India, in that order but roughly in 5:3 ratio or thereabouts, followed by Sri Lanka – which used to be the dominant player, including the skills and white-collar sectors, earlier.

Better emigrant laws, regulations and enforcement in countries such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, from where again immigrant labour have been working in Maldives, have made the country less attractive for the work-force from those destinations.

Learning from elsewhere

Maldives can learn from the US and the rest of the west, which as ‘labour-receiving nations’ not only have strict laws and enforcement, but have also become stricter with issuance of visas for immigrant employees – most of them of the white-collar, technocrat variety.

The US still however receives a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled labour from across the border with Mexico. Both the more regulated white-collar immigration and at times illegal immigration of Mexican labour have become hot election issue in the country, entailing government intervention.

Even in the Gulf-Arab region, for which south and South-East Asian nations have been providing the labour class in large numbers from the seventies, if not earlier, constant governmental pressure from overseas (alone) seems to have done the trick. There, the trend is getting reversed lately, with the locals too competing with the immigrants for the fewer available jobs.

Some of the Gulf nations have already begun following the west, in restricting employment opportunities for immigrants to facilitate better job opportunities for the locals.

Not just the Maldives as a nation, but Maldivians society as a whole can benefit from the authorities approaching the immigrant labour issue with an open mind, and raising the standard of labour protection to international levels.

At present, the (hospitality) industry (construction) infrastructure and household sectors are major employers of immigrant labour. Other than the high-end segments of the hospitality industry, others in these sectors do not address issues of labour concern – including minimum and sustainable wages, job-protection, legal remedies in case of employer wrong-doing, including with-holding of employee-passport and criminal intimidation, threats and at times attacks.

Ignorant and vulnerable

All these have made the immigrant labour class vulnerable in more ways than one.

With-holding of passports and non-extension of work-permits by the employer automatically renders the employee ‘illegal immigrant’, culpable to punitive punishment under the local laws. Seldom has there been a case of the authorities acting against the culprit-employer – or, working with host-governments to break the ‘job-racketeer network’, which often exploit the illiteracy and/or ignorance of the migrant labour class in particular.

Some of the insensitivity, if it can be called so, may also owe to the large-scale employment of immigrant labour in the household sector, where long hours of work for relatively low wages may have blinded the officialdom and the political class to the impossibility of the existing situation. The politico-administrative insensitivity to addressing the issues on hand may have been a product of the process.

This is seldom acknowledged, even less acted upon. The trend may have to change, with the political class taking the lead. Thus, the government should initiate legislative and legal measures to ensure fixed timings, minimum wages and other benefits and security for the migrant labour also in the household sector. The message would then spread.

If however, linkages are made between better labour/employee conditions and enforcement, the Maldivian Government would be in a position to attract its youthful population to productive sectors of the nation’s economy, thus churning out a possible process of social re-engineering.

In the absence of such pro-active measures, society has been complaining against itself that their youth power has been exhausting itself on unproductive goals and an ‘unfinished’ work culture.

The Maldivian Government has programmes against drug-abuse and rehabilitation addressing its youth, which otherwise constitutes over 40 per cent of the population. The dependence on the migrant labour could also become less, if only over a period.

A fourth major sector employing emigrant workers is the maldivian government, which has been recruiting teachers, doctors and nurses from countries such as India, which may also be the single largest supplier of white-collar workers of the high-skilled variety in the country.

As instances have been reported in the past, even government authorities have been in the habit of retaining the passports of Indians and other foreigners, at times recruited through shady job-agents.

This by itself may ensure the safety and security of the passports for the immigrant worker, as long as it is voluntary. But the unwarranted and avoidable delays in returning the passport when an employee had to rush back home for an emergency has caused issues both to the affected people and the host governments, which come under continual pressure from their constituencies in very many ways.

