Racism. Not a myth in the Maldives.

walking to work. CC flickr blindscapes

One of the most appalling scenes I have witnessed in Male’ was when I saw a group of ten Bangladeshi men treated as second class human beings at the Hulhumale’ ferry terminal. In the waiting area at the terminal, everyone was waiting for the arrival of the ferry between Male’ and Hulhumale’. Once the ferry arrived, the ferry service officer asked all Maldivians to get on board first and commanded the Bangladeshis, in the rudest possible way, to wait until all Maldivians were on board. Many Maldivians that arrived a lot later were also allowed to board the ferry while the Bangladeshis waited. The ferry became full and left these men waiting for the next ferry. I did not see any sense of shame from the people that boarded this ferry or the staff at the terminal. These ten Bangladeshi men did not show any sign of protest as if they knew their place in our society. I was honestly shocked and saddened by what I had witnessed.

It is estimated that there are around 100,000 foreign workers in the Maldives, with the large majority of workers from South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Foreign workers from South Asian countries are subjected to daily discrimination through name-calling, harassment and sometimes violence in many islands of the Maldives. It is not an overstatement to say that the state institutions openly encourage discrimination against foreign workers, particularly those from South Asian countries.

There is a hierarchy to this discrimination as well. At the top are the white foreign workers who are often received with admiration, i.e. positive discrimination. Highly skilled, non-white foreign workers from all countries are treated with respect but are still at risk of negative discrimination if they make a mistake. For example, if a student fails or if a doctor makes a mistake, they are threatened and harassed if locals deem it justifiable. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the foreign workers who are mainly involved in low-skilled work such as construction, land reclamation and garbage disposal. The workers at the bottom face the worst sort of discrimination ranging from name-calling and violence to institutional discrimination.

Although we Maldivians claim to be tolerant in general, we somehow accept calling Bangladeshis ‘Bangalhis’ or ‘Bangalhun’ and Sri Lankans ‘Ori’. Whilst one can argue that these are just names given to identify a group of people and are not meant to be derogatory, we cannot deny the context in which these words are used. For instance, the word ‘Paki’ is on its own is just a word but this word has become derogatory because of the context in which it has been used or due to the history attached to the word. We would not dare call the Ambassador of Bangladesh a ‘Bangalhi’ in front of him/her because it is considered demeaning and disrespectful, but why is it then acceptable to refer an ordinary Bangladeshi worker by this term openly. Every Maldivian knows that this term is used in a derogatory context. Politicians, ordinary people and children use these terms when identifying a Bangladeshi national with a problem. This sort of derogatory name calling or classifying people into categories is shameful and should not be tolerated in our country at all.

Discrimination against South Asian workers is openly displayed in the public domain. According to a report published by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (2011), foreign prisoners receive differential treatment in Maafushi Jail. They live in smaller, more overcrowded conditions and are addressed using derogatory language. The media also openly publishes content which is discriminatory in language and encourages intolerance. There are facebook groups set up by Maldivians for the specific purpose of inciting hatred toward South Asian workers in the Maldives! Whilst the state is rigorously policing political or religious content in the media it fails to pay any attention to this. Worst of all was when the City Council of Male’ organised a committee to deal with the ‘issue of the nuisance and bother of ‘Bangalhun’ congregating’ in public squares in the capital. The Council members suggested keeping open spaces out of bounds for foreign workers and to put notice boards in foreign languages informing that it is out of bounds. How are we any different from the Nazi’s in the 1930s when they denied Jews access to public parks?

Consider what they do for our country. They build our houses; they clean our roads; they even look after our children. Simple, traditional tasks we Maldivians were able to do ourselves like making hedhika or fishing are now undertaken by them. Maldivians complain when they use public hospitals, parks, shops and public transport, etc. What do we give them in return? Insults, inadequate housing and poor working conditions. Construction workers work over 14 hours a day and most of them sleep in shifts because construction companies provide extremely poor living conditions and wages.

This begs the question, why do we treat foreign workers with so much contempt? Similar to many other societies, are we feeling threatened by the ever expanding immigrant population? Is our culture threatened? Is it the loss of jobs? Are the unemployed youth in the country ready to take over the jobs undertaken by foreign workers? NO. The truth is Maldivians would not want their jobs and I do not think we are threatened by foreign cultures, certainly not from South Asian countries. Lack of education or awareness is not an excuse, because even people who are educated and cultured use terms such as ‘Bangalhi’ daily. For example, the recently arrested blogger Hilath Rasheed, a man known for his fight for freedom of religion, sexual orientation and expression, etc, also refers to nationals of Bangladesh as ‘Bangalhis’ in his blogs. So could it be that we Maldivians have failed to detect this racism that has been thriving amongst us for many years?

Perhaps we should start a change now. Parents and teachers should teach children to respect and understand equality and diversity. Just teaching about their human rights is not enough. Maldivians do love their own human rights but are still very far from recognising that those that are different from us are also owed their human rights. The government should enact laws that openly denounce those that incite intolerance and contempt against foreign workers. Civil society organisations in the Maldives that fight for the ‘rights of everything on this earth’ should make an active stance against racism in the Maldives. Businesses that bring in foreign workers should be held legally responsible for providing their employees with decent living and working conditions, and should create better awareness amongst foreign workers of cultural norms in our society.

It does not cost us anything to treat foreign workers with respect and dignity. Justifying to yourself that you personally do not discriminate and sleeping peacefully with that is not enough.  Racism is not a myth in our country. Next time you refer to a Bangladeshi, please do not refer to him/her with the term xxxx!

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1 Comment

  1. Aobilz says:

    I really liked the article… if only people like you were in the mainstream journalism.

    all the best….

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