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Reverse exodus of migrant workers in Persian Gulf challenges India

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 6, 2010; A06

KOCHI, INDIA -- When his overnight flight landed, Abdul Wahib walked out of Kochi's palm-fringed airport and hugged his family. After 24 years of working in the United Arab Emirates, he was home. He carried a suitcase and a layoff notice: His well-paid job as a forklift operator at Dubai's once-bustling port was terminated.

Wahib's airplane was filled with Indian laborers, some fired by text messages, dozens owed months of back pay.

"My flight was full of shocked men, sad men. I could think only of my wife and two children back in India," said Wahib, 48, who had saved enough to buy a three-bedroom house in a sleepy hamlet of coconut groves and banana trees in the southern state of Kerala. "I didn't want to disappoint them. India has become a strong nation. But it's migrants' money that has pumped through our banks and villages. I hoped I could find good work at home."

The great Persian Gulf migration has slowed to a trickle. About 4 million Indian workers have moved to the region since 2003, but the pace dropped off during the 2008 global economic crisis. Now, the completion of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in history, and Dubai's recent debt crisis have triggered an exodus.

The effect of the economic doldrums in the oil-rich kingdoms of the Middle East can be felt as far away as Bangladesh, the Philippines and India, where millions of migrants have left their homes in search of fortunes.

'Golden age' is gone

The return of Wahib and thousands like him represents one of India's biggest challenge in its hopeful rise as a superpower: how to offer well-paid jobs to the second-largest population on Earth. More than 75 percent of India's 1.2 billion people are younger than 35, and they are restless for work.

"The golden age of the Gulf is drying up. Short term, the job losses are a bad thing because families have to disrupt plans," said Binod Khadria, of the International Migration and Diaspora Studies project at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "But long term, India has some lessons to learn. We have to reform our education system and build our own well-paid jobs. Indians built a beautiful skyline in Dubai. Maybe now they could come home and build India's skyline."

It started during the Gulf's oil boom in the 1970s, when millions of South Asian unskilled workers flew by the planeload to cities such as Dubai, hoping that working abroad would bring in money that could turn their lives around.

For many it did. They worked night and day building glass and steel towers. But they lived in cramped, hardscrabble hovels. Still, they were often paid up to three times as much as they could make in India for the same work. Skilled workers also went; nearly 30 percent of Indian workers in the Gulf were doctors, advertising executives and engineers. "Work. Eat. Sleep. And repeat," sighed Mohammed Sajil, 34, a marketing executive who lost his job in Saudi Arabia last year and is secretary of the Kerala Migrant Association. "That's all Indians do when we work in the Gulf. But in India, there are just so many people. There is so much competition. Plus, I was making three times as much over there. My wife is very disappointed now. My children had to go to a cheaper school."

The financial pressure on the returning workers stems from a culture of remittances -- financial lifelines sent home by workers, economists say. Those funds are decreasing from Latin America to Central Asia as the developed economies they depend on have slowed.

The situation is most stark in India, where the diaspora sends more money home than any other migrant group in the world, Khadria said.

Indian President Pratibha Patil has said that remittances from overseas Indians were estimated at more than $50 billion last year and that $20 billion of that was from workers in the Gulf.

In Muvattapuzha, in India's deep south of Kerala, money sent home accounts for 22 percent of the state's economy, said state Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac. India's government recently announced it will help returning workers. In the red-earth villages here, government bank workers are canvassing homes and offering low-interest business loans to the returning workers. The fate of the workers is not always sad. Some of the skilled workers who left for Dubai decades ago say they have returned to a new India, which has more white-collar jobs .

"For those with college degrees, India is now the land of opportunity," said Manoj Kumar, who works for "Migrant's World," a popular TV talk show in Kerala. He recently lost his job in Dubai. "I tell the skilled returnees, now you can enjoy life with your girlfriend or wife. You can eat at KFC in India now. So why do we have to be so obsessed with going to the Gulf?"

Not long ago, young Kerala brides saw their groom leaving to work in the Gulf as a sign of financial stability, Kumar said. But new generations of Indian women have lived through the reality of family separation: loneliness, infidelity and resentment when a husband returns, jobless.

Bittersweet reunions

In recent years, a number of regional films have been made about families torn apart by a husband who goes to work in the Gulf. In the past, the films were about the dream of working abroad, Kumar said.

For many returning Indians, the homecoming is bittersweet. Wahib's family was reunited by the recession. While working, he was able to visit every two years.

Now, his wife, Niza Abdul, 36, says she is happy he is home in Muvattapuzha. She has a decent paying job as a government clerk, and Wahib was so disciplined he could buy their house in cash.

He watches their children playing. His daughter Hamna, 13, is a talkative A student who loves math. She attends an expensive private school. Wahib pats his 8-year-old son Wasim's mop of black hair. "I want him to go to college and try and stay in India," Wahib says. "I don't want him to leave us and work in Dubai."

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