People who returned for a variety of reasons for a short period of time, could now lose lives they have built abroad due to the lockdown.

With embassies and consulates shut NRIs stuck in India stare at uncertaintyPicxy/rajustills
news Lockdown Monday, May 18, 2020 - 15:44

Radha (name changed), a software employee in Detroit, Michigan, came down to India for a medical emergency in early February. She was supposed to return to the US on March 22 but is stuck in Vijayawada because of the lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband also flew down soon in late February due to some complications that arose, and also continues to be with her. While she’s staying with her family now, Radha and her husband have to pay rent and utility bills in the US, and work through the night, as uncertainty looms over when they can return. 

“It’s terrible,” she says, “We have to work through the night, and in the day, we are trying to reach as many officials as possible. It’s like we have two jobs. We keep getting asked by the HR in our company as to when we will come back. We don’t have an answer. They were supportive initially, but things have changed in the last month. They keep asking us to keep trