By Fathmath Isha and Hassan Moosa
The asphalt path to Rasrani Bageecha was left damp by the afternoon rain as families trudged across puddles to the newly opened park, drawn by greenery and open space ensconced from Malé’s heavy traffic.
Thousands have visited Sultan Park since its reopening late August but one group of residents of the densely-packed capital is conspicuously absent. As we stand by the new stainless steel fountain at the entrance, we soon see migrant workers backing away at the approach of uniformed policemen.
A sign in English atop a small stone structure shows ticket prices for foreigners above 18 years of age. Non-Maldivians must pay an entrance fee of MVR75 (US$5) on weekdays and MVR100 (US$7) during the weekend.
The tickets are sold by ‘Rasrani Guides’ in turquoise shirts with their names embossed on the back with MHI for Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure. The otherwise peaceful atmosphere of the park is periodically broken by the guides chasing after migrant workers wandering in from back entrances.
The decision to charge a fee from expatriates had drawn outrage on social media. It is discriminatory and amounts to segregation as it was clearly intended to keep out workers, rights groups contended.
Before it was closed down, Sultan Park was a haven for hundreds of expatriate men and women to gather on Fridays – the only free day for most of the 130,000 migrant workers believed to reside in the Maldives, predominantly Bangladeshi and Indian men working in the construction and tourism sectors.
Despite denunciations of racism and xenophobia online, most Maldivians we speak to are not averse to the notion of a locals-only park.
“This is a nice place, very relaxing atmosphere. It pleases me to see only Maldivians here,” says Mohamed, a resort worker visiting the park with his elderly mother.
Mohamed is under no illusion about the purpose of the entrance fee.
“Maybe it could have been made a bit cheaper, like MVR50, even then those labourers wouldn’t come here. That bunch of labourers – not the teachers and doctors – get really worried if they have to pay any money, you know?” he suggests.
We follow two migrant workers who are quietly escorted out of the park by policemen. They tell us they were unaware of the entrance fee. The two Indian men, who have lived in the Maldives for ten years, say they would now have to settle for the local fish market.
“The government wants us to buy tickets, so we should buy tickets. But MVR75 is a bit too much,” one of them says.
“It’s sakaraaiy [not good].”
During two hours in the park, we see seven migrant workers led away by the police. The ones we speak to do not know they need a ticket. Asked if the authorities have informed the expatriate community, a policeman says: “It’s been a while. They would know by now.”
A local who has been visiting the park regularly says the situation was worse the previous day.
“The policemen confronted four migrant workers and made them leave in tears. They threatened to withhold their visas if they didn’t leave,” he recalls.
Tourists, however, are treated much more politely by the guides and the police. According to the housing ministry, more than MVR10,000 (US$650) was collected as ticket receipts from 142 foreigners who visited the park in the first five days after the opening.
To our minds, Rasrani Bageecha resembles an Orwellian dystopia with its micromanagement and patriotic songs from the military. At 15-minute intervals, the speakers blare out instructions from the Rasrani Guides to avoid stepping on the grass or touching the fish. The alcoves are meant for children under twelve, they admonish.
Offenders careless enough to violate the rules are sharply told off by the policemen, or worse, yelled at by a short-tempered guide.
We see the guides running around and waving their fists at migrant workers until the policemen take them away. In the rest of the park, children enjoy the freedom of movement they are deprived of in the small living quarters of Malé.
A Maldivian in Pakistani garb is also mistaken for a foreigner and accosted by the police officers. When the misunderstanding is quickly cleared up, we are surprised to discover that he fully supports the restrictions. “[If Bangladeshis could freely enter] it would have been near impossible for a Maldivian to come here,” he gestures toward the crowd of locals.
The Bangladeshis who flock to the central park in Hulhumalé – an artificial island under development as an urban centre near the capital – “makes it impossible for Maldivians to go,” he says. A 40-year-old Maldivian at the park with his daughter echoes the sentiment. “On Friday, this place was full. And if again another group of people comes here it would be suffocating,” he says.
Ahmed Tholal, a senior project coordinator at Transparency Maldives, called the park fee “a very open and blatant endorsement of xenophobia and discrimination” as it was targeted at “a certain group of people from certain countries doing certain kind of jobs”.
“This is the symptoms of xenophobia and how we view migrant workers in Maldives. Earlier this year, we saw that due to a murder in Ihavandhoo, a curfew was set for all the migrant workers on the island,” he said.
“What we see is a dehumanisation of migrant workers, reducing them to less than what they are and refusing to see them as humans.”
Meanwhile, migrant workers who scrambled to leave Malé for its suburb along with hundreds of locals last Friday – which coincided with the beginning of the Eid al-Adha holidays – did not fare any better. In a recurrence of an incident from late July, the state-owned Maldives Transport and Contracting Company reacted to overcrowding by shuffling them into a separate queue outside the terminal and letting Maldivians pass.
“A big crowd of migrant workers was standing outside behind two closed doors. We thought that was the queue and waited next to them,” Mariyam Shiba, a 21-year-old, described the chaotic scenes.
“Then a guy near the entrance of the third door called to us, ‘Maldivians this way!’ The door was being guarded by a second MTCC staff to make sure the workers did not enter.”
The other doors were bolted from the inside and guarded by a group of four MTCC staff, who would let in a few before blocking access and closing the doors again.
The housing ministry was unavailable for comment but Mohamed Nazim, an MTCC executive, said separate queues were part of a “strategy” to manage passenger flow during the Eid holidays.
“We find it a bit more difficult to handle expatriates with the communication gap and all,” he said.
“We just wanted to avoid any problems at all. It was not in any way meant at discriminating between locals and migrant workers.”
Tholal observed that Western tourists are allowed on queues with locals. “But when it’s a Bangladeshi migrant worker it’s a problem,” he said.
“And if the transport company wants to solve the problem of rush hour, then they should set up more counters. In no way should they encourage discrimination.
“Migrant workers contribute to our economy, and even if they did not, MVR100 is a lot even for a Maldivian. For a migrant worker that is like six percent of their income. To have to pay that much to go to a park on weekends. This is against our constitution and the international treaties that Maldives is party to.”