An estimated 63,000 foreign nationals are working in the Maldives illegally out of a migrant worker population of 144,607, Controller of Immigration Mohamed Ahmed Hussain ‘Hanafy’ told the press Thursday.
A one-year campaign dubbed ‘Operation Stingray’ began on January 2 to address the problem of undocumented workers and raise public awareness, he announced at the first press briefing by the immigration department since the new government took office in November.
Under the operation, illegal migrants would only be arrested and deported as a last resort after they are offered an opportunity to leave the country, the new controller said.
Rounding up undocumented workers through police raids would be easy, “but we should think more about prevention than making headlines,” said Hanafy, who was appointed on December 23.
The immigration chief urged the public to help address the “root of the problem” by not employing undocumented labourers. Amendments to the Immigration Act are also being drafted to close loopholes and penalise corrupt officials, he added.
Workers arrive with valid work permits but some become illegal migrants when they fail to perform a medical evaluation and obtain work visas, an immigration official explained. Several workers who arrive to work in resorts flee and join a labour black market, he said.
But according to an annual human trafficking report by the United States, many workers from South Asian countries are brought in by recruitment agents with the promise of resort jobs only to have their passports confiscated and be left to fend for themselves.
“Recruitment agents in source countries collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labour of migrant workers,” according to the 2018 trafficking in persons report, which downgraded the Maldives on a watchlist over over the failure to meet minimum standards for elimination.
Foreign workers in the Maldives, predominantly Bangladeshi and Indian men, 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.”
At Thursday’s press conference, the new immigration controller accused the former government of issuing quotas illegally.
There were cases where small cafés and guesthouses were authorised to bring up to 100 workers.
“For some projects there were 3,700 quotas issued in violation of the rules,” he said, adding that such permits have since been cancelled.
But pressed by reporters, officials were unable to say how many migrant workers were brought in through fraudulent quotas.
A weekly report on the number of quotas issued will be published after January 25 along with statistics about all immigration services, Hanafy pledged.
The new leadership is trying to “unravel knots” and identify systemic issues, he said, assuring action against officials complicit in trafficking and fraudulent recruitment.
According to statistics shared by the controller, 112 migrant workers were deported over violations of immigration rules in 2018. Offences included drug peddling and child sexual abuse, he said.
Some 531 workers deemed medically unfit were also deported in 2018 – up from 434 the previous year – and 2,734 workers were reported by employers as having fled.
Hanafy went on to list service improvements and targets for the year.
As of January 13, the period for issuing business visas has been reduced from five days to 48 hours. The service will be available outside of the capital for the first time in the southernmost Addu City starting on February 1, he said.
Citizens will also be able to apply for passports via email and collect from centres across the country.
The immigration department’s target is to launch online application services by the end of the year, he said.
A call centre will be set up on February 25 for public complaints, which can also be sent to [email protected]