Four cafés at the carnival area in Malé remain closed today after 50 expatriate staff were taken into custody Tuesday morning in a joint operation conducted by the police and the immigration department.
Hassan Haleel, the immigration department’s spokesman, told the Maldives Independent that four workers have since been released after they showed valid work visas.
“It’s a mandatory operation and we conduct this type of operation all year round even in the atolls,” he said.
“The undocumented workers will not be released. However, we have given them time to produce documents for those people who have them.”
Following yesterday’s raid, the carnival cafés were forced to close down as there was no staff left to serve customers.
Several people were reportedly in the cafés during the raid. The eateries on the eastern waterfront of the capital are popular among locals, often packed during peak hours.
The majority of workers at cafés and restaurants in Malé are expatriates.
The carnival café workers are being held at a custodial facility of the Maldives Correctional Service in Hulhumalé before deportation.
As of August this year, the immigration department had repatriated some 5,000 migrant workers due to “irregularities” such as expired work visas and lack of valid travel documents.
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.
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. If downgraded to tier 3, the lowest tier, the country may be subject to non-humanitarian and non-trade sanctions.
Haleel said the immigration department is “aware that there might be potential victims [of human trafficking] within the group arrested yesterday and we’re looking out for that.”
Only one case of human trafficking has been successfully prosecuted in the Maldives so far.
On November 22, three Bangladeshi men were sentenced to 10 years in jail for sex trafficking, under a new law criminalising human trafficking that was passed in 2013. No Maldivians have been prosecuted under the law yet.
The authorities have blamed the low rate of conviction for human trafficking on victims’ failure to cooperate.
The immigration department meanwhile stopped issuing work visas for Bangladeshi citizens earlier this month, blaming the Bangladeshi embassy for delays in processing applications.
Haleel told the Maldives Independent that the department has not issued any work visas for Bangladeshis since December 6.
“We are collaborating with the Bangladesh embassy in providing visa. I can tell you that the delay is not caused from our side,” he said.
Officials of the Bangladesh embassy in Malé were unavailable for comment at press time despite repeated inquiries since Sunday.
An owner of a small Maldivian recruitment agency told the Maldives Independent earlier this week that he submits paperwork for up to 50 work visas per day for Bangladeshi workers.
“The immigration department usually issues visas within three to four days. It has become very difficult now. It is especially annoying when we are not informed of the cause of the delay,” said the agency owner, who wished to remain anonymous.
Meanwhile, on this year’s International Migrant Workers Day on December 18, the Maldives’ human rights watchdog called on the authorities to strengthen the institutional framework for protecting the rights of migrant workers.
“The Maldives has to protect the rights guaranteed under the constitutions to migrant workers and take legal action against those who violates them,” the Human Rights Commission of Maldives said in a statement.
According to the watchdog, some 26 complaints related to migrant workers were filed as of December 18, including complaints about unpaid wages, forced labour, insufferable working conditions, withholding of passports and gross human rights violations.
“We also call on the concerned institutions to investigate human trafficking crimes and invoke the most severe punishment to perpetrators involved in human trafficking,” the HRCM said.
On the eve of International Migrants Day, two Bangladeshi men were attacked with knives on the island of Dhagethi in Alif Dhaal atoll.
The two migrants were attacked because they acted in self-defence after two locals attempted to rob one of their phones, a police spokesman said.
A day later, the police arrested a 27-year-old and a 17-year-old minor in connection with the assault.
“One victim was slashed across his face with a sharp object. The other man was attacked on his head and shoulders,” the police spokesman said.