Times of India: They Die in American War Zones, Kin Wage Battle for Compensation

Sep 21, 2020

By Ishita Mishra

The last time Lavan Mohan spoke to his father was on New Year, 2015. His father Thota was in Iraq, he at Jagtial in Telangana. For five years, he has had no idea what happened to his father.

“His phone just went off,” Mohan told TOI. “He worked as an elevator operator at a private firm. We contacted his employer, the Indian government, and the Iraq government. My mother died two years ago, waiting to hear from my father.” Or anyone. So far, there has not been no document certifying that he is missing or that he is no more.

Closure eludes thousands like Lavan, loved ones of workers hired in American war zones who die in the crossfires of the battles of others. Brokers or third-party agencies get them on board as cooks, guards, mechanics — often for a pittance — in Afghanistan and Iraq. “In most cases, people are not told where they will be working. The brokers only say they have to come to a country like Jordan or Kuwait. Then, their passports are taken away. Most pay hefty amounts to brokers for these jobs and are not in a position to back out,” said Matthew Handley, a human rights lawyer in the US who has been helping families claim the compensation they are entitled. The Defense Base Act promises compensation to civilian workers in American military bases outside the US. That applies to third-party contracts too.

“In most third-party agency contracts, the wife of the deceased is entitled to at least 50% of the salary for the rest of her life. In some, the compensation amounts to crores. But this is usually paid only after a court fight,” said Ganesh Gurung, a social scientist from Nepal, who has also been helping families work through the complicated process of claiming insurance. “Most of these families, especially from poor villages of Nepal and India, are not even aware of their rights or don’t know where to take up the fight.”

Like Goma Kunwar, whose husband Yam Bahadur had been working as a security guard at a firm in Afghanistan. He died in 2012 in a militant attack. She was pregnant at the time. Now, living in a remote village of Nepal’s Baglung district, she has been struggling to make ends meet, working as a daily wager and bringing up her eight-year-old son. She does not know how to claim her due. The same was the case with families of two Indian workers who died in an attack in Afghanistan, Handley said. “We were contacted by their families. They had been told very little by the company that employed their family member, and did not understand how to pursue the claims for compensation that there are entitled to.”

Sometimes, the long battle pays off. It did for Rukmini Thapa. Her husband, Ganesh, had left Dehradun to work as a security guard in Afghanistan after voluntary retirement from the Indian defence. In 2016, he died on duty. After a tiring fight that she often felt she was losing, she finally got the compensation in March this year. It will help her 12-year-old daughter study. “She wants to become a doctor.” Sooraj Lama from Nepal had to pull through for even longer. He was injured in a militant attack in Iraq in 2008. It took 10 years, but the compensation allowed him to come home and start looking for other work. “It does not pay as much here as it does in Iraq, but I’d rather be home.”

Lavan is counting on something like this finally working out. Bheem Reddy Mandha, president of the Emigrants’ Welfare Forum and member of Migrant Forum in Asia, is pursuing his case. “The problem is that governments care a lot about remittances that workers send from abroad but the moment someone is gone, the families are left to fend for themselves,” he told TOI. “Our estimates suggest more than 2,000 Indians working abroad have gone missing over the past two decades. Most cases go unreported.”

The Indian ministry of external affairs had told the Parliament last year that 1.36 crore Indians live abroad and the country had received $41.9 billion in remittances last financial year. Nepal's latest labour report from 2014 states the country had issued 5.2 lakh permits to those going to work abroad.

According to the data tabled by the Ministry of External Affairs in Lok Sabha last year, over 1.36 crore Indian nationals were living abroad and the country had received $76.4 billion remittance in 2018-2019. During 2019-2020 (April-September), $41.9 billion was received. The highest number of Indians abroad are living in the United Arab Emirates, where the 34,20,000 Indians comprise about one-fourth of all Indians abroad. The UAE is followed by Saudi Arabia,US, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar. For Nepali migrants Malaysia is now the number one destination for work, closely followed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait.

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