As the airplane took off the tarmac at Dubai international airport and the seat-belt sign went off, 35-year-old Jangili Peddulu heaved a sigh of relief. He was ecstatic, thankful to his fate, even as a montage of troubling images from the last five years flashed before his eyes. At last, he was going to meet his family in a few hours. Five days earlier, on August 21, he was stopped by immigration officials at the same airport and prevented from flying out of the country, for he had only an emergency certificate or temporary passport and not the UAE administration’s exit permit to leave.
Without wasting time, as soon as the airplane took off, he requested his co-passenger at the window seat for a few aerial photographs and video of “the impossible city”, a city where an individual like him, as he believed, could have become someone through sheer hard work. He is not sure if he could ever return even if he wished to.
On August 28, Peddulu was reunited with his family in Jagtial district of Telangana. Now in the comforts of his residence, by the side of his wife, aging father, and schoolgoing children, Peddulu advises friends and acquaintances to never do what he had done. “I want to ask everyone to travel to the Gulf only after securing valid employment and travel documents, and never trust an agent,” he tells indianexpress.com over the telephone.
Thanks to an ongoing amnesty scheme that was rolled out by the UAE administration in the wake of rising coronavirus cases, allowing all foreign nationals with VISA expired before March 1 to leave the country without a penalty or prosecution. The short-term amnesty that began on May 18 and was to end on August 18 has now been further extended till November 17.
“Since May, I have been trying to come back home. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic struck Dubai, thousands of people like me had been out of work. It was a complete shutdown,” says Peddulu. He says during this period he had to borrow Rs 25,000 from home and another Rs 60,000 from a friend to clear personal dues before returning home.
In Bur Dubai, Jytha Narayana, a social worker who also hails from Jagtial district of Telangana, has been running from pillar to post to help irregular migrants like Peddulu safely return home. Irregular migrants, in human rights parlance, refer to those who have been overstaying in a country.
Speaking to indianexpress.com over the telephone, he says he is working currently with at least 40 migrants who had “accidentally” crossed over to Dubai from Muscat and are waiting to return home by making use of the amnesty. Most people do not have a single document to prove even their nationality, he says.
“When we go to the Indian Consulate in Dubai, we should at least have documents to prove their Indian nationality. We need to get a clearance certificate from the police station concerned stating there are no active criminal cases against the applicant. In Peddulu’s case, it took three full months before he could get an emergency outpass,” says Narayana. A majority of such migrants wishing to return home are from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, he says.
Swadesh Parkipandla, a resident of Jagtial and the president of Pravasi Mithra Labour Union, said in the case of such irregular migrants, a certificate is required from the district collector of the applicant’s native district in India to prove his/her nationality.
In a similar case recently, the wife of another man stranded in Dubai after having crossed over from Oman four years ago appealed to the Jagtial district administration to coordinate with the Centre and the Indian Consulate in Dubai to facilitate his safe return. On August 8, along with the volunteers of the Union, Mulkala Jyothi pleaded that her husband Sathyam be brought back home. Sathyam has been working in Dubai as an irregular migrant worker and wished to return home in wake of the pandemic. According to Parkipandla, there are hundreds of irregular migrants, like Sathyam, wishing to return home.
Hyderabad-Mumbai-Muscat and then Dubai
Peddulu’s trysts with the Gulf started in 2010 when he first travelled to Saudi Arabia in search of a job but had to return a month. As a tractor driver in Jagtial, he was earning around Rs 6000 a month. But dreams of a better standard of living for his family once again prompted him to travel to Dubai in 2011. This time, he stayed in Bur Dubai along with several others from Telangana, did painting, welding, gardening, and everything that came his way. As a houseboy he was earning a monthly income of around Rs 60,000, ten times higher than what he used to earn back home, and managed to send home nearly half of that.
