The Maldives has been placed back on the US State Department’s tier 2 watch list for human trafficking over lack of progress in the government’s anti-trafficking efforts.
Following the enactment of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act in December 2013, the opening of a shelter for trafficking victims, and the first conviction for the offence, the Maldives was removed from the watch list in 2014 after four years and avoided a downgrade to the lowest tier with possible non-humanitarian and non-trade sanctions.
The State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report – regarded as a key global measure of anti-trafficking efforts – stated that the Maldivian government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.”
The report noted the adoption of national action plan for 2015-2019 to prevent human trafficking in May by the government’s coordination committee as well as development of “procedures for victim identification, protection, and referral.”
But the government “did not demonstrate overall increasing anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous reporting period”.
“The state-run shelter for female trafficking victims that opened in January 2014 shortly thereafter began barring victims from access,” the report stated.
“The government did not initiate any prosecutions and there were no convictions in 2014, a decrease from one conviction in 2013, and some officials warned businesses in advance of planned raids to investigate suspected trafficking offences or other labour abuses.”
A Maldivian government report in 2011 had revealed human trafficking to be the Maldives second most lucrative industry after tourism – worth an estimated US$123 million a year.
The 2015 TIP report described Maldives as “a destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking, and a source country for women and children subjected to labour and sex trafficking.”
Of the approximately 200,000 documented and undocumented migrant workers residing in the country, the report noted that an unknown number experienced “forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage.”
“Migrant workers pay approximately $400 to $4,000 in recruitment fees to work in Maldives, contributing to their risk of debt bondage upon arrival,”
Migrant workers in the Maldives are primarily Bangladeshi and Indian men working in the construction and tourism industries as well as workers from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal. The report observed that recruitment agents in the source countries “collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labor of migrant workers.”
NGOs have meanwhile alleged the involvement of officials in labour recruiting practices that could lead to human trafficking. The government officials “warn businesses in advance of planned raids for suspected trafficking offenses or other labor abuses”.
The report also stated that a “small number from Asia, Eastern Europe, and former Soviet countries, as well as girls from Bangladesh and Maldives, are subjected to sex trafficking in Maldives.”
“Some Maldivian children are transported to the capital, Malé, from other islands for domestic service; some of these children are also reportedly subjected to sexual abuse and may be victims of forced labor,” it added.
“Maldivian women may be subjected to sex trafficking in Sri Lanka.”
In the first official acknowledgement of child prostitution in the Maldives, then-Gender Minister Azima Shukoor revealed in May 2013 that children were “being used as sex workers, where the children are sent to places as a means to pleasure people and to gain an income from such a trade.”
In June 2013, multiple sources told Maldives Independent that child prostitution was prevalent in the country, ranging from male benefactors grooming children with ‘gifts’ to parents actively exploiting their children.
The TIP report flagged shortcomings in the anti-human trafficking law, such as the lack of a provision criminalising child sex trafficking in the absence of coercion.
“Officials continued to conflate human trafficking with human smuggling and the presence of undocumented migrants in Maldives,” the report observed.
The report stressed the need for “trafficking-specific training” for investigators, prosecutors, and judges, noting that one training session was held for 25 labor inspectors, police officers, and other officials.
“An international organisation continued to coordinate and deliver all other trainings for officials,” the report continued, but “law enforcement efforts continued to be hampered by the absence of foreign language interpreters for victim-witnesses.”
“Authorities did not report collaborating on transnational investigations with foreign counterparts, despite law enforcement identification of foreign victims,” the report stated.
The report also criticised the transfer of responsibility for coordinating anti-trafficking efforts from the ministry of youth to the ministry of economic development, which “hampered the government’s ability to coordinate and oversee its efforts to effectively combat trafficking.”
“Observers reported there had been no inspections of labour recruiters for two years due to a lack of funding, and there was no indication police continued to blacklist Maldivian recruitment agencies engaged in fraud and forgery,” it added.
“Government ministries and others frequently held the passports of foreign workers they employed, as well as those of foreign victims in trafficking cases. An international organisation reported 65 percent of migrants interviewed were not in possession of their passports.
“Authorities reported working with employers to have the passports returned; however, the government did not prosecute or hold accountable any employers or government officials for withholding passports.”
Based on its findings, the State Department also made a number of recommendations to the government:
- Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute suspected trafficking offenses, respecting due process
- Finalise standard operating procedures to proactively identify trafficking victims and refer them to protection services, and train officials on their use;
- Re-establish victim access to the state-run shelter and consistent rehabilitation services;
- Finalise and implement the standard operating procedures for shelter operations and victim services;
- Increase efforts to monitor and punish labor recruitment agents and firms engaging in fraudulent practices;
- Enforce prohibitions against passport retention by employers and government agencies;
- Raise public awareness of human trafficking through media campaigns;
- Provide translators to law enforcement and labor authorities to ensure foreign workers are able to participate in inspections, investigations, and prosecutions against their alleged traffickers;
- Accede to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.