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Virus traps poor foreign workers in deserted Maldives

Tens of thousands of impoverished foreign labourers have been left stranded and ostracised in one of the world's most densely packed cities as the tourist paradise of the Maldives battles coronavirus.

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This photo taken on May 9, 2020 shows foreign workers from Bangladesh gathering in an alleyway of an accommodation block after being put under quarantine to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Male. Impoverished foreign labourers are being left as outcasts in the Maldives as the once-bustling tourist paradise battles to contain the deadly coronavirus in its densely populated city. AFP
The turquoise waters and pristine beaches that draw honeymoon couples from around the world have been empty for weeks since a government order to close all resorts. That has left an army of migrant workers jobless.

Like Singapore, which recorded a large number of coronavirus cases among migrants living in tightly-packed dorms, the Maldives is heavily dependent on foreign labour.

About half of the 150,000 people in the two square kilometres that make up the capital, Male, are workers from Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka living in teeming alleys that are a haven for the virus.

"There is huge uncertainty and panic," said Zakir Hossain, 39, who had worked in a Male restaurant until March’s shutdown.

He said he has not been paid for more than two months.

"We are worried about the disease. All the Bangladeshi workers live in congested conditions," he said.

Like many migrants—who share rooms and even beds between shifts—Hossain lives in a single room on a backstreet with four other Bangladeshis.

Outside, security forces stop the labourers going out on the streets.

Authorities acknowledge conditions in Male for foreign workers are poor and say they are moving thousands into better housing out of the capital.

But opposition politicians have criticised the plans, labelling the treatment of such workers as "inhuman".

Family fears

The Maldives has recorded nearly 1,400 coronavirus infections among a population of 340,000, a much higher ratio than neighbouring Sri Lanka with 22 million people.

Some experts have warned the Maldives risks thousands more cases unless action is taken. Authorities say the infection spreads three times faster in migrant communities than in the local population.

Fears are growing for the health and welfare of these foreign workers, who are often brought in to clear refuse, clean dishes and do other essential jobs that locals reject.

Four coronavirus deaths have been reported so far, including one Bangladeshi, but rumours that hundreds of foreigners have the virus have compounded concerns among migrants.

Many are also worried about their families back in Bangladesh, also in the grip of a pandemic lockdown amid rising deaths.

"We need money to survive. We need our work," said Hossain, who managed to send about 80 percent of his $180 a month wage back to his wife and four children before the outbreak.

But others were not so fortunate. Anwar Hosain, a 42-year-old Bangladeshi carpenter and father of five, said he was owed about $1,800 by his employers.

"My wife calls me every day and cries. What can I do?"

What next?

The government has moved 3,000 foreign workers to a temporary shelter on the industrial island of Gulhi Falhu outside Male.

Thousands more are to follow but the main opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) has described the facilities as prisons. Labourers are barely allowed out and their rooms do not even have fans in the peak summer heat, when temperatures climb above 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).

"The treatment of these expatriates, mostly Bangladeshi nationals, is inhuman," PPM spokesman Mohamed Hussain Shareef told AFP.

Government spokesman Mabrook Azeez said authorities had built the housing in a bid to ease overcrowding in Male. 

"This is not the condition we want our labourers to live in," he told AFP.

Roughly a thousand Bangladeshis staying illegally in the Maldives have been repatriated, minister for foreign affairs Abdullah Shahid said on Sunday. India has taken back 4,000 people who lost their jobs.

Those left are increasingly despondent.

"I heard that if a Bangladeshi worker dies here, they don’t send his body back and he is buried here. I am worried what will happen if I die," said Hossain.

Topics: foreign labourers , Maldives , coronavirus , Zakir Hossain , Bangladeshi workers
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