Later, according to him, it was when he wanted to visit his family back home that he realised that his VISA had long expired. By then, after running away from his original sponsor he had been overstaying in the country for 18 months. He was sent to jail for three days and then deported with a hefty penalty. For him, return to the village was merely physical as his mind stayed back in Dubai. The jobs back at home were no match to Dubai, in terms of the remuneration. At the same time, having been deported there was no way he could go back.
Even after returning, Peddulu was in touch with people in Dubai. As time passed, his desperation was felt by some who offered to help. In 2015, he managed a visit-visa stamp for Muscat on his passport. The Oman capital was hardly the destination. “I was in touch with friends in Dubai who put me in touch with a local agent in Jagtial who, in turn, connected me to a few men from Kerala in Muscat,” he said. “It was a total package of travel from Jagtial to Dubai. I paid around Rs 1.10 lakh without enquiring about the entire details.”
When he reached Muscat, the Keralites took his original passport and gave him another passport with a Muslim identity. Along with 10 others, Peddulu says he was put up in a room for the next 15 days. As it was the month of Ramzan, they mostly stayed indoors. In groups of two or three, they were shifted to Dubai in vegetable vans. “We took the highway. At the border, when the armed guards checked the vehicle and spoke to the driver in Arabic we knew anything could have happened.”
It was a relief once the vehicle reached Dubai. He had already lived in Dubai for three years. He worked as a “houseboy” in several houses, worked odd-jobs making a decent living for his family back home till the pandemic struck the city.
Risking life for better livelihood
According to Mandha Bheem Reddy, a senior migrant rights activist and the president of Emigrants Welfare Forum, while many are cheated by organised criminals, many migrant workers have died at the Oman-UAE border when the military on either side opened fire at them.
In May 2012, Durgam Bheemaiah of Velagatoor in Jagtial district was allegedly shot dead by Oman’s border security forces while he was crossing the border from Muscat to Dubai. He had gone to the Gulf in search of livelihood and ran away from his sponsor in Dubai to Oman. “He was an irregular migrant in Oman, and he was unable to pay the heavy penalty. So he chose the desert way to come back to India via Dubai,” says Bheem Reddy, adding that for over eight years the family has been awaiting an ex gratia amount from the government, but in vain.
“Whether these migrants are taking this path knowingly or unknowingly, it is certain that the motive is to earn a better living for their families,” says Bheem Reddy pointing out that nearly 90 per cent of those who opt this route are senior migrants who have already lived and worked in Dubai for several years.
In many cases, workers run away from their sponsors in search of better remuneration, become overstayers in that country, and face a “life ban” for violating local laws while returning to their home country. “The government will take their biometrics and deport them permanently. It is usually these immigration deportees who crossover from Oman to Dubai to rejoin their once gainful employment or even work as part-time as houseboys, car washers, etc which are quite lucrative.”
Forgery, Impersonation and illegal use of passport
On his return to Mumbai, Peddulu was briefly detained and questioned by the immigration officials at Mumbai International Airport based on a lookout circular issued against him. Days after he had traveled to Muscat in 2015, the Dabolim Airport Police Station in Goa arrested a 31-year-old man named Syed Baseer Ahmed, a native of Tamil Nadu, on charges of forgery, impersonation and utilising the genuine passport issued to Peddulu, by replacing the photograph.
According to a summons notice from the Goa police dated September 14, 2015, Peddulu is a witness in the case. According to another notice, dated 26 July, 2016, the Regional Passport Officer-Hyderabad, had sought a written explanation from Peddulu regarding his passport found being used by another person. Failure to explain could result in action against him under the Passport Act, 1967.
“At the airport, he was served a notice under Section 41A CrPC directing him to cooperate in the investigation and released on a personal bond. He is suspected of having sold his passport. In this case, it was another Indian who returned or else it could have been anyone. That is a threat to national security,” said Bheem Reddy.
Migrants rights activists have been voicing out against organised human trafficking of workers who end up in a foreign country as ‘irregular migrants’ without any access to health or justice. They urged the government to thoroughly investigate such cases so as to prevent it.
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