When Kuldeep Singh was on his way to Baghdad airport from Badra to fly back to India in December last year, his employer gave him an escort of three bulletproof Land Cruisers and nine security guards for the 180 km trip.
As Baghdad neared, the heavy traffic and frenetic activity all around were in stark contrast to July 2016 when Kuldeep (34), from Chaudharpur village in Gurdaspur, Punjab, first landed there to work in an Oil Field Project in Badra as a welder. “There was an uneasy calm when I reached Baghdad in July 2016. The roads were empty. When I returned in December 2017, the roads were full of vehicles and there was so much activity going around,” he said.
Kuldeep initially went to Iraq on a one-year work visa to work for Samsung Engineering Company Limited, which he even extended before returning home in December last year.
He is not alone. Kuldeep was only one among scores of men from Punjab for whom the kidnapping of 40 Indians in Mosul in June 2014 was no deterrent. With others, he headed for Iraq despite suspicions at that time that all the Indians, including 27 from Punjab, were murdered by IS militants.
In May 2015, The Indian Express had reported that despite uncertainty over the fate of 39 abducted Indians — Harjit Masih from Kala Afghana village in Gurdaspur had managed to escape — at least 20 men from Punjab who had returned from Iraq went back to the war-torn country for work. This was within a year of the abduction by IS militants.
That pattern continues today and more and more men head to Iraq from Punjab. Some even choose agents to find work in Iraq and reach project sites there through Dubai or Iran.
“The site where we worked was very safe. It had very high walls on all sides. I stayed there for 17 months and 16 days and did not go elsewhere even for a day. Just from the camp to work site and back. The work site was located in an Iraqi-Kurdish region, right at the border with Iran,” said Singh.
“The project was nearing completion in a few months time and I decided to come back. Leave of 15 days would have meant an expense of about $1,000 and it was not viable to go back and work for just two months,” he said. For this work in Iraq, Kuldeep was paid $3.1 (or Rs 200) per hour.
He had earlier worked as a welder in another Gulf country in 2008 and said at one point at least 150 men from Punjab worked in the Badra project.
Daljit Singh, from Nathpura village also in Gurdaspur district, returned to India this week. Speaking to The Indian Express, Daljit, a trained welder, said he initially went as a painter as there was no requirement for a welder at the time. But he subsequently took up the job of welder after fulfilling all requisite formalities.
As work at the Badra Oil Project comes to a close, there are reports that men are needed for another project in the Karbala region. “In fact, a friend from Punjab recently went back after working in Karbala. I have heard that there is fresh recruitment going on for the project in Karbala,” said Daljit. “These places are safe with stringent security measures.”
“Even I was asked why I was going to Iraq when the government was yet to trace the 39 abducted Indians. They told me that I may add to the problems of the government which was already making efforts to determine what happened to the 39 abducted Indians,” said Kuldeep.
He also said that he had boarded the flight despite the advisory since two of his friends were already working on the project and had assured him that there was no danger. Kuldeep said one of his friends went back to work in the Badra Oil Field Project about five months ago after coming to Punjab for a vacation. Kuldeep said Punjabi men worked as foreman, welder and even in quality control wing in Iraq.
While skilled and experienced men like Kuldeep and Daljit reach Iraq directly, after getting a work visa from the Iraqi consulate, others use “agents” to reach Iraq “via Dubai and Iran”.
“In many cases, Indian workers who are already working in Iraq – primarily in construction, steel, fabrication and allied sectors – call people they know back home with the promise of a job. After the work permit is received in India, two common ways of getting to Iraq are via Dubai or Iran,” said one worker from Punjab working in Iraq.
“The route through Dubai costs about Rs 40,000 and the one via Iran costs about Rs. 60,000. The cheaper option is preferred by many,” said a Delhi-based agent.
“Though going to Iraq from India on a work permit is not barred, given the uncertain situation out there, Indian authorities discourage the youth, albeit unofficially,” the agent said. “They get a visa for Dubai first and after staying in Dubai for some time, they show their work permit to the authorities and easily board flight for Iraq.”
According to another agent, every month “60-100 youth from Punjab have been going to Iraq even after the Mosul episode because of the good salaries offered. They earn $500 to $1,000 (Rs 65,000) per month depending on the kind of job they get.”
Speaking to The Indian Express over the phone, a youth speaking said he had to resort to agents after immigration authorities at the airport in India discouraged him when he secured a work visa the first time. “Then I obtained a tourist visa for Dubai and at Dubai, I showed them the work permit of the Basra-based company and they let me board the flight for Baghdad,” he said.
“Similarly via Iran, one obtains a visitor visa, lands at Tehran Airport and from there they go to Iraq, particularly Erbil, by bus which takes 15 hours. As company people already provide the ‘Akama’ (identity Card) at the border, there is no issue of entering Iraq through Iran,” he said.