Thousands of stranded Indian workers in Gulf countries are struggling to return back to India due to limited flights and high ticket fares. While the Ministry of External Affairs has launched Vande Bharat Mission to bring back stranded Indian expats from all over the world, observers are arguing that the government’s efforts are not enough especially for migrant workers in west Asia who are gripped in a crisis due to job losses amid the global pandemic.
Over 3.5 lakh Indians in Gulf countries have registered with Indian consulates to return home as flights from the region have begun operating. Moreover, the Indian government has also given permission for the operation of chartered flights between the Gulf region and India for the reverse migration.
“It is a tiresome process to get a ticket through the online process under Vande Bharat Mission. Also, the ticket fares have risen massively compared to normal rates,” said Shaheen Sayyed, a Kuwait based social activist. Speaking to NewsClick, Sayyed said that the government must consider providing free flight tickets to the workers as many of them are not in a position to afford their travel.
“The salaries of the migrant workers is in the range of 100 kwd to 120 kwd whereas, the flights to India are now charging 135 kwd against 75 kwd during normal times. In the last three months, due to the lockdown and economic crisis, thousands of blue collar workers have lost their jobs and have survived on relief help. Most of them don’t even have money to recharge their mobile phones, how can they afford flight tickets,” she questioned.
Amritsar Vikas Manch (AVM), an NGO and FlyAmritsar Initiative have written to the Civil Aviation Ministry, External Affairs Ministry and the Punjab state government requesting to increase measures to bring back stranded Punjabis especially from the Gulf Countries. “Many of the stranded workers do not even have the money to buy food or flight tickets,” noted the NGO in a press release.
“The government should immediately depute Air Force transport aircraft to repatriate people in the Gulf region especially the ones who have lost their jobs, and women, children and persons with medical and family related emergencies,” Yogesh Kamra, Secretary of AVM told NewsClick. He added that many workers are also stuck without passports as their passports had been impounded by their employers.
The private chartered flights are charging very high fares, said Sayyed. “ It is high time that the government increases the number of flights for repatriation and also should begin a dialogue with the workers who are now concerned about their livelihood. Otherwise, workers will become victims of depression,” she said.
Meanwhile, the government has launched Skilled Workers Arrival Database for Employment Support (SWADES) which is collecting the skills profile of returning workers.
On the other side, human rights organisations are raising humanitarian concerns among migrant workers in the Gulf. “Migrant workers in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries have been subjected to fierce campaigns calling for their deportation that is riddled with racist speeches and hatred. They have been left alone to face the novel coronavirus pandemic with no access to medical care or unions,” according to research by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).
The prevalence of COVID-19 among the expats has also been significant. For instance, Kerala reported 2,198 COVID-19 positive cases between May 4 and June 17 (since repatriation began), of which 1,959 cases have travel history.