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Workers abroad

Recruitment racketeers have been taking Indians illegally to conflict zones, often in contravention of the Emigration Act. In 2004, three such victims were held hostage in Iraq till their employers agreed to shell out $500,000. Others, caught in the crossfire of conflict, have not been so lucky.

india Updated: May 29, 2006 02:00 IST

Recruitment racketeers have been taking Indians illegally to conflict zones, often in contravention of the Emigration Act.

Recruitment racketeers have been taking Indians illegally to conflict zones, often in contravention of the Emigration Act.

In 2004, three such victims were held hostage in Iraq till their employers agreed to shell out $500,000. Others, caught in the crossfire of conflict, have not been so lucky. K. Suryanarayana and Ramankutty Maniyappan were kidnapped and brutally killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Indians are increasingly seeking employment in some of the world's most dangerous places, be it in the reconstruction of Iraq andAfghanistan, or in resource-rich Nigeria and Sudan.

Foreigners usually are the preferred targets, cheap weapons for cash strapped terror groups and local insurgents in conflict zones. But the fact that employment in high-risk countries often fetches up to three times the standard salary is encouraging many to ignore safety advisories. Governments and private employers are under mounting pressure to assure the safety of their overseas workers.

This has necessitated changes in the way governments respond to hostage crises. After the beheading of kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, the US National Security Council reviewed its hostage policy. The new policy provides for the active involvement of its Foreign Service Posts in dealing with civilian hostages, retaining non-negotiation with kidnappers.

It is near impossible for the Indian government to ensure the safety of each of its citizens on foreign soil. This is especially so when a number of overseas Indian workers are either employed by the private sector or are 'irregular' migrants placed in overseas jobs through unscrupulous recruiting agents, flouting security protocols.

The easiest way to prevent a personal tragedy and national debacle on foreign soil is to devise ways to either deter or best prepare employment seekers before departure. To begin with, these private recruiting agencies warrant tighter scrutiny. The Indian government needs to issue graduated advisories for different areas of the world, according to the nature and magnitude of risk involved. Registration with Indian Missions abroad should be enforced strictly and made more citizen-friendly.

Frequent evaluation of ground situations can help upgrade the pre-warning and response systems.The UN issues monthly, sometimes even weekly, advisories to its employees operating in countries like Afghanistan. Detailed risk advisories are also provided by countries like the US, UK and Israel. According to Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management, it is imperative for the Indian government to maintain continuous liaison with intelligence and security agencies in conflict zones, and to establish and sustain covert channels of communication with those most likely to pose a threat to its citizens.

Politically unstable countries like Afghanistan, with over-stretched resources, are unable to ensure protection of foreign citizens. To deploy Indian paramilitary forces is diplomatically and logistically near impossible. Besides, the idea is based on the premise that a security man's life is more dispensable than those whomhe protects. Instead, selective employment of private security agencies can be increased. Defence analyst C. Uday Bhaskar advocates a public-private partnership model, with cooperation between the government and private employers to ensure the security of those employed in conflict zones. To deal with the exigency of kidnapping of civilians on foreign soil, he advocates comprehensive domestic and regional hostage policies, combined with a UN consensus on the issue. The government also needs to rope in the aid agencies and NGOs working in conflict zones.