In the Maldivian context, it also means that an overseas employer returning home on an emergency call might have to spend an indefinite number of days at Male, spending heavily on an otherwise purposeless stay, to collect the passport. It is unfortunate that the recent Indian decision on registration for Indian visas for Maldivians has caused a similar problem for people from the interior islands with no relation or friend to put up with while in Male, which anyway is a crowded place for them to take such conventional courtesies for granted, any more.

In the famous ‘Menaka Gandhi case’ in 1979, otherwise, the Indian Supreme Court, for instance, had held that the passport of an Indian citizen was the property of the Government of India. It also implied that confiscation/retention of the same without proper legal authority and authorisation (even by Indian Government authorities) could tantamount to an act against the Indian sovereign, entailing the government of India to initiate appropriate measures – if some affected citizen were to approach the courts in India for redress.

Today, much is being said about the Government of India regulating the visa procedure for Maldivian nationals who visit India for medical care and education, their number being upwards of 50,000 each year.

Suggestions have also linked the matter to the controversial ‘GMR issue’. Maldivians wanting to travel to India on work or medical care in particular may have suffered, but there have not been any reported case of the visas for ’emergency patients’ and their attendants either being denied or even delayed, since.

If anything, the Indian authorities in Male’ are said to have prioritised such cases for fast-tracking visa issuance, though there is this avoidable tension for the next of kin who want to travel to India with their relation for emergency medical care.

Over the years, there have also been other cases of Maldivian employers, including the government, holding back passports, denying Indian immigrant employees to visit their dying kin, or lit the pyre of a dead parent, which also has great religious and spiritual significance for most Indians in particular.

What is not often known in Maldives – including the local media, which is otherwise sensitive to the perceived plight of Maldivians, likewise — is that many of these cases make waves in the high-literacy Kerala State in particular, where the media is as well networked as families.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Lately, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. The government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik has started addressing some of the international concerns, including those of India’s.

The immigration authorities have notified that it is illegal for employers to hold back the passports of foreign labour – and the Indian High Commission, maybe among others, in Male has given adequate publicity for the same. Between them, the Maldivian Immigration and the IHC have also put in place a system for prior clearance for the High Commission for employer-recruiters sourcing emigrant labour from India.

Indian immigrant labour in Maldives has also been advised to route their work-permit, passport, etc, through the High Commission’s consular authorities – entailing additional workload for its staff. If found successful, it is not unlikely that the Indian government may (have to) consider extending the process to other embassies, especially in such countries with similar problems.

For foreign employees of the Maldivian government, a decision is said to be on the anvil for the passport-holders to retain their original document.

For others, particularly the lower-end labour class, a via media would still have to be found as they may still not be able to have a safe place to secure their passports and work-permits other than the custody of their employers, some of whom tend to abuse the trust and faith in more ways than one.

Indians may be among the most visible of beneficiaries in this case, their homes not being not far away from the Maldivian coasts could save on time, cost and avoidable agony by not having to camp in high-cost Male’ for a couple of days to collect their passport, after the authorities in the islands and their respective departments had cleared their leave applications.

Otherwise, a government proposal before Maldivian Parliament to clear extradition treaty would help in facilitating prisoner-swap between the two countries, for nationals of one country convicted in the other could undergo their prison-terms, if any, in their native land. Given the limited healthcare facility in Maldives, Indian prisoners would benefit from such a course. It could still be open if Maldivian prisoners in India could choose to spent their terms in Indian jails, or otherwise.

Distracted by democratisation?

It is possible that the turn of political events centred on the advent of multi-party democracy over the past several years may have distracted Maldives, and diffused its attention from equally pressing issues like those flagged by the US Report and highlighted by the specified Indian concern. Yet, the world does not wait for Maldives to set its political house in order – as a succession of US/UN reports on human trafficking and human rights have shown over the past years.

It is sad that a succession of political leadership in the country over the past years had not found the time — and more so the inclination — to address the larger issues cited in the annual reports of the US State Department – which for right reasons and wrong, have come to be acknowledged as bench-mark of an international kind, whether or not one likes it or not.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Immigration Department dismisses reports of expat system “flaw”, won’t rule out abuse by employers

Immigration officials have dismissed reports of a “flaw” in the country’s online expatriate registration system despite expressing concerns the system may be open to abuse by registered companies.

