Even though New Delhi is maintaining that there are just over 120 Indian nationals held in the northern conflict zone of Iraq, of whom 17 have been evacuated, a new realisation has dawned that there may be many more Indian expatriates staying there without legal documents. As per government figures, there are some 10,000 Indian nationals across Iraq. Unofficial estimates peg that 25,000-30,000 Indians have been living illegally in the conflict-free southern Iraq, having reached the country through illegal means, making the repatriation operation more challenging.
The rub is that the Indian authorities have been all along aware of the fact that a large chunk of Indians working in Iraq were doing so illegally. This is reflected in the cryptic remarks of the external affairs ministry spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin: “These are not new issues. These are not issues that we are not aware of, these are not issues that we have not addressed in the past and let me assure you, we will work through these issues and address them and assist our nationals.”
The problem is not confined to Iraq but is more virulent in other Gulf countries. After Saudi Arabia’s Nitaqat programme in 2011, it was found that out of 2.8 million Indian workers, almost 1.4 million did not have proper legal documents. They were either overstaying or working as huroob (having run away from the sponsors).
While the first and foremost task of New Delhi is to organise evacuation of all those trapped in Iraq and Syria, the government’s next major step should be to stop illegal migration and tackle the problem of overstaying in the Middle-East. Indian missions in the destination countries must be equipped and trained to scrutinise documents of Indian workers periodically. They should also start getting regular feedback from the workers about their living and working conditions. This will help the Indian government to rework its bilateral labour agreements.
Most of Indian workers in the Middle-East are low-wage earners without any long-term benefits like pension and deferred wages called bonus. What’s worse, they are often victims of exploitation by their employers, who do not give them the promised wages or provide proper living conditions. In the run-up to the football World Cup in Qatar, migrant labour from India has been facing almost inhuman working conditions in the construction sector there. But it’s not just Qatar, as cramped conditions and exploitation by employers under the infamous “kafala” system affected workers in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE etc., leaving Indian migrant workers in semi-slave conditions, where they cannot even protest against lower wages or poor living conditions, because that is tied to them being able to leave the country.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has declared she will focus on the problems of migrant Indian workers in the Gulf countries. The need for a detailed labour migration policy vis-a-vis members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is long overdue and New Delhi must persuade GCC countries to develop a common immigration law. The GCC as a bloc needs a common labour policy as Gulf states receive labour from the same countries.
Simultaneously, the government must undertake a detailed study of the labour market dynamics in Gulf countries. This will help it formulate a better emigration policy that will train and prepare the kind of workforce that can compete internationally. Since migrant workers do not have the capacity to negotiate salaries and minimum safeguards for their working conditions in the destination countries, India must evolve a living wage formula for them through negotiations with the host countries.
Misra is a senior fellow with Observer Research Foundation.