The immigration department has come under fire for deporting two Bangladeshis suspected of human trafficking and money laundering without an investigation.
M D Shafiqul Islam was suspected of “illegally recruiting foreigners” and conducting illegal businesses. The 49-year-old known as ‘Master’ was taken into custody in a joint operation conducted with police and deported last Thursday, immigration said. Abu Hanif was stopped at the airport and deported on Friday night after his work permit was revoked without notice. According to media reports, Hanif was suspected of money laundering.
But both men were deported for violating visa rules, immigration said, prompting criticism over the failure to conduct further investigations or arrest any Maldivian partners.
Independent MP Ahmed Usham asked a parliamentary oversight committee to launch a probe as former chief justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain suggested the deportation was tantamount to “burying the evidence and hiding the real criminal behind these activities.”
But the immigration department defended its decision in the face of criticism and outrage.
“It is not our mandate to investigate the criminal activities. They were deported because they violated visa rules. We do not suspect them any criminal activities,” legal head Mohamed Shifan told the Maldives Independent on Sunday.
Maldivian employers who brought the two men to the country “will be investigated,” he added. “But as I said, they will be investigated in connection with violating visa rules. Not for the crimes claimed in the media,” Shifan explained.
Asked the failure to convict any Maldivian of human trafficking, Shifan said immigration regularly informs police of suspected cases. “We are not authorised to investigate it ourselves. So we pass along the information through the proper mechanism to relevant authorities such as the police,” he said.
The immigration’s announcements on social media were followed by posts about the affluent lifestyle of the one of the deported men, who was accused of money laundering. Abu Hanif came to the Maldives to work as a carpenter but travels business class, it was alleged. Social media users also named local businesses such as guesthouses and cafés allegedly operated by irregular migrants.
“I will not back down God willing over intimidation or threats. I will fully enforce the immigration law free of influence. And God willing a solution will be found to the problem of foreigners in [President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s] government,” Immigration Controller Mohamed Ahmed Hussain ‘Hanafy’ tweeted on Saturday.
An estimated 63,000 foreign nationals work in the Maldives illegally out of the 144,600 migrant worker population.
Last year, the Maldives was downgraded on a United States watchlist for human trafficking over the failure to meet minimum standards for elimination. “Recruitment agents in source countries collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labour of migrant workers,” according to the 2018 trafficking in persons report.
The first cases under the 2013 anti-human trafficking law were prosecuted in 2016. Three Bangladeshi men were sentenced to 10 years in jail for sex trafficking in November that year. Trials continued in four trafficking cases against five Maldivian and seven Bangladeshi defendants whilst the Prosecutor General’s office pressed sex trafficking charges against one Maldivian defendant.
“Observers stated some traffickers operated with impunity because of their connections with influential Maldivians and alleged the government was more likely to prosecute foreign suspects than Maldivian suspects,” the US anti-trafficking report stated.
“Observers reported some officials warned businesses in advance of planned raids for suspected trafficking offences or other labour abuses. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offences.”