A department spokesperson confirmed this week that although new online registration introduced to try and streamline providing work visas to foreigners was not itself flawed, the system was nonetheless open to abuse from employers who allowed others to access their password-protected accounts.

The Department of Immigration and Emigration has also confirmed it has faced challenges in verifying whether construction projects were real or a front to smuggle foreign labour into the country, but told Minivan News it expects to resolve the issue from next month.

The comments were made after local newspaper Haveeru last week reported that a “serious issue” had been identified within the expatriate registration system installed by the National Centre for Information Technology (NCIT) that had allowed a steep rise in the number of foreign workers coming to the Maldives in May 2013.

Citing an anonymous immigration source, the paper reported that 4,000 expatriate workers had entered the country last month due to certain recruitment agencies abusing a “critical flaw” in the system.  According to the report, the flaw allowed recruiters to obtain an extra quota of foreign workers in order to profit from their transfer into the Maldives.

The NCIT, which was charged with installing the component of the monitoring system, this week rejected suggestions that such a flaw existed in the program in a joint statement (Dhivehi) issued with the Department of Immigration and Emigration.

The expatriate quota system had been assigned through procedures set out by the Immigration Department to the NCIT, the statement read.

Once a quota is obtained, the NCIT stated that an expatriate would only be granted entry into the country upon providing a photograph, their passport bio page and other official documents required by immigration officials that are required to be entered into the system.

“Therefore, we can confirm that 4000 expatriates have not entered the country unknown,” the statement added.

The NCIT’s dismissal of the media report’s comes as the Maldives faces increasing pressure to tackle the issue of unregistered expatriates, with the country appearing on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking.  The country has appeared on the list for three years in a row.

Employer responsibility

Although claiming no technical flaw had been found by authorities within the expat system, immigration spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf told Minivan News that registered employers had a responsibility to prevent abuse of their company accounts.

Ashraf said all companies employing foreigners had to be registered on the expatriate registration system through official documents like a business registration certificate and a valid national ID.

If approved, he said the employer was then assigned through the online account a maximum quota of foreign workers depending on the size of their business or the specific project they were working on.  These accounts are protected with a password.

Ashraf said there were suspicions in the Immigration Department that some employers may have provided access to their unique account to employees, who were in turn bringing in foreign workers under the company’s name – and while personally profiting from trafficking them into the country.

He compared the practice to a member of the public giving their ATM bank card and pin number to another individual, then trusting them not to draw money out from their account.

“People that are being trusted to use [the expat online system] may be doing wrong. I think this is what has been happening. Management maybe putting too much trust in other people to use this system,” Ashraf claimed.

“Systematic abuse”

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

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by agents after paying a ‘recruitment’ fee or entering into debt – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin, most significantly Bangladesh.

In many cases the workers are then brought into the country ‘legitimately’ by a specially-created paper company, created using the ID of a complicit or unwitting Maldivian national, for the stated purpose of working on a ‘construction project’ of dubious existence.

Senior immigration sources confided to Minivan News in April this year that almost no human verification was undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.

Ashraf this week confirmed that there had been “issues” in inspecting construction sites across both the country’s inhabited and resort islands due to a shortage of staff.

However, he claimed that by July 31, 2013, the Immigration Department was to begin inspecting construction and other projects requiring foreign labour with the assistance of local councils and key industry associations.

These groups are expected to include the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) and the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI), according to the Immigration Department.

Ashraf added that the government had recently approved the hiring of an additional 30 staff for the department in order to help oversee what is expected to be a comprehensive audit of the visa system.  Officials would then move to penalise any abuse of the system by local employers.

Unregistered workforce

The exact scale of the Maldives’ unregistered foreign workforce remains unknown, with estimates ranging from between around 40,000 people to potentially double that amount.

