Human Rights Watch (HRW), on Friday, called on the Maldivian government to release all expatriate workers detained for engaging in peaceful protests and drop criminal charges lodged against such individuals.
Highlighting that Maldives Police Service arrested more than 80 migrant workers in July for demonstrating against unpaid wages and inhumane living conditions, HRW urged the administration to address allegations of human trafficking and labour rights violations against the country's migrant worker population.
On July 2, Maldives Police Service arrested 19 out of 203 expatriate workers from Bodufinolhu, Baa Atoll, following protests over six months of unpaid salary, which culminated in the holding of 13 Maldivian staff hostage on the island. Bodufinolhu is being developed as a resort property by Seal Maldives.
An additional 41 arrests were made on July 13 after expatriates employed by Island Expert Pvt Ltd staged a violent protest on the reclaimed suburb of Hulhumale', over unpaid wages and inhumane treatment.
A total of 22 expatriate workers were also arrested following a protest on an undisclosed island located in Vaavu Atoll which is slated for development as a resort.
While two of the aforementioned protests resulted in property damage in addition to attacks on police officers, the migrant workers detained in these protests are currently under investigation.
"Top Maldives officials are invoking national security to deflect from their own failure to curb rampant abuses against migrant workers", stated HRW's Associate Director for the Asia Division, Patricia Gossman.
"Instead of suppressing protests, Maldives authorities should address and remedy the violations of migrant workers’ rights that are spurring people to the streets", stated Gossman.
Following the expat-led protests, which occurred amid renewed concerns from rights groups in Maldives as well as the general public, Minister of Defence Mariya Ahmed Didi denied that unpaid wages were the root cause of demonstrations and asserted that "there are hidden factions [behind these efforts]".
"...We believe that this is tied to national security. [The expats are] not necessarily getting out to ensure their rights because they haven't received salaries", said the defence minister while speaking at the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Relations on Tuesday.
In addition to the defence minister, HRW noted Chief of Defence Force Major General Abdulla Shamaal's statements at the parliamentary committee, describing his rhetoric as "fearmongering".
Similarly denying that the expat protests were rooted in longstanding human rights violations, Shamaal claimed that actions of the expatriate workers in Maldives were equivalent to that of foreigners taking over the nation.
HRW also urged the Maldivian government to ratify the International Convention on Migrant Workers as well as the International Labour Organization’s 2014 Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention.
Further, the international human rights watchdog called on Maldivian authorities to uphold international obligations to respect the right of all individuals in the country to hold peaceful protests.
On July 14, the Ministry of Home Affairs declared that street protests, marches, parades, and other gatherings could only be held with written approval from the Maldives Police Service. As per the ministry, the directive was in accordance with the prickly first amendment to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, which was ratified on August 23, 2016, during former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom's tenure.
"Against the backdrop of COVID-19, Maldives authorities should be looking to boost protections for its most vulnerable groups, not put them in the crosshairs of a manufactured national security crisis," Gossman said.
"The government should focus its efforts on ending human trafficking, upholding the rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and ensuring migrants have safe housing, get access to health care, and receive their wages".
Although employers in the Maldives are legally obligated to provide all migrant workers with health insurance, coverage is often minimal and many are not informed that they have insurance. Employers also illegally confiscate workers’ papers, making it difficult for them to obtain health care. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable.
The 2020 Trafficking in Persons report released by the United States placed Maldives on the 'Tier 2 Watch List', citing Maldives’ failure to prevent "practices indicative of forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt-based coercion”.
With migrants representing over 50 percent of Maldives' confirmed COVID-19 cases, the outbreak in the capital city of Male' has disproportionately affected the expatriate population, the majority of whom are Bangladeshi nationals living in highly congested quarters where it is impossible to reduce contact or exercise social distancing. Their often small-spaced living conditions have been described by local and international civil society organizations as, "claustrophobic", "unsanitary" and "overcrowded".
Authorities estimate there are about 82,000 registered and 63,000 undocumented migrant workers in the Maldives – around one-third of the total population.