Ihavandhoo council’s restrictions spark debate about treatment of migrant workers

Ihavandhoo council’s restrictions spark debate about treatment of migrant workers
June 21 16:49 2017

A curfew and other restrictions imposed Sunday by the Ihavandhoo council on the island’s expatriate community has sparked a debate about the treatment of migrant workers in the country.

The restrictions came in the wake of the murder of a Maldivian man in charge of the northern island’s ice plant by his Bangladeshi co-worker.

The council ordered all foreign workers to register within five days, imposed a curfew of 10 pm, and prohibited gathering in public spaces with the exception of Friday afternoons. Foreign workers were also banned from fishing, collecting wood, fronds or coconuts, and participating in events without invitation.

The Local Government Authority, the oversight body for municipal councils, has since quashed the restrictions on legal grounds.

Speaking to the Maldives Independent, Ahmed Tholal, senior project coordinator at Transparency Maldives, observed that the attitude and sentiment towards foreigners remain despite the LGA’s intervention.

“And politicians demonising migrant workers and blaming them for the increase in crime rates when statistics cannot prove it will increase the negative treatment towards migrant workers,” he warned.

“People need to check statistics, but people don’t have the time to check facts. They follow the politicians. It’s very clear this procedure has come from a negative place. Maldivians also treat Bangladeshi workers negatively, and their crimes are magnified in our society because of our negative perception of them.”

He stressed that measures taken to combat crime should not be discriminatory based on race or nationality.

“When gang violence increased, shops were closed at 10. The curfew was imposed on everybody. Similarly, the president can declare a state of emergency, but the parliament has to approve it within 24 hours. This should apply to everyone, there shouldn’t be discrimination,” he said.

“Before genocides, there are campaigns to dehumanise people. And it’s a cause of concern Maldivians are dehumanising migrant workers.”

The Ihavandhoo council’s decision sparked debates on social media about racism, xenophobia and the widespread and longstanding mistreatment of South Asian labourers in the Maldives.

The debate was fuelled by articles on local media outlets, such as a report by Sun Online calling migrant workers “a threat to national security”.

The report also cited an anonymous source from the police as saying: “If we look at the past, Maldivians weren’t inclined towards crimes, but because of such foreign workers, crimes are spreading quickly in Maldives.”

Miadhu News meanwhile dubbed Bangladeshis “the greatest threat to Maldivian national security” and criticised local human rights groups over an alleged exclusive focus on “the rights of criminals”.

In response to the articles, Aisha Hussain Rasheed, a religious scholar, wrote on Facebook: “It’s easy to demonise the disenfranchised. It’s easy to dehumanise those who are forced to live on the fringes. It’s easy to target minorities and the weak. It’s easy to judge a whole group of people based on the actions of a few. It’s easy. But it’s not right.”

In mid-2015, the murder of three migrant workers prompted expatriates to plan a protest in Malé. But the demonstration was called off after the department of immigration threatened to cancel visas and take action against the employers of the migrant workers participating in the protest.

According to the human rights watchdog, some 26 complaints related to migrant workers were filed as of December last year, including complaints about unpaid wages, forced labour, insufferable working conditions, withholding of passports and gross human rights violations.

The Maldives has been under scrutiny in recent years for a chronic human trafficking problem. Some 130,000 migrant workers are believed to reside in the country, including 60,000 undocumented workers, the majority of whom are Bangladeshi and Indian men working in the construction sector.

Citing the low rate of prosecution and inadequate and inconsistent protection for victims, the Maldives was placed on the U.S State Department’s tier 2 watch list for a second consecutive year in 2016. Migrant workers face “forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage,” according to the department’s human trafficking report.

The authorities have so far blamed the low rate of conviction for human trafficking on victims’ failure to cooperate.