The Maldives has been downgraded on a United States watchlist for human trafficking over the failure to meet minimum standards for elimination.
The US State Department removed the Maldives from the watchlist last year following the first successful prosecution and conviction of traffickers.
However, the Maldivian government has since failed to “demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period,” according to the 2018 trafficking in persons report.
“The government’s investigation of possible trafficking cases decreased sharply, possibly as a result of poor victim identification efforts,” it added.
“Trafficking victim protection services were limited—victims lacked regular access to psycho-social support, interpreters, and a dedicated shelter. Therefore Maldives was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.”
A further downgrade to tier three could entail non-humanitarian and non-trade sanctions.
Other issues flagged in the report included non-conformity of the Maldives anti-human trafficking law to the 2000 UN TIP Protocol “as its definition of human trafficking is generally predicated on the movement of the victim,” and failure to adopt standard operating procedures for victim identification, protection, and referral, which inhibited proactive identification and resulted in some cases of deportation of victims.
The report also highlighted progress in anti-trafficking efforts, including the launching of an online case management system, and implementation of a pre-departure screening system for Bangladeshi migrant workers.
Around 100,000 documented and 60,000 undocumented migrant workers reside in the Maldives, the majority of whom are Bangladeshi and Indian men working in the construction and tourism sectors.
An unknown number are subjected to “practices indicative of forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.”
A government report in 2011 revealed human trafficking to be the second most lucrative industry after tourism – worth an estimated US$123 million a year.
Workers pay US$2,500 to US$4,000 in recruitment fees to come to the Maldives.
“Recruitment agents in source countries collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labour of migrant workers,” the TIP report observed.
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.
However, no convictions have been secured since.
Last year, police investigated one labour trafficking case, down from 10 forced labour and one sex trafficking case the previous 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 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.”
Lack of cooperation agreements with source countries and the absence of dedicated foreign language interpreters for victims and witnesses were also identified as obstacles.
The Labour Relations Authority meanwhile “stopped blacklisting labour-recruiting companies and individuals for labour-related infractions due to the belief that blacklisting was ineffective as companies could register under a new name to continue operations.”
Some 3,499 undocumented workers enrolled in a programme implemented by the immigration department that allowed local companies to “employ undocumented victims of labour law violations to extend the victims legal status to remain in the country”.
In addition to labour trafficking, “a small number of women from Africa, Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, as well as girls from Bangladesh and Maldives, are subjected to sex trafficking in Maldives.”
“Some women from South Asia are forced into prostitution after entering the country with their trafficker under the guise of tourism,” it continued.
“Maldivian children are transported to the capital, Male, from other islands for domestic service. Some of these children also are reportedly subjected to sexual abuse and may be victims of forced labor. Maldivian women may be subjected to sex trafficking in Sri Lanka.”