By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For six months, Indian fisherman S. George lived in fear on a boat, thinking he would never see his wife and children again.
George was one of 15 fishermen from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu detained in October last year on charges of straying into Iranian waters while fishing in the region, officials said.
Reaching their homes last week, after months with no contact with their families, the fishermen said nothing had prepared them for the ordeal they went through when they left their homes in 2014 to work on fishing boats off the coast of Bahrain.
"Once we were trapped, there were days of confusion," George told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It was not clear to us that we had crossed international waters into Iran while fishing and were being detained. What followed we never imagined could happen."
There are an estimated six million Indian migrants in the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman, many of them trafficked and exploited, campaigners say.
"We are seeing increasing cases of fishermen being detained," said Josephine Valarmathi of the non-profit National Domestic Workers' Movement, based in Chennai.
"Even as this lot of fishermen have returned, another 24 have been caught in the same circumstances and are now stranded. Most of them are not clear on what visa they have travelled or the terms and conditions of the workplace."
George said they were given very little food, forced to drink water from toilets, made to do sit ups and often went hungry. After being held in a prison in Iran for a few days, the fishermen were kept on their boats off the coast.
"We were under constant watch," George said. "Sometimes we were given just one roti (bread) and survived on that all day. We earn our livelihoods from fishing but living on a boat under fear of death was not what we had signed up for."
A. Maria Joseph Kennady said language was a barrier to understanding of what was going on.
"We were forced into a prison for four days and then back on the boat. We were herded like cattle," Kennady said.
Officials at the Iranian embassy in New Delhi declined to comment on the matter.
ONE IN TEN
According to the Tamil Nadu Migration Survey 2015, the first comprehensive study on emigration from the state, roughly every tenth household has one or more workers abroad.
The survey showed that a migrant spends an average of 100,000 rupees ($1,500) to secure a job overseas, with half going to recruitment agencies and the rest for visas and travel.
The survey of 20,000 households also revealed that 39 percent of women and 21 percent of men who work abroad reported not receiving the promised wages.
"Often workers get duped, can't deal with the work situation in the Gulf and come back in adverse circumstances, forgoing their income," said Bernard D'Sami, co-author of the migration survey.
"They then get trapped in an unending cycle of debt that sometimes forces them to go back to the Gulf and work."
Paid on the basis of the catch they brought back from the sea, the fishermen said they were back home with no savings and big loans that needed to be paid back.
The fishermen called for urgent action to prevent others suffering similar ordeals, including education campaigns about the risks of migration.
"I didn't understand or assess the risks," said George, now worried about repaying the nearly 100,000 rupee loan he took out to get to Bahrain.
"And nobody told me either. So many people dream of a Gulf job. The government needs to make sure it doesn't become a nightmare."
($1=64.2660 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)