International Migration Day: Not just tweets, MEA must safeguard Indian migrants from trafficking, push for rehabilitation

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Manjusha OM, an Indian domestic worker from Kerala, returned home empty-handed from Saudi Arabia, with a shattered mind and bruises on her body, after working like a slave for eight months.

She was beaten up by her Arab employer for ‘disobedience’ during her 20-hour-long duty and had to eat from garbage bins to keep herself alive. “It was like a hell. I will never take up a job in the Gulf,” Manjusha said.

Like Manjusha, Jumaila Beevi, another migrant domestic worker from Kerala, also had to undergo similar experiences in Saudi Arabia. “In addition to denying food and medicine for my ailments, the sponsor used to beat me a lot. One day, he also kept a gun on my neck and told me that he will kill me,” Jumaila said. “That day I ran away and returned to India, giving up my 13 months’ salary in fear of my life,” she added.

 Manjusha and Jumaila were duped and trafficked by local agents in India. Even when India is the country receiving the biggest remittances, migration of unskilled workers is still not happening in a safe, regular and orderly manner from the country.

Unskilled migrant workers are duped, trafficked and exploited in all stages of migration. This is what India, the $65 billion-remittance-receiving country, should focus on as the United Nations is preparing a Global Compact to ensure safe, regular and orderly migration.

When the world is marking International Migration Day on Monday, 18 December, India should start thinking about what can be done to ensure that more Manjushas and Jumailas do not fall prey to greedy agents.

Efforts by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials led by its minister Sushma Swaraj extending help through her Twitter handle to ‘rescue and airlift’ stranded Indian migrant workers are appreciable but this is not going to help resolve the issue in the long run. Twitter replies and retweets may help to resolve one to one cases, but the issue is much bigger than the few that achieve resolution.

The root causes of the issues faced by migrants are not addressed with proper policy changes. Swaraj might be praised by even the Opposition members for her tireless work to help the migrants but migrant rights workers say that she and her office ‘act’ like a call centre most of the time.

Even today, migrant workers from India, especially unskilled women and men, who migrate to earn around Rs 10,000 on average per month are duped.

Even though the Indian government has streamlined the recruitment process by initiating eMigrate system since 2014 in phases where it can ensure transparency, according to migrant rights activists, trafficking continues to be rampant.

Rafeek Ravuther, a migrant rights activist in India, said that when eMigrate was launched, they had hoped for safer migration. “But the number of migrant workers getting trafficked has not come down,” said Rafeek.

In 2016 itself, Rafeek had handled 86 trafficking cases of women domestic workers. According to him, when rules of the recruitment process are made stricter, trafficking only goes up. And, unfortunately, when rules are relaxed, the migrant workers are left less protected.

Recently, the Indian government removed the financial guarantee clause required in domestic worker recruitment to emigration clearance required countries. According to an Indian embassy official in Kuwait, in two weeks’ time following the removal of the financial guarantee requirement clause, at least 7,000 domestic workers’ visas were issued by the Kuwait government.

And the official fears that the majority of the Indian women domestic workers coming on these visas would be trafficked ones. A document from the Indian Parliament states that 100 show cause notices were issued from 1 January till 30 June this year to fake recruitment agencies.On the other hand, last week, the Indian government relaxed the rules to start recruitment agencies in India.

Sister Josephine Valarmathi from the National Domestic Workers Movement said that granting a license to start small recruitment agencies is a good move but the government should always keep a tab on them. “If they are given full freedom, then it is quite dangerous,” Valarmathi said.

In addition to the hurdles at home, Indian migrant workers, especially those in the Gulf, face a tough time. The fall in oil prices and the Qatar blockade has affected them severely. While many are sent back on promises that the fees for the ending of services will be paid when the situation betters, many others are laid off and left in the lurch.

While layoffs in Saudi were reported widely in media, layoffs in other countries were less reported. However, thousands have returned from Gulf countries after losing their jobs.

And, those who returned are stranded in their home country without much help for rehabilitation measures. Additionally, job loss has directly reflected on the inward remittances as well.

Recently, Kerala’s finance minister also expressed his concern in the remittance dip. Kerala is the biggest remittance recipient state in India and it is around Rs one lakh crore, which is almost equivalent to 37 percent of the state gross domestic product.

So, in a nutshell, recruitment and job status in a foreign country and rehabilitation of returned migrants is not happening in a fair way. Migrant workers’ rights are violated.

This is where the Indian government should focus when the United Nations is discussing a Global Compact to make migration safe, regular and orderly by September 2018. In the New York Declaration, states committed to “reaffirm, and… fully protect, the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status.”

Migrants today, and including those in the context of large movements, are facing a human rights crisis at all stages of the migrant journey – in their places of origin, in transit and at borders, in places of destination and, often, upon return.

While the final phase of formation of Global Compact is underway, in its deliberations, India should focus on issues like labour rights including recruitment reform and access to justice. It should also focus on more and better opportunities for labour migration, respecting migrants’ labour rights.

Additionally, India should also find ways to act against dangerous and unsustainable returns and deportations. Only these moves will ensure Indian migrants are safe on foreign shores.

(Originally published in the First Post, India.)

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