The Maldives has been removed from a human trafficking watch list of the US State Department following the first successful prosecution and conviction of traffickers.
The Maldives was on the tier two watch list for the past two years due to the low rate of prosecution as well as inadequate and inconsistent protection for victims. A downgrade to tier three could have entailed non-humanitarian and non-trade sanctions.
According to the State Department’s 2017 trafficking in persons report, the Maldives was upgraded from the watchlist to tier two after the government demonstrated increased anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous year.
“The government acceded to the 2000 UN [Trafficking in Persons] Protocol, launched awareness campaigns and amended its Employment Act to require employers to establish and pay employees’ salaries through bank accounts,” the report noted.
However, the government failed to meet minimum standards in several key areas such as conformity of the domestic trafficking law with the UN TIP Protocol as it does not criminalise all forms of sex and labour trafficking.
The report also flagged the failure to adopt standard operating procedures for victim identification, protection and referral, which prevented proactive identification of victims, and noted the limited dedicated protection services available to trafficking victims.
“Victims lacked regular access to medical and psycho-social support and dedicated translators,” the report observed.
Following the release of the TIP report Wednesday, Foreign Minister Dr Mohamed Asim called the upgrade to tier two “a strong endorsement of the government’s policies against human trafficking.”
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 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,” according to the TIP report.
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.
The first cases under the 2013 anti-human trafficking law were prosecuted last year. The first conviction was secured in November when three Bangladeshi men were sentenced to 10 years in jail for sex trafficking.
The Maldives Police Service also investigated 11 trafficking cases, 10 forced labour and one sex trafficking cases, up from six cases in 2015.
The Prosecutor General’s office and the immigration department blamed the refusal of the courts to accept electronic documents as evidence, including employment visas for migrant workers, for the “disproportionately small number of prosecutions”.
The authorities also previously blamed the victims’ failure to cooperate.
Of the 18 victims identified last year, one was a woman exploited in sex trafficking and 17 were men subjected to forced labour. The immigration departed funded the voluntary repatriation of all 18 victims.
As construction of a shelter for trafficking victims has not commenced despite the allocation of funds in the 2016 budget, the report noted that the government placed victims in guest houses. The immigration department also maintains a shelter for undocumented male migrant workers but does not offer trafficking-specific services.
The Maldives presently lacks local NGOs that provide services to trafficking victims.
“International experts stated some traffickers operated with impunity because of their connections with influential Maldivians,” the report noted.
“Observers reported some judges were reluctant to hear trafficking cases, and in some cases police were unable to obtain warrants to arrest traffickers. NGOs reported some officials warn businesses in advance of planned raids for suspected trafficking offences or other labour abuses, and officials may have been involved in labour recruiting practices that can lead to trafficking.”
But government officials alleged to be complicit in human trafficking have yet to face prosecution.
Despite training of immigration and police officials, the report also observed that “officials continued to conflate human trafficking with human smuggling and the presence of undocumented migrants in Maldives.”
The government’s focus on labour trafficking was also “to the possible detriment of addressing sex trafficking cases,” officials acknowledged.
“Private employers and some government agencies frequently held the passports of foreign workers they employed, including the ministries of education and health who held the passports of foreign teachers and health care workers,” the report continued.
The immigration department said it negotiated the return of documents to employees but it was unclear whether such employers were penalised. The authorities did not collaborate with other government’s despite referral of cases by foreign embassies and the absence of interpreters continued to hamper law enforcement efforts.
The report also acknowledged efforts to prevent human trafficking, including implementation of the 2015-2019 national action plan, a public awareness campaign via television and radio, and the promotion of the trafficking hotline at airport and ferry terminals, fairs and a youth career event.
In 2016, some 1,186 undocumented workers enrolled in an immigration department programme that allows them to be employed by a local company and to remain in the country.
Employment agencies were also required to be licensed and fully compliant with revised regulations by July. The ministry of economic development, which coordinates anti-trafficking efforts through a national steering committee, made 158 inspection visits to agencies in 2016.
The Employment Act was also revised last year to require employers to deposit salaries to the migrant workers’ bank account. The penalty for violations ranges between US$660 to US$3,300.
The immigration department meanwhile implemented pre-departure and health screening of potential migrant workers in Bangladesh “in part to mitigate fraudulent recruitment” and blacklisted 2,073 recruiting companies and individuals for labour-related infractions.
However, officials noted that blacklisting was ineffective as companies could register under a new name.