President Mohamed Nasheed has upheld the decision to postpone the roll-out of a new electronic border control system for the Maldives in accordance with concerns by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) over the project’s selection process.
The President’s Office confirmed to Minivan News that Nasheed has requested that the Department of Immigration and Emigration adhere to the ACC’s guidance until it rules over the next step for the project, with no appeal expected to be heard on the current decision.
Work on the project was suspended soon after being agreed last October, when the ACC raised concerns over allegations of corruption in the decision making process.
The ongoing criticism by the ACC of the Nexbis border control agreement has itself come under fire amidst accusations that it represents a politically-motivated attack on wider government reforms, according to a source within the immigration department.
A spokesperson for the ACC was not available for comment at the time of going to press.
However, the ACC this week sent a confidential letter to Immigration Controller Ilyas Hussain Ibrahim calling for approval from the Maldives Cabinet or National Planning Council (NPC) over concerns regarding corruption within the decision making process for the deal. The letter was also leaked to the press.
Prior to the President’s decision to hold the project, a source within the immigration department told Minivan News that it had remained confident that the project, signed with Malaysia-based Nexbis in October as part of attempts to prevent abuse of the working visa system, would be “greenlit” by either the cabinet or the NPC.
Having already been approved by two independent audits, the source claimed that President Nasheed had also indicated to local media this week that he saw no reason to oppose the existing agreement for the new border control system.
However, the immigration department said that it will comply with the President’s orders and wait for any further decisions by the ACC relating to border control.
Alongside refuting any suggestions that corruption had played a role within the decision to choose Nexbis, the Immigration Department insider claimed that technical criticisms of the system were part of wider political moves to try and disrupt the government’s reform of the border control system.
However, the anti-corruption body is said to have highlighted a number of issues concerning the different models used to identify travel documents such as passports under the visa scheme.
“The ACC does not have the technical background to be able to criticise and understand the [border control] system,” said the immigration department source. “More education is needed [within the commission].”
The Nexbis border control project had aimed to make use of fingerprint and facial recognition devices that according the Department of Immigration could be set up within four to six months as part of the first phase of the project focusing on working visas – essentially matching individuals to records without the requirement for paper documents.
However, the President’s decision means that the work will continue to remain on hold since the signing in October.
“On the very day we signed the contract, barely hours, maybe minutes later, the ACC had drafted a letter saying there was suspicions of corruption involved with the decision,” said the immigration department source, who asked not to be identified. “From that moment, we have stopped work on the system as requested by the ACC.”
When news of the disruption broke in November, shares in Nexbis immediately dropped 6.3 percent. Minivan News has since spoken to other foreign investors in the Maldives who have expressed concern that their share prices were at risk of becoming collateral in local politics.
The injunction issued by the ACC effectively places an indefinite delay on the project. The commission has not finalised an investigation since 2008.
Immigration reforms, of which the Nexbis project was part, were intended in part to address the government’s serious concerns over labour trafficking.
Last year, the Maldives was placed on the US State Department watch list for human trafficking, a crime which may actually narrowly eclipse the fishing industry as the second-largest contributor to the Maldivian economy after tourism, US$43.8 million on paper but potentially reaching up to US$200 million.
The Nexbis system was said to allow the immigration department to store and retrieve the biometric data of expatriates working in the country, effectively circumventing the abuse of paper documentation and curbing the ability of workers – and traffickers – to operate in the country.
“We currently have a large number of illegal expatriates running around the country,” another source at the immigration department told Minivan News back in 2010. “Right now estimate that there are 100,000 foreign workers in the country, but there are no official figures on how many may be illegal.”
Workers were arriving in the country legally “but once in the country they discard the documents and flee to islands, and seek better payment.”
Many companies in the Maldives were benefiting “and facilitating” the problem, the source said, which was impacting those companies “who do operate legally and pay visa fees to the government.”
Ensuring that workers could be accurately identified, even without documentation, was the key benefit of the new system, the source explained.