Of late, Bhutan is witnessing the rise of taxis and other vehicles transporting illegal immigrants for large sums of vehicle fare, which can be ten times the actual fare or even more.
These illegal immigrants are mostly construction laborers but there are also domestic helps and other categories. There are also cases of laborers fleeing from Bhutan without fulfilling their work or in some cases cheating contractors.
The inverse, of course, is also possible with laborers fleeing contractors who do not pay instead of taking their complaints to the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR).
The bigger concern, however, is a systemic creation of a route or facility for illegal immigrants to enter the country and how this can be misused by more insidious elements than just laborers.
In accordance with its core mandate to facilitate legitimate and lawful movement of people across the borders by assessing the documents, identity and the intent of the immigrants, the Department of Immigration (DoI) said it will strictly monitor the offence of illegal immigration.
Director of Department of Immigration, Pema L Dorji, said that the priority of the department is national security and providing services. He said that Bhutan is a small country with a small population, and the borders are open and porous.
He said, “And in that context, illegal immigration presents significant challenges for us, as a country. Regarding the recent case (14 June 2019) of transportation of illegal immigrants which is with the RBP, based on a tip-off, an inspection team was mobilized to set up check points at various locations.”
He added that after an intense night checking, the taxi drivers were apprehended in the morning, and it was reconfirmed that the taxi drivers were indeed transporting two illegal immigrants.
“I am confident that the investigation will firstly establish the facts of the case, and secondly, the law, as it exists in our Act, will be applied by whichever court the police files the case. I hope that the recent case will be soon forwarded to the court of law,” the DoI Director said. He also said that this is not an isolated case, as there are others who are engaging in such offences and trying to make easy money.
He said it is saddening to know that Bhutanese citizens are engaging in such a serious offence for money. “We all have to be concerned that there are people who are making a profit from engaging in an act that undermines our national security. Today, it is just construction laborers, and tomorrow it can be anyone who may want to harm the country, and we are vulnerable to it. Protecting our security is the responsibility of every Bhutanese,” he said.
There were cases of deporting illegal immigrants in the past, but no drivers of public transportation were involved. “In the past, initially, the foreigners said they the pass but upon reaching the check point they were arrested for not having immigration documents,” Pema said.
The provisions of the offence of transportation of illegal immigration are outlined in the Immigration Act. Aiding and abetting of immigrants without proper permits and bringing immigrants from a place that are not authorized as ports of entry are some of the provisions.
DoI stated that every individual should be a responsible citizen and working in the interest of the nation, as Bhutan is a small country and they cannot afford to be complacent.
Calling on cooperation Pema said, “It can be done with unity, and not just by the Department of Immigration. The inspection division carries out inspections throughout the country, and they have their own sources of collecting intelligence reports. We have a good network with the law enforcement agencies, and the teams are working hard to ensure that no illegal immigrants are here in the country.”
In addition, DoI in collaboration with RSTA and other relevant agencies, are sensitizing public transport companies, particularly taxis, on the serious consequences of committing such offences by outlining all the provisions.
“We will continue with our efforts to prevent and bring to task all the people – engaging in illegal immigration offences. I appeal to the people not to do this because it is not in their interest, neither is it in the nation’s interest. It hurts everybody and if convicted it also hurts a person,” said the DoI Director.
He said the number of visitors or tourists to Bhutan has increased substantially, and to make matter worse, Bhutan is heavily dependent on foreign workers. “Therefore, the frequency of people crossing our borders has increased,” he said.
DoI is set to strengthen its HR capacity, improve its technology and revamp the immigration information and monitoring system to keep up with the changing times, needs and requirements.
DoI inspection teams also conduct random inspections to check on permits of the immigrants to gather if they have overstayed or engaged in activities that are not consistent within their permits. The teams often apprehend illegal immigrants and detain them for questioning, or penalize and deport them back as per the rules and regulations.
He said, “People disregard the immigration rules, and they overstay thinking that they won’t be caught. We take these things seriously, and our teams are always busy conducting inspections in cities, construction sites and highways. This is not just important to apprehend illegal immigrants but it serves as a deterrent.”
Meanwhile, he said that when it comes to the disagreement between the laborers and owners of any construction companies, it’s the jurisdiction and mandate of the MoLHR. For them, it is just to validate the documents of the foreign workers to prove that his or her stay in the country is legal and to ensure that he or she doesn’t commit any immigration offences, DoI pointed out.
Though the figures keep varying, the number of foreign workers in the country ranges between 52,000 to 54,000 at any given point of time.