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Migrant workers caught up in Libya and Iraq conflicts

On August 14, 2014

Tens of thousands of migrant construction workers, domestic staff, carers and nurses remain in Iraq and Libya despite the escalating conflict. Some have stayed and continue to work through choice, while others are desperate to leave but have been stranded without access to consular assistance or support from their employers. Migrant workers have also been caught up in the conflict, and have been the targets of kidnappings and physical and sexual violence.

According to local media reports, 41 Indian construction workers in Najaf are being held captive by Isis militants. The workers, mainly from Punjab, were captured two months ago, and hopes that they would be released during Eid have been dashed.

A recent CNN IBN documentary on Indian blue collar workers abroad (watch from around 14:30 minutes in for a section on migrants in conflict zones) reports that the group of workers were given just $20 by their employer and told to leave - despite the fact that they were in a conflict zone and had not been paid for 4 months.

The kafala system renders migrant workers in conflict zones doubly vulnerable. Not only must migrants contend with the escalating threat of kidnap and violence from armed militias, but they are also subject to the whims of their employers, who have the power to prevent them from leaving the country. Amnesty International reported in June that migrant construction workers in Iraq were possibly stranded because the infrastructure company that they worked for had refused to return their passports.

Last month the Indian government stepped in and  repatriated 84 construction workers from Iraq, who reported that their employer had not only failed to offer to help return them to India, but had also withheld wages for several months. The workers are now back home in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, but the ending of the story is far from a happy one, as most are saddled with heavy debts incurred as a result of migrating overseas for work.

Meanwhile, 180 Bangladeshi construction workers, also in Najaf, have been stranded for two months after their Turkish employer forbade them to leave. The Bangladeshis are reported to have been physically threatened by their employer for talking to the media, and have said that they are scared that they will be handed over to human traffickers. “We don't need any new job here. We just want to go home,” Mohammad Siddique, one of the group, told Bangladeshi paper The Daily Star earlier this week. “We demand the government rescue us immediately,”

Meanwhile, the Philippines is in the process of attempting to evacuate all of its 13,000 of its nationals in Libya.  The Philippine government today sent a ship capable of carrying 1500 people to Libya, which was scheduled to dock at Benghazi and Misurata earlier today. However, as many as 100 workers have backed out of the evacuation, citing a lack of jobs back home as a reason for staying behind in Libya. The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous for migrant workers in Libya; last month a Filipina nurse was raped and killed by an unknown gang, and a Filipino construction worker was beheaded by a militia.

Recent events in Libya and Iraq highlight just how vulnerable migrant workers are. Not only are they at risk of grave security threats, but they receive little to no support from employers - who may even constitute another danger to the migrants. And to add to this, the burden of sending remittances and paying down debts incurred during the process of migrating mean that many workers take the decision to stay behind in conflict zones, even if means putting their lives in danger.