The Maldivian government’s decision to lift the ban on the recruitment of unskilled workers from Bangladesh has been met with widespread public criticism, driven by apprehensions about a rise in human trafficking and potential national security implications. The Ministry of Homeland Security and Technology announced the decision in a statement issued on Sunday, which was met with immediate backlash on social media platforms.

Fayyaz Ismail, the Chairperson of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has publicly labelled the move as “unlawful.” Ismail, who previously served as the Minister of Economic Development under the Ibrahim Mohamed Solih administration, described the decision as a potential threat to national security.

“[The] decision by @presidencymv [the President’s Office] to allow ‘only’ unskilled Bangladesh workers into Maldives is a clear violation of the Employment Act. They must first change the law,” Ismail said on X (formerly Twitter).

According to Article 65(a) of the Employment Act, the number of foreign workers from any given country in the Maldives should be at most 100,000. However, recent statistics released by the economic ministry indicate that there are 139,220 Bangladeshi workers in the Maldives.

A large number of Bangladeshi workers had fallen victim to human trafficking before 2019, which was a lucrative illegal business worth billions of Rufiyaa. The Solih administration’s decision to ban the recruitment of unskilled labour from Bangladesh was implemented to address and put a stop to human trafficking.

In response to Ismail’s statement, Minister of Homeland Security and Technology Ali Ihusaan argued that the figures referred to by critics of the decision were incorrect. Ihusaan clarified that Ismail was referring to the active work permits issued to Bangladeshi nationals and that the current number of Bangladeshi workers in the Maldives was recorded at 90,624, below the legal threshold.

Ihusaan clarified: “If a foreigner runs away or goes missing, the work permit will remain active until it is cancelled and will show as active in the Expat System.” He further emphasised the accuracy of the government’s data, adding, “The government has collected the correct figures through the Border Control System, which shows the number of people who have exited the country.”

However, the economic ministry quietly removed statistics published by the previous administration from its official social media accounts following the backlash, prompting more concerns on social media platforms. In response to these concerns, Minister of Economic Development and Trade Mohamed Saeed stated that the reports were deleted without his knowledge or directive. He also called for a thorough investigation into the matter.

The United Nations reports that the Maldives has the largest proportional population of migrants in South Asia, constituting approximately one-third of the resident population. A significant percentage of these migrants are undocumented and face a myriad of challenges, including discrimination, rights violations, wage theft, passport confiscation, and unsafe living and working conditions.