Some 5,000 migrant workers have been repatriated this year due to “irregularities” such as expired work visas and lack of valid travel documents.
The immigration department said in a tweet that of the 5,000 workers, 230 have been deported.
Hassan Khaleel, the department’s spokesperson, told The Maldives Independent that the workers who were sent back to their countries had been under police custody at some point.
They were not illegal or undocumented workers but “irregular” workers, he noted.
“There are multiple reasons for irregular migrant workers, one reason is workers chose to stay here after their employment permit expires because they can earn money from other means,” he said.
Some 130,000 migrant workers are believed to reside in the Maldives, including 60,000 undocumented workers, the majority of whom are Bangladeshi and Indian men working in the construction sector.
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.
According to the US State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, “recruitment agents in source countries collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labor of migrant workers.”
However, a Maldivian has yet to be sentenced for human trafficking since the enactment of the Anti-Human Trafficking Act in December 2013.
The Maldives was placed on the State Department’s tier 2 watch list for a second consecutive year over inadequate anti-human trafficking efforts.
If downgraded to tier 3, the lowest tier, the country may be subject to non-humanitarian and non-trade sanctions.
The report noted that migrant workers pay between $400 and $4,000 to recruitment agents for a job in the Maldives.
Asked whether any Maldivian has faced action over fraudulent recruitment, Khaleel said the immigration department has fined some for “malpractices.”
“Some recruitment agencies use workers in Maldives to get in touch with their friends abroad instead of going through the proper channels,” he said. “Some companies just use ‘road agents’ to hire workers from abroad without even going to an agency.”
Migrant workers are often hired under false pretences by recruitment agencies who promise workers lucrative jobs.
“It’s malpractices like these and also many social factors that lead to a growing number of undocumented workers,” Khaleel said.
The department only reports victims of human trafficking and does not investigate such cases, he added.
Khaleel said the department has also advertised for service providers to conduct pre-departure screening of Bangladeshi migrant workers.
The terms of reference posted on the department’s website last week said it was seeking pre-qualified service providers to conduct health screenings, security screenings, verify documents and provide a pre-departure orientation to workers.
The initiative aims to “strengthen and streamline the labour migration process and tackle issues of irregular labour migration between the two countries.”