The government increased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts; it reported investigations into corrupt and allegedly complicit officials, but decreased overall trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. The PHTA criminalized some, but not all, forms of sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the PHTA required transportation of a victim in order to constitute a trafficking offense. The law criminalized child sex trafficking but did not make clear if forced prostitution of adults was considered a form of trafficking. Article 16 criminalized debt bondage without reference to transportation. The PHTA prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for trafficking offenses involving an adult victim and up to 15 years’ imprisonment for those involving a child victim; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The government finalized amendments to the PHTA to bring it in line with the Palermo Protocol. These amendments passed all necessary parliamentary committees and was pending a final vote before the entire parliament at the end of the reporting period.
The government investigated two trafficking cases involving seven individuals but did not initiate any new prosecutions or convict any traffickers during the reporting period. This compared with investigating two trafficking cases and 27 potential labor trafficking cases, prosecuting one case, and convicting two traffickers during the previous reporting period. The fall in numbers was due in large part to the government’s need to reallocate a significant amount of financial and human resources away from nearly all aspects of its operations to focus on the pandemic. While MPS continued to investigate 27 recruitment agencies from the previous reporting period, it reported that it did not identify any trafficking victims from the cases. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) continued to prosecute four cases from previous reporting periods. Two prosecutions—one possible labor trafficking case from 2016 and one possible sex trafficking case from 2017—ended in acquittals for the alleged traffickers due to insufficient evidence, although the PGO appealed the acquittal in the 2017 case to the Maldives High Court, which remained ongoing at the end of the reporting period. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services (MOGFSS) did not identify any child sex trafficking cases during the reporting period. MPS reported investigating 291 incidents of child commercial sexual exploitation in 2020, and sending PGO 115 of these cases for prosecution; however, it did not report identifying any of these cases as trafficking. The government ordered a national lockdown, during which all government offices were closed, from April through July 2020. Following the end of the lockdown, courts remained closed to in-person sessions for the remainder of the reporting period. Additionally, the government diverted police officers from their regular duties to enforce the lockdown and move migrant workers from their typical congested living quarters to government provided shelter. To adapt to pandemic-related restrictions, MPS introduced special investigative guidelines that included virtual meetings with witnesses and established an online portal for MPS to submit cases to PGO electronically. Courts also began to hold limited virtual trial hearings. As the new procedures required implementation of new technological solutions, the government reported the lockdown affected the ability of law enforcement to report and investigate cases and delayed the prosecution of all criminal cases.
The government took steps to investigate select reports of trafficking-related corruption, though corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns. The government did not report any prosecutions or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes. In July 2020, MPS announced an investigation into a local construction company of which a member of parliament was managing director, following a violent protest staged by approximately 200 foreign migrant worker employees who had not received salaries, some for more than six months. MPS referred the case to the PGO in December 2020. Previously, the Controller of Immigration alleged the former government had illegally issued quotas relating to the number of migrant workers allowed, which in turn facilitated fraudulent recruitment and human trafficking, and the Minister of Economic Development (MED) similarly alleged in public remarks that Maldivian recruiters bribed senior officials in exchange for larger quotas to bring in more migrant workers. During the reporting period, MPS and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) investigated two former and two current immigration officials over alleged complicity in the case. The investigation was ongoing at the end of the reporting period. Civil society alleged labor inspectors accepted bribes to not report labor violations. Private employers held foreign employees’ passports. Observers assessed that some traffickers operated with impunity due to connections with influential Maldivians. Observers reported some officials warned businesses in advance of planned raids to investigate labor violations.
During the reporting period, the MPS-Human Trafficking Unit (MPS-HTU) was elevated to create a department solely dedicated to the investigation of trafficking cases. MPS designed the department with additional staff and two units – one focused on the investigation of cases and one focused on training and awareness-raising programs. However, pandemic-related challenges and broader restructuring within the MPS delayed the hiring of additional staff and the creation of these units. Immigration continued to implement a mandatory trafficking training for new recruits, and MPS-HTU reported all of its current officers had previously received trafficking-specific training. Despite these trainings, officials continued to conflate human trafficking with smuggling, and government efforts focused primarily on transnational labor trafficking to the possible detriment of sex trafficking. Government officials acknowledged the need for increased training on identifying and investigating trafficking cases, especially among MED, MPS, and Labor Relations Authority (LRA) personnel. Some officials stated the country’s trafficking problem involved primarily Bangladeshi migrant workers and therefore the trafficking problem had diminished following the return home of the majority of the workers due to the pandemic. Civil society reported law enforcement and judges’ lack of awareness and training on the PHTA likely contributed to the dearth of successful prosecutions. MPS, in partnership with an international organization, maintained a trafficking case management system that allowed potential victims to submit cases to the police online; however, it was only available in English, which limited its utility. Authorities recognized the lack of cooperation with source-country governments as an obstacle to investigating cases with foreign victims or perpetrators; they made some efforts to work with other governments during the reporting period. The absence of dedicated foreign language interpreters for victims and witnesses among law enforcement and social service providers continued to hamper law enforcement and victim protection efforts.