Home / Home-page / For stranded migrants, a jail stint is the first step towards freedom

Hyderabad: Durgam Dastagiri spent nearly five months trying to get thrown into a Saudi jail. It was the only way he could go home.

A slight, bird-like man with a neatly groomed moustache, Dastagiri is one of approximately 4.5 million Indian workers who have moved to countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), to take up semi-skilled jobs to support families in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Sometimes, the job is all that is promised. More often, it isn’t. And, because of the unique, almost repressive laws governing immigrant workers in most West Asian countries, many find themselves stranded.

“We’ve had cases of people who have been stuck not just for four and five years, but 18, 20 years. We ask them why they stayed so long and they say they didn’t know what else to do," says Mehru Vesuvala, who works at Migrant Workers Protection Society in Bahrain. “They tried to leave and found that they could not."

It’s the dark side of the immigration story.

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Dastagiri’s story began well. In 2005, he paid an agent in Kadapa 85,000 to find him a job in Saudi Arabia. The agent found him one, as a driver for a construction company. So far, so good.

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On landing, he realized he had been had. His employer had already sold his contract to a local family. His new employers—a family of 20—paid him only 800 riyals (Rs 9,600 today), rather than the 1,200 (Rs 14,400) he’d originally been promised. From this, they deducted food, lodging and hospital expenses. In addition to driving, he was expected to work on the family’s date farm in the blistering heat in his “off time", and claims he suffered bites from poisonous ants and scorpions. He was charged an additional 2,000 riyals (Rs 24,000) for visa renewal. The situation worsened, he says, after someone crashed into the family’s car—when it was parked. The family said he was responsible for the damages, and didn’t pay him for 16 months. “I didn’t want to stay any more," he said. “I just wanted to go home." He soon learnt that going home would not be easy. So he became a runaway and waited, right opposite the jail where immigrants are to go before they are deported.

There are thousands like him. According to data provided by India’s ministry of external affairs, there were 3,142 Indians languishing in jails in West Asia, as of February 2010 (the most recent data available)—many on charges of petty crimes such as the consumption of alcohol and immigration violations—and unable to return home. Hundreds of other runaways live under the Al Khandara Bridge in Saudi Arabia, waiting for their turn to go to immigration jail so that they can be deported.

Another 128 Indians are currently stuck in Bahrain under a “travel ban", unable to leave the country after they were sued for breaking their contracts with an employer they claim was abusive, and now find themselves ineligible for exit visas.

Part of the problem lies in the kafala immigration system, which governs the recruitment of foreign employees in most West Asian countries. Under the sponsorship system, employees cannot leave the country without a “release paper" signed by their employers. They also cannot change jobs or enter the country without their sponsors’ approval. Critics of the sponsorship system say that it gives undue power to employers, who can cancel a workers’ visa at will. In Kuwait, leaving a job without the employer’s permission is a criminal offence. In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, migrants who do not have the sponsor’s explicit permission, in writing, to leave the country are stranded.

"Once someone lands in Saudi Arabia, he needs a passport," Prasanta Kumar Pradhan, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Delhi’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, explains. “But the system is such that once you reach, the employer takes your passport. Now, if the person finds the job unsuitable, he will try to leave. But if you leave without a passport, you become an illegal." Without a signed “release paper", the only way a migrant can leave Saudi Arabia is to be deported. And even that is not an easy process.

As soon as Dastagiri left his employers, they filed a “runaway" case against him, immediately revoking his employment visa: without a contract or a proper visa, he was legally unable to work in the country; yet, lacking a “release paper" signed by his employers, he was also unable to leave. He was stuck.

Hundreds of workers in similar situations camp under the Al Khandara Bridge, on the outskirts of the city of Jeddah, waiting to be arrested by the immigration authorities so they can spend time in immigration “jail".

The 4km long flyover is located directly across the street from the immigration detention facility. Once a worker becomes an illegal, he is required to spend time in immigration “jail" before being granted an exit visa, while the government verifies that he does not have any debt to his name or criminal charges, and is indeed “deportable". The facility is cramped and overcrowded, with approximately 18 barracks that hold 50-100 people each. The number of people waiting in queue is significantly more. With a long backlog, some people live under the bridge for months before they are “arrested" by the immigration authorities. Some have even waited years.