Earlier this year, former MACI President Mohamed Ali Janah said an estimated 40 percent of the foreign employees in the construction sector were thought not to be legally registered.

Considering these numbers, Janah said at the time that 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.

Janah claimed that 95 percent of construction groups operating in the country were Maldivian owned. However, as the country’s second largest industry on a GDP basis, the vast majority of employees in the sector were migrant workers, he said.

“We employ a huge workforce of some 60,000 to 70,000 people,” he explained at the time. “Of these people, sadly we have 40,000 to 50,000 who are expatriates.

By April of this year, Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the 2013.

The pledge to return a predetermined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were potentially being punished for the actions of employers or agents acting outside the law.

While the government earlier this year launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, NGOs and independent institutions continue to identify human trafficking as a significant issue needing to be addressed in the country.

Human rights groups in the Maldives have for instance continued to criticise both the present and former governments for failing to pass legislation that would allow authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking.  The legal measures to do so are presently under review in parliament.


HRCM to investigate Immigration Department’s promise of mass repatriation

The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has expressed concern over a pledge by immigration authorities to repatriate 10,000 “illegal” expatriates on the back of wider reservations at the treatment of foreign workers potentially trafficked into the country.

HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud has told Minivan News that the commission was concerned not just over plans to repatriate a predetermined number of unregistered workers, but also whether they were being punished for the actions of employers or agents acting outside the law.

The concerns were raised as the Department of Immigration and Emigration announced yesterday (April 30) that 1,748 foreigners found to be working illegally in the country had been repatriated – the majority by their own request – during the year so far.

Immigration officials also announced commitments to send a further 10,000 unregistered workers back to their home nations during the remainder of 2013.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali said that the repatriated workers had either come to the Maldives with sufficient funding to afford transportation back to their home countries, or that their fares were covered through previously paid “deposits”.

Dr Ali did not however elaborate as to how the immigration department had devised the figure targeting the return of 10,000 unregistered workers to their respective countries.

He stressed that his department would be investigating and punishing employers and agencies responsible for bringing the now unregistered workers to the country if they had acted illegally.

“[The immigration department] will do that with vigour now,” he said.

Dr Ali was reported in local media as adding that 146 foreigners alleged to have involvement in criminal cases were deported this year so far, with 85 illegal workers also sent back to their respective home nations.

“More foreigners come to us voluntarily as we toughen our approach towards them. Everything will be arranged for those who come to us voluntarily. Island Aviation now has direct flights to Dhaka,” he told Sun Online, referring to the large number of Bangladesh nationals working in the country.

Dr Ali told Minivan News last 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 once here.

HRCM investigation

Responding to the immigration controller’s pledge this week, HRCM member Jeehan said that the commission itself had not been consulted by the Immigration Department over its proposed crack down on unregistered workers.

From the perspective of the HRCM, Jeehan said there was particular concern about the safety and vulnerability of the foreign workers set to be returned by authorities, particularly in the case of expatriates who were heavily in debt as a result of paying companies or agents to come to the country to find work.

“If they are working or staying here undocumented, how safe are they to be returned home,” she said. “We must consider how vulnerable some of these people are, it is different for those who request repatriation or course.”

The HRCM is now set to investigate the conditions by which these foreign workers are being repatriated, especially in regards to concerns that unregistered expatriates may have been detained as a result of the actions of agents or employers in the country.

According to Jeehan, issues also needed to be addressed over how the Immigration Department had decided to set a predetermined number of foreign workers that it would look to repatriate.

“How has the state arrived at this number? Whether it is the result of a baseline study or some other research we need to know,” she said. “Also, how is the state identifying the 10,000 workers that need to go back home and are they sure they are undocumented? Questions also need to be asked of what the state is doing with these expatriates before they are sent home. It is unfair if they are being detained as a result of the faults of others.”

Jeehan added that before any undocumented foreign workers were being repatriated, it was also important to ensure that employers had paid the salaries of all staff and were honoring their obligations to workers.

