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Indian Workers Say They Are Tricked Into Working in Iraq - 2004-08-16


Three Indian truck drivers who have been held hostage in Iraq for almost a month are among thousands of Indian migrant workers going abroad in search of jobs. Some of them say they were promised jobs in Kuwait and other Gulf States, but were forced instead to work in Iraq. VOA's Patricia Nunan spoke with migrant workers and the families they left behind.

It is early evening in a small village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, and a group of about a dozen men have gathered on one man's porch to sit on folding chairs and talk. It is a common sight in this working-class community, where children and cows stroll the tiny lanes between the houses.

But here, there is an undercurrent of tension and concern. The group is listening to 58-year-old Ram Murthi, the father of one of three Indian truck drivers taken hostage in Iraq in July.

He says, "Once my son comes back I will never let him go just anywhere again. I'll keep him right before my eyes."

Mr. Murthi, a retired civil servant, says he never followed the news about Iraq until he heard that his son, Antaryami, was taken captive by an insurgent group.

Mr. Antaryami was taken hostage along with two other Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian. Neither India, Kenya nor Egypt has troops deployed in Iraq, so the insurgents were unable to demand that those governments withdraw their soldiers, as other hostage-takers have done.

Instead, the kidnappers successfully forced the truckers' employer, the Kuwait and Gulf Link transport company, to stop working in Iraq. But the men are still being held.

Since the men were captured, local and international media have descended on the home of Mr. Murthi and his wife, who now spends most of her time praying. Mr. Murthi met with India's prime minister, president and foreign minister in New Delhi, and he says they assured him they would try to win his son's freedom.

Mr. Murthi says he does not mind the media attention, as he thinks it will help win his son's freedom. But, prodded by a friend, he takes the opportunity to make a special request.

He says, I would like to appeal to the American government to please help get my son freed.

India's Foreign Ministry estimates that at least 3.5 million Indians are working in the Gulf States - ranging from domestic servants to computer engineers and corporate executives. Many go looking for better opportunities and higher wages than they can find in India. Some fall victim to unscrupulous employment agents.

Mr. Antaryami and his family borrowed the equivalent of roughly $1,400, which they paid to an agent to secure a job for him driving a truck in Kuwait. But after he and his companions arrived, Mr. Murthi says, they were forced to drive trucks in Iraq.

It is an increasingly common tale.

Twenty-seven-year-old truck driver Kishen Dev also took out a loan to pay an agent the equivalent of $2,200 for a job in Kuwait. He says the agent promised he would earn around $700 a month, compared with the $100 he could earn in India.

He says the agents confiscated his and other migrant workers' passports when their flight landed in Kuwait, and they were taken to a walled compound where a number of other Indian men were living. Once there, they were told they would have to drive to Iraq.

Mr. Dev made just one trip to Baghdad - which he decided would be his last, after he escaped injury when his convoy was ambushed by insurgents. When he got back to Kuwait, he fled the compound for the Indian embassy, where officials helped him eventually to return home.

Mr. Dev was gone from India for about a month. He returned home unemployed, and saddled with debt.

Since the hostage taking, many of the agents who ply villages looking for migrant workers have gone into hiding, and little legal action has been taken against them. But the Indian government says it does what it can to stop Indian workers from falling prey to unscrupulous agents.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna says the office of the Protector of Immigrants checks the conditions under which Indian migrant workers go abroad.

"Particularly those immigrants who are lacking in appropriate education or other facilities so that nobody can take advantage of them. And only then the passports are cleared for travel abroad, after checking the contract," he explains.

In another village, 60-year-old Rattan Kaur helps tend the family farm and worries about her son, who she says was also deceived by an agent into driving a truck in Iraq. That complaint comes despite the fact that he has managed to send some money home.

She says, "I would rather go without as much food to eat, if it means getting my son back."

For Indian migrant workers and their families, that is all too often the type of choice that has to be made.

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