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Indian Workers Looking for Work Often Wind Up in Iraq

Every year thousands of workers from India and other parts of south Asia are lured with promises of big money to work in the Middle East. To their surprise many have found themselves trapped in Iraq. VOA’s Patricia Nunan has the story of one group of Indian workers who wanted out.

TV report transcript

Three Indian truck drivers who have returned home after being held hostage in Iraq for nearly six weeks.

The hostage incident gripped the whole of India - and highlighted a serious problem: the fate of thousands of Indians who go overseas every year to look for work. India's Foreign Ministry estimates there are at least 3.5 million Indian migrant workers in the Gulf States - in jobs ranging from domestic servants to computer engineers and corporate executives.

Despite India's burgeoning economy, some simply see better opportunity elsewhere.

“We don't get sufficient salary over here in India. We are looking for a fine job. I go for the IT profession.”

But in rural India life is harder and choices are fewer; a combination that often leaves people open to manipulation by unscrupulous employment agents.

Kishen Dev and Vipan Kumar Sharma each paid roughly $1,100 to an employment agent who promised to secure them jobs driving trucks in Kuwait - at seven times the salary they could make in their home state of Uttar Pradesh. But it was too good to be true.

KISHEN DEV (translation)
"When I got to the airport in Kuwait, the agent took away my passport. We were taken to courtyard with surrounded by very high walls, and just one gate. There were a lot of men inside. Once we were inside we were told we would have to drive to Iraq."

Without the means to return to India and denied food for refusing to work, both men went to an Iraq still wracked by violence. And both say they were lucky to escape with their lives, after surviving attacks on the convoys they drove in. Eventually, Indian officials in Kuwait helped each man return home. But Sharma says, both are now unemployed and in debt.

VIPAN KUMAR SHARMA (translation)
"I'm angry that I put myself in that situation. But I also think that the people who have lost their lives or were wounded - I could have been one of them. So it's better if I'm here and I pursue the agents to try to get my money back."

Following this hostage incident, the Indian government made it illegal for its citizens to go to Iraq, where it simply can't provide them with protection. And it's promised to crack down on dishonest employment agents.

But little can be done to bring back the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of Indian migrant workers still in Iraq, like Kesar Kaur's husband, who left the family farm to go drive a truck there.

Along with her in-laws, Kaur says she worries constantly for her husband's safety. And even though her son has sent some money home, his mother Rattan Kaur says, it's just not worth it.

She says, "I would rather go without having as much food to eat if it means getting my son back." For Indian migrant workers and their families, all too often that is the choice they have to make.