Dastagiri spent nearly five months living under the bridge. By his estimate, there were around 200 others there when he arrived, most from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and various African countries. Most, like him, were “runaways" who had left employers they claimed exploited and deceived them. During the day, those who could, would earn some money doing odd jobs. At night, they slept in makeshift houses constructed with plywood, corrugated steel or bits of cardboard. Most relied on charity for food, and would drink out of public fountains.

“At the time of food distribution, men would quarrel like dogs," Dastagiri recalls.

When the police finally came to arrest him, Dastagiri nearly cried. “I was so relieved," he says. They put him in quarters housing nearly 50 other men, while the Indian Embassy collected documents necessary to issue him an emergency exit visa. Finally, after another 70 days, he was deported. He arrived on a flight to Hyderabad in April. Such experiences are not unique to migrants working in Saudi Arabia. Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have the same sponsorship system. Bahrain scrapped it in 2009, allowing migrants the option of changing employers (Kuwait recently announced it will do the same), but problems remain: in order for workers to legally leave their employer, they must register for “mobility" in person at the department of labour within 15 days of leaving the company—first giving their employer between one and three months notice—or they will be considered absconders.

No one knows the exact number of migrants stranded in Gulf countries; experts easily put the numbers in tens of thousands. In some cases, they lack exit visas. A large number overstay on tourist visas, and are unable to afford to pay the fines necessary to return home. Still others languish in jails on petty offences while they wait for their case to be heard in backlogged courts.

Periodically, some countries announce amnesty programmes to help stranded workers leave. According to a paper published in 2008 by Nasra Shah, an expert on migration in West Asia at Kuwait University, nearly two million illegal or stranded immigrants (from India and other countries) left Saudi Arabia between 1997 and 2000 taking advantage of such programmes. Another 350,000 either regularized their stay or left the UAE during an amnesty period in 2007. But amnesties aren’t a long-term solution, according to Shah. “The amnesty programme is likely to simply scratch the surface of the problem."

Perhaps, the biggest problem is with the workers. “Often, workers who want to leave are uneducated and not fully informed of the process, or how to execute it," says Vesuvala. “Educating migrants of their rights is one of the most difficult tasks."

According to S.D. Moorthy, the consular officer in charge of welfare at the Indian Embassy in Jeddah, workers have no one to blame but themselves in some cases. In order to leave the country, workers must first obtain signed release forms from their sponsors. But because they are afraid of being “blacklisted" from countries (deportation in Saudi Arabia comes with a mandatory five-year bar on entry), many are reluctant to disclose the names of their sponsors or the reasons for leaving. “Many don’t cooperate," he says. “Some are reluctant even to reveal their passport details. If they don’t reveal these, how do we help them?"

Another challenge is verifying the identities of those without passports, which most runaways lack. In such instances, the Indian missions abroad can issue “emergency certificates" to allow workers to return home, but doing so requires first verifying that they are Indian citizens. For those lacking copies of their passports or any other documents, such verification generally takes a minimum of two months, according to A.K. Tiwari, joint secretary at the ministry of overseas Indian affairs. “India is a very heterogeneous country," says Tiwari. “How are we to know they are who they say they are? Before we issue an emergency certificate, we need to verify their identity, and that takes time."

The Indian government has been taking steps to address the grievances of migrant workers, including the introduction of 24-hour crisis hotlines in many West Asian countries, and a “welfare fund" to help migrants avail legal advice, air fare and medical help. It has also signed agreements with several West Asian countries on the rights of workers and procedures to address grievances.

Even so, some organizations do not think that the government is doing enough.

Earlier this year, P. Narayana Swamy, the director of the Migrant Forum in Andhra Pradesh, submitted a letter to the President of India requesting help for 128 migrant labourers stranded in Bahrain for more than two years. The workers had run away from a company they claimed had exploited them, only to have the company place a travel ban on them for breaking their contracts. After months of campaigning, the government finally filed a counter-suit in the Andhra Pradesh high court against the company that had placed the travel ban on the workers. According to Swamy, there are many more cases that are not being addressed.

“No one is taking responsibility for them."

This is the third and final part of a series on illegal immigration and the problems faced by legal immigrant workers from India told through the stories of three people. In the first part, we looked at an illegal migrant who came back. In the second part we looked at a legal immigrant who died abroad. In the third, we look at a legal-turned-illegal immigrant who was stranded.

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