The number of illegal Indian workers leaving Dubai soared in the first four months of 2009 as the financial crisis hit demand for day labourers on building sites, India's consul-general to Dubai said on Thursday.
Thousands of Indian workers are employed informally in the United Arab Emirates, the second-largest Arab economy, entering the country without proper work permits and often working as day labourers for construction companies.
"Obviously the financial crisis was the reason for the increase," Venu Rajamony, India's consul-general told Reuters.
He said one way of tracking the movement of illegal Indian workers was through emergency certificates, the documents issued by the consulate in lieu of missing passports which permit Indian citizens to return home.
Consulate data showed the number of emergency certificates granted to illegal workers in Dubai and the northern emirates jumped almost six-fold in the first four months of 2009 to 5,277, compared with 894 in the same period last year.
"The people coming asking for emergency certificates are saying there are no more jobs available in the economy and they prefer to go back," Rajamony said.
Regional trade and tourism hub, Dubai, is one of seven members of the UAE federation and the leader of a regional property boom that collapsed late last year.
Thousands have lost their jobs as billions of dollars of real estate projects have been shelved in recent months, although with little official data it is unclear just how many workers have left the country.
Foreigners, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, make up 80 to 90 percent of the UAE's population of about 4.5 million.
Rajamony said the UAE was the "single-most important destination for Indian workers" who made up 42.5 percent of the UAE's labour force last year.
Analysts are expecting a sharp decline in the population of Dubai, the world's third-largest oil exporter, with investment bank EFG-Hermes forecasting it could fall 17 percent in 2009.
However, UAE officials say there has been little change in the workforce.
Labour Minister Saqr Ghabbash this week refuted reports of an exodus, saying the ministry had issued more new labour cards than it cancelled in the last six months.
He said many employers were giving staff extended leave rather than firing them as they ride out the economic downturn.
"We have no particular objections to this practice," Rajamony said. "However, we do have a concern that this could become an excuse not to pay the termination dues."
Rights groups have criticised the conditions in which labourers work. Many are housed in shanty camps and work long hours during intense summer heat and humidity.
Rajamony said illegal workers are often misled by recruiting agents, who bring them to the UAE with a promise of proper work permits only to give them visitors visas on arrival that do not officially entitle them to work.
"Sometimes they are ignorant and don't know and are given the impression it's a legitimate visa," Rajamony said, adding the consulate helps some illegal workers with the cost of airfare back to India.
He said cases of agents or employers confiscating the passports of labourers and restricting their right to travel was a "widespread phenomenon across the Gulf".