Council: The rising number of illegal immigrants is a huge concern and rising threat for the safety and security of the country according to the National Council’s (NC) legislative committee’s report on illegal immigration presented to the house yesterday.

According to the report the number of expatriate workers working in the country has exceeded the foreign workers ceiling of 45,000. As per its data, the labour department has approved work permits for 48,675 foreign workers as of April 6 this year.

Likewise, the Department of Immigration reported issuing work permits to 45,712 foreign workers as of April 5 this year.

The report also estimated that DANTAK employs 3,000 illegal immigrants while IMTRAT is estimated to hold 2,000 workers without work permits. As per the Legislative Committee’s report 20,000 day workers such as maids and babysitters are estimated to be working in the border towns everyday without work permits.

“This has severe consequence on our national security,” stated the Legislative Committee’s report.

The house therefore recommended review of the foreign workers ceiling taking into account the plans to construct increasing number of hydropower projects and those under construction.

“This must be accompanied by a pragmatic plan to gradually reduce and replace foreign workers with Bhutanese,” the report stated.

The report also opined that the regulatory agencies conveniently ignored the current ceiling.

“When the committee asked why the limit was exceeded, neither the immigration nor the labour departments had any explanation,” the legislative committee’s chairperson Sangay Khandu said.

The house will continue the deliberation today, despite the house spending the entire day yesterday discoursing the recommendations of the committee.

Chukha NC member Pema Tenzin blamed lack of coordination among the relevant agencies like the economic affairs and labour ministries, and immigration department for failing to keep the number of expatriate workers below the ceiling. “When there is no coordination among these stakeholders the policy of replacing the expatriate workers with Bhutanese has been neglected everywhere,” Pema Tenzin said, attributing the influx of immigrants in the country to the lack of a proper levy system.

“Whether work permit fee or levy system, if it’s increased, even employing agencies would employ locals. If this wouldn’t really help create employment opportunities for the Bhutanese, it should at least control the influx of foreign workers,” Pema Tenzin said.

Lhuentse NC member, Tempa Dorji was skeptical if framing so many rules and regulations would even help. “Despite having clear cut laws if we don’t comply with our own laws, we cannot expect outsiders to follow it,” Tempa Dorji said, adding a recommendation for strict application of existing rules and regulations must be made to the law implementing agencies.

Some members also estimated that the number of foreign workers in the country to be much higher at around 70,000. “If 70,000 of the 700,000 population are foreign workers, it is a huge concern for the safety and security of our country,” Gasa NC member Sangay Khandu said.

The house also made its recommendation to urgently bring around 20,000 day foreign workers in border towns and other illegal foreign workers within the purview of labour and immigration laws.

Trongsa NC member Tharchin said that it is important to find out why these workers are entering the country daily. “Since it is possible that some of these foreign workers could be entering to smuggle controlled substances, it is important to find out what they do while inside Bhutanese territory,” Tharchin said.

Gasa NC member Sangay Khandu said that fighting illegal immigration extends beyond the security gates. “Institution of an effective information centres among the relevant agencies who come across these illegal immigrants like health, telecom and banks can help inform the regulatory agencies get to these immigrants,” Sangay Khandu said.

Punakha NC member Rinzin Dorji recommended maintaining proper record of day foreign workers with the police at the gates with issuance of numbered tokens. “If someone does not return by night then the regulatory agencies should follow up,” Rinzin Dorji said.

While the members expressed gratitude to project DANTAK for its role in Bhutan’s socio-economic development, and unwavering desire for continuity of excellent co-operation between the RBA and IMTRAT, the house also deliberated the issue of around 5,000 non-uniformed illegal immigrants.

The house urged the government to immediately pursue dialogue with project DANTAK and IMTRAT to mainstream their non-uniformed employees under the prevailing immigration laws. Tharchin pointed out from the report of DANTAK workers not being taken back to their country.

“I also seriously doubt the country of origin of some DANTAK workers,” Tharchin said, adding that the reason for his doubt is because of DANTAK workers not returning to their country.

He said that there are reports of some of them coming from the border areas of Bangladesh and India.

“There were also reports of some of them being refugees,” Tharchin said, recommending a thorough investigation on DANTAK labourers.

Thimphu NC member Nima Gyaltshen also reported cases of DANTAK not shouldering the responsibility of ensuring labourers exit the country after their services have been terminated. “DANTAK also must be asked to ensure that their labourers exit once they are terminated,” Nima Gyaltshen said.

Tempa Wangdi