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Documented or undocumented, till this Kafala is removed in this region, migrants will be slaves.
Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist, author of Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf and a migrant rights researcher.
In 1963, Manikuttan P, a 15-year-old Keralite, boarded a dhow from Daman Diu, a western Indian port city, heading to Iran via Dubai. He was dropped off near the Muscat coast in Oman. He swam to the shore and from there, hopped on a jeep crossing over to Dubai.
He continued to live and work for the next 25 years alongside many others from his home state, building Dubai. Manikuttan was an undocumented labour migrant then – one of those day-labour migrants who dared to sail across the rough seas to the Arab Gulf without any documents in hand. He obtained his first passport in Dubai just before his first return journey home, three years after he arrived in the place of his dreams.
Despite the lack of documents, he and many others like him were welcomed in those Arab countries at that time. They were not considered ‘illegals’ then, as they are seen now and denied their rights. Despite the exploitative Kafala sponsorship system being in place, wages were paid, and employees were protected.
I interviewed Manikuttan in the middle of 2019 in Kerala while I was drafting my book, ‘Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf’, focusing on labour migration in the India-Arab Gulf corridor and the challenges faced by labour migrants in all stages of the migration cycle.
Unfortunately, despite their role in providing vital support to host economies, the governments continue to turn a blind eye to migrant worker abuse and exploitation.
Despite countries of destination and origin claiming to be progressive and champions of workers’ rights, on the ground, dehumanising exploitation and degradation of migrant labour is a part of everyday life.
Appunni, a Keralite who languished for some 20 years in Oman as an undocumented worker, explained that residing and working illegally in any GCC country means to live in constant fear – fear of being raided by police at any time, handcuffed, abused, jailed, deported – without being given a chance to explain why and what pushed him into an undocumented status.
Appunni had migrated to Oman with proper documents. But a few months following his arrival, his sponsor or Kafeel, did not register and pay for his residency. His precarious status continued for 20 long years.
Finally, in 2015, when an amnesty was offered, Appunni made good use of it. Such arrangements announced from time to time by all GCC countries, allow overstayers and undocumented labour migrants to return to their home countries without paying any fines.
While Appunni was lucky to get an amnesty in Oman, Majeed, another undocumented, stranded Keralite, did not have an amnesty at that time. His overstay fines had accumulated to over $2,000. Struggling for daily food, and sleeping on the veranda of a mosque, paying this fine was unthinkable.
While I was writing the book, Majeed used to say, "documented or undocumented, till this Kafala is removed in this region, migrants will be slaves."
I arranged shelter for Majeed in a community organisation club, hoping that some documents could be obtained to prove his Indian nationality and enable him to leave Oman. But we failed.
Finally, Majeed got the help of Pakistani and Bangladeshi trafficking agents. He crossed the difficult terrain of the Oman-UAE mountain, presented himself as a stranded labour migrant at the UAE Indian embassy, made use of the amnesty running there, and finally flew back to India.
The women, as is often the case, suffer under patriarchal domination with emotional, physical and sexual abuse. If they are undocumented, they suffer a lot than men.
Praseedha, a Keralite domestic worker and her undocumented child, are the perfect example of how women and children get trapped in the undocumented situation.
When I took them to the Indian embassy in Oman requesting documentation and a return to India, the Indian embassy official accepted to supply a document to prove Praseedha is Indian because of the papers she did have. But he asked me how he could affirm that the child is Indian.
“The child speaks Malayalam; the language spoken by Keralites,” I answered. The official smiled at me and replied, "even Pakistanis can speak Malayalam,” adding, “a language is not enough to prove national identity." We were disappointed, but we didn't give up. They were repatriated a few months later.
Undocumented labour migrants survive on sheer courage and perseverance, shedding blood, sweat and tears that end up fuelling the thumping home and host economies.
In the absence of documents to speak for them, their human rights are systematically abused.
Unfortunately, even the documented in some GCC countries are victims of campaigns to ‘clean up the labour market’, whereby they are arrested and deported without allowing them to prove their innocence.
Even lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines are inaccessible for undocumented labour migrants in the GCC.
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