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Reverse exodus of migrant workers in Persian Gulf challenges India

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 6, 2010

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.

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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.


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