Some regions of India are seeing a mass movement of people seeking their fortune abroad. Enticed by the promise of prestige jobs and big money, all too often they find only physical and mental exploitation at the end of their journey.
Kerala state in India is famed for its beautiful beaches and the country’s highest health and literacy rates. But it is also known for something else – a darker side.
For many years, and despite the state’s success, unemployment has remained high, forcing millions of Keralites to look further afield for work.
And that’s exactly what Muhammad Ashraf Haji has done. He’s one of 2.3 million Indians who have headed to the Gulf for a better life.
“We are interested in going abroad because we don’t have enough opportunities and benefits to work in India,” he told RT’s Priya Sridhar. “Every day our expenses are shooting up and we don’t have enough, so we go to the Gulf in order to earn more and have a good life”.
After three and a half years, Muhammad is back in India to renew his visa so he can return abroad.
He says he can earn almost twice as much in the Gulf as he can at home.
For Muhammad, migrating to the Gulf has been a success. Stories like his drive thousands of Keralites to knock on the doors of recruitment agencies in a bid to do the same.
The dream of going to the Gulf has become a money-making business in Kerala, with people coming early in the morning to line up to get their passports and visas processed. On just one block, there could be several agencies offering to help people gather all the necessary paperwork. Some of them charge as much as $3-5,000 for their services.
And that’s when things can start to go wrong.
To afford the ticket and high agency charges, many would-be Gulf workers take out loans from their future employer.
Once they arrive, they are given a lower salary than promised, but are still in debt.
Experts say it’s a common story, and one which makes people vulnerable to physical and mental exploitation.
“This poor worker, when he was in India, was promised a good salary of US $500 when he goes to Gulf. But when he gets there, the employer pays him only $100,” Dr S. Irudaya Ranjan from the Center for Development Studies explained to RT.
Sometimes, though, the consequences are even worse.
“Seven years ago she called us in the morning and was crying. After that we haven’t heard from her. She has gone missing and we have no information,” recalls Renjina Ansar, whose mother left for the Gulf in 2004 for what was supposed to be a higher-paying job.
Renjina hasn’t seen her mother since.
Many Indian workers – like Renjina’s mother – simply disappear. It is thought some are just afraid to come back and admit that their dream became a nightmare.
Others flee their abusive employers and then hide to escape being discovered by the authorities and deported when their paperwork expires.
“We had a lot of difficulties when she went missing, and still do,” says Noor Jehan, whose sister also went to the Gulf to work. “She has daughters, and that is a lot of responsibility. I have two kids as well. All of them were really young when she went missing and they don’t have many memories of her,” she recalls.
We can only speculate about this one missing woman’s story. But hers is not an isolated case. While Kerala’s migrant workers send almost $7 billion back to India every year, thousands of others are never heard of again, leaving memories and a sense of loss no amount of money could ever make up for.