The illegal honeymoon: Human trafficking in the Maldives

The beaches of the Maldives attract many tourists such as the Idyllic beach of Vilu Reef. Photo by: deckchair, Flickr

The Maldives represents a paradise on earth for many. Last year, over one million tourists visited this beautiful island nation. It has also been voted the best destination for a honeymoon. It is no wonder tourism is the Maldives’ largest industry and the biggest source of foreign currency. A lesser known fact is that with US $123,000,000 the second biggest source of foreign currency comes from human trafficking.

The United Nations identify three elements that together constitute trafficking. These are: the act e.g. recruitment, transportation, the means e.g. threatening, fraud, abuse of vulnerability and the goals e.g. commercial or sexual exploitation, slavery or forced labour. This is different from smuggling, which means a person voluntarily paying the smuggler to be secretly brought into a country. When the border is crossed the person is free to go, whereas the trafficking victim isn’t.

Trafficking statistics in the Maldives are grim. A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of State estimates that there may be up to 150,000 documented and undocumented foreign workers in the Maldives, which makes up almost one third of the total population of 330,000. Although it is difficult to find solid numbers, according to the International Organization for Migration the number of people with an irregular status may be up to 50,000 – if this is true, that makes up a little over 15% of the total population.

Maldivian construction sites and industrial companies attract foreign workers from nearby countries, and with growing investments especially from Saudi-Arabia there are plenty of building sites in the Maldives. Workers from Bangladesh and India make up the majority of the foreign labour force but the island nation also attracts labour from Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Nepal and the Philippines. Unnamed diplomatic sources estimate half of the Bangladeshi workers are undocumented and that a number of these are victims of trafficking.

Trafficking agents demand high recruitment fees and employers keep the workers in slavery. Workers’ wages are not paid and their travel documents are confiscated, which makes it difficult to escape. Paying the recruitment fees may mean 3-4 years of debt bondage. In some cases people are trafficked into the country to work in the sex industry and poor Maldivian families may transport their children to work in domestic servitude in the capital city. Some victims’ stories have been documented and shed light on the kinds of exploitation foreign workers sometimes face. In 2008, a Bangladeshi carpenter borrowed $1000 from his uncle to pay for the travel arrangements with traffickers. In the Maldives his passport was confiscated he was given a job at a restaurant where he worked 18 hours a day. The salary was paid six months late. In another case a Bangladeshi worker was abandoned upon his arrival in the Maldives. He had borrowed $1500 from a bank to pay his agent. The agent confiscated the worker’s passport and left him in jobless and homeless.

In 2013 Maldives were threatened with sanctions if the government refuses to take action against trafficking. This warning quickly led to action; in December 2013 President of the Maldives, Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, ratified an Anti-Human Trafficking Bill which made human trafficking an offence in the Maldives for the first time in the country’s history. The bill is important for the victims also because it aims to promote and protect their rights. Lacking any kind of legislation on the subject, the police have ”arrested, imprisoned and deported” any undocumented foreign workers they have found in raids. For example, in 2012 a total of 29 foreign women were deported after they were imprisoned for prostitution without investigating whether they were sex trafficking victims. Also in December 2013 the Maldivian Department of Immigration and Emigration announced a voluntary repatriation program, giving an opportunity for undocumented migrant workers to register themselves in the Maldives, return to their home countries paying their own expenses and in six months return to work with proper documentation. The Department later said that the program was a success and that they will start monitoring and taking action against locals who work in the trafficking industry. In January 2014 – a month after the bill was passed – the first Maldivian was arrested for trafficking, alongside seven undocumented foreign workers. The Anti-Trafficking Bill has been praised by the United States but some Maldivian officials are sceptical about its benefits because trafficking issues have been assigned to the Ministry of Youth and Sports which may lack the expertise needed for working with trafficking and immigration issues.

The Maldives has not yet avoided the sanctions. For the first time in its history the country has some tools to tackle the huge problem of human trafficking. It is now up to the young institutions of the Maldives to show whether they can fight an industry which is big enough to be the second largest source of foreign income.


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