“These employees should be provided with their due wages and compensation, it is for the state to guarantee this,” she added.

Jeehan said that the HRCM was presently seeking to consult the Labour Relations Authority (LRA) over a number of issues that it said would include how unregistered workers were being sent out of the country.

“We will look to meet with the LRA first, as they are the state authority outlining employment practices, s we can see what role they may have had in outlining these policies,” she said.

Jeehan added that if the LRA has not had a role in the outlining this repatriation policy, than the HRCM might “have an issue” with the process.

When contacted by Minivan News today, LRA Assistant Director Aishath Nafa Ahmed said the body had no involvement in outlining policies on the repatriation of foreign workers since last year.

She added that although the LRA was involved in a steering committee that focused on issues surrounding the country’s foreign workforce, the authority had not had any discussions over plans to repatriate 10,000 workers this year.

Human trafficking

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.

Despite the government last year launching a special state program to try and draw awareness to the problems beyond human trafficking, concerns have continued to be raised by various NGOs and authorities at the scale of human trafficking in the country amidst fears of widespread corruption within the visa system.

Just last month, a source working within the immigration department alleged that companies across the Maldives were freely abusing visa regulations by generating fictitious labour demand to directly profit from trafficking foreign workers into the Maldives.

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 in the country.

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 same source claimed.

One former Bangladesh High Commissioner in the Maldives alleged back in 2010 that the exploitation of foreign workers in the country rivalled fishing as the most profitable sector in the national economy after tourism.

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.


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.


Foreign workers locked in house after allegedly “refusing to work and attempting to flee”

Police have discovered six foreign workers locked in a house after they were reportedly accused “of refusing to work and attempting to flee”.

All six of the male workers were found in a house located in the Male’ neighbourhood of Henveiru, according to local media.

While responding to a report made by a foreigner, the police discovered the the workers at approximately 10:30am Monday (April 8).

As the foreign workers exited the house, spectators claimed the workers had refused to do their jobs and as a result had not been receiving their salaries. The man responsible for the workers was also present, reported local media.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali told Minivan News that police were investigating the case and would report back to the Department of Immigration and Emigration.

“We are working on it,” Ali said.

Police Spokesperson Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef was not responding to calls at time of press.

The workers’ nationalities, the conditions of their employment and housing have yet to be confirmed.

Migrant workers

Last week the Department of Immigration said 57 unregistered foreign workers were detained by police on April 1 and were being processed by authorities ahead of a decision on whether they will face deportation.

In February, a Maldivian trade union alleged that corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers was limiting efforts to curb abuse of migrant workers and prevent illegal practices such as retaining their passports.

The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) 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.

At the same time, 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.

In May 2012, a total of 47 Bangladeshi nationals working for a local security firm were seized by the Department of Immigration as part of a wider crackdown on unregistered migrant workers.

Immigration officials at the time claimed that the company the men had been working for had been in operation for 10 -12 years, yet no information could be found on its operations during a subsequent investigation by authorities.

In 2010, it was claimed that the exploitation of foreign workers in the Maldives rivals fishing as the most profitable sector in the Maldivian economy after tourism.

Human trafficking

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

The Maldivian government recently launched a special campaign intended to raise awareness of foreign workers’ rights, while earlier this year eight “fundamental” International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions were ratified in order to bring legislation on employee rights and trade unions in line with international standards.

However, independent institutions in the Maldives have maintained that the country – under successive governments – has yet to ratify a core convention on protecting migrant worker rights, while no legislation is in place to punish those involved in smuggling workers though the country’s borders.

The Prosecutor General (PG’s) Office has also confirmed that a lack of legislation has meant no cases have been prosecuted against human traffickers in the Maldives at present.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has accused state and private sector employers in the country of lacking consistency in their efforts to address human trafficking, preventing “real” change in controlling illegal migration.

In January, President Waheed expressed concern about the rising number immigrants in the Maldives, claiming that the “foreign influence” threatens the country’s “Maldivianness”.


Maldives facing prospect of ‘pen and paper’ border control should Nexbis fall through

Maldivian border control faces an uncertain future and a potential reversion to a ‘pen and paper’ system, an informed immigration source has warned.

The warning follows the donation of a passenger information system by the Indian government, in a bid to strengthen the Maldives’ ability to monitor arrivals.

The new Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), which is designed to provide passport information and other details of incoming travellers before their arrival, was formally handed to Maldivian officials on Sunday (March 17) by outgoing Indian High Commissioner Dnyaneshwar Mulay.

The system has been in place at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) for the last few months and is one of a number of components used by immigration officials.

According to the Indian High Commission, the system was requested by the previous government and installed by a special technical team to ensure it functions correctly.

The APIS technology is not however a direct replacement for the existing border control system, provided by Malaysia-based Nexbis, authorities in the country have said.

Nexbis is currently involved in legal wrangling over whether the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has the power to compulsorily request the government to cease all work in relation to the border control system agreement.

The Nexbis border control system is still presently in use by immigration officials at INIA, after the Supreme Court issued an injunction halting the scrapping of the controversial system by parliament.

However, a source with knowledge of current immigration practices said no alternative border control system was available should the government terminate its concession agreement with Nexbis’.

“So far we don’t have any alternative to the [Nexbis] system going forward. We are using the system and waiting for the courts to decide. However, if the court decides [in favour of the ACC], we will need a new system in place,” the source told Minivan News. “Without [an alternative], the system would go haywire. A replacement would have to be found. We cannot go back to the 1970s and just use books and paper.”

The Indian APIS system will speed up the processing of arrivals through the immigration gates, as well as improve wider resources available to immigration officials, the source said.

APIS system is an internationally recognised means of collecting passenger data before an individual arrives at their destination, designed to allow immigration authorities to know if anyone on an incoming service is included on a watch-list or travel ban, authorities have said.

“Use of the system is mandatory for some countries, though not for the Maldives yet,” the source added. “Before they arrive, the system can identify if a passenger is on a watch-list and spot them. This process can be done much quicker now [by immigration officials].”

The data included within the APIS is provided by two of the world’s largest air authorities including the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Although its use is mandatory for all services into Europe, the service is not at present required for all flight services to the Maldives, according to the source.

“Now we need a mandatory legal framework to make airlines coming into the country comply,” added the source. “There is a heavy charge for using this software, but I don’t think we have to pay at the moment as India has donated the technology.”

Despite legal wrangling over the future of the controversial border control agreement with Nexbis, the same source added that APIS would be compatible with any system used by authorities.

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

Trafficking  concerns

While refuting allegations of any corruption or wrongdoing in being awarded a contract under the previous government to install and operate a border control system for the Maldives, Nexbis earlier this year said it would not rule out criminal involvement behind attempts to “sabotage” its contract with the government.

Immigration control has become a massive issue for the Maldives in recent years with the country appearing on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row.

Back in January this year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs inaugurated an initiative targeted at raising awareness of human trafficking issues in the Maldives.

Despite these commitments, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has accused state and private sector employers in the country of lacking consistency in their efforts to address human trafficking in recent years, preventing “real” change in controlling illegal migration.

Speaking back in February 2013, HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud told Minivan News that despite attempts under the present government to try and introduce new legislation, the Maldives had made little progress towards improving the treatment and rights of foreign workers over the last four years.

Addressing the current scope of unregistered foreign labour, Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) President Mohamed Ali Janah said an estimated 40 percent of the foreign employees in the sector were thought not to be legally registered.

Considering these numbers, Janah said he too could not rule out the involvement of organised crime within some of the country’s employment agencies, which supply a large amount of foreign labour to building sites in the Maldives.

Correction:  A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Supreme Court was set to rule on whether Nexbis’ agreement with the Maldivian government to install and operate a border control system was legal.  The court case is actually being held to decide on whether the ACC has the power to order a halt to the project.  Minivan News has corrected the error.