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HindustanTimes Sat,19 Apr 2014

A 'free' visa brings with it many restrictions

Nikhil Eapen, Hindustan Times   September 13, 2013
First Published: 02:25 IST(13/9/2013) | Last Updated: 04:52 IST(13/9/2013)

When Rafiq Abdul returned to Kozhikode district, Kerala from Saudi Arabia in 2008, he had worked for 10 years as a driver, a mobile phone salesman, and an illegal taxi operator. But even after a decade of employment, Abdul didn't have Rs. 23 for the bus fare to go home from the airport.

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Thousands of Indian migrant workers like Abdul continue to live and work in the Gulf countries. Many now face deportation, as countries like Saudi Arabia, seeking to increase local employment, are cracking down on illegal migrant workers.

But neither 'host countries' like Saudi Arabia or 'sending' countries like India are doing enough to tackle the larger problems of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers.

Under the kafala or sponsorship system in force with some variation across all six Gulf states, every migrant worker must be guaranteed work by a sponsoring employer.

Thousands of migrant workers in the Gulf are employed on so-called 'free visas' -  an informal arrangement where the 'sponsor' allows migrants to work for other people as long as the worker keeps his side of the bargain.

Typically, this means paying the sponsor steep monthly or annual installments, or extra charges for bureaucratic procedures like renewing their work and residency permits. For a migrant worker, the trouble comes when something goes wrong.

Perhaps his sponsor has a change of heart about the terms of the deal and wants to charge more. Or perhaps he does several weeks of hard work and is not paid. He can't challenge his employers in the courts, because they are not his sponsors and he should not be working for them.

So why, given these risks, do so many migrants continue to prize free visas above regulated migration to the Gulf? When workers migrate on free visas, they often do so believing that this may help them migrate more safely because migrants going through regular recruitment channels can face very serious risks themselves.

It is depressingly common for Indian workers in the Gulf to describe how they arrived to find their monthly salary was far lower than what they had been promised. Others find they are not even doing the kind of job they expected to do.

Amnesty International met migrant workers who were promised jobs as drivers but who were driven straight from the airport to the desert where they were put to work looking after camels.

Clearly, some of the solutions to these complex problems must be delivered in the Gulf where governments need to address the serious flaws in the kafala system, which can facilitate exploitation and enforce their own labour laws to protect vulnerable migrants from abusive employers.

But India, the world's biggest recipient of foreign remittances must also shoulder its responsibilities towards its migrant workers who bring so much back to their home country.

The Indian government must take immediate steps to ensure that all migrant workers have effective access to information about the dangers of travelling to the Gulf on illegal arrangements such as free visas.

Authorities must strengthen the pre-departure protection mechanisms available to migrant workers to take action against predatory recruiters, and must ensure that all migrant workers can access a transparent and effective complaints mechanism.

The government must do more through its embassies and consulates to support workers in trouble, and to facilitate the smooth reintegration of returnee workers into the domestic economy.

Nikhil Eapen is a researcher with Amnesty International India

The views expressed by the author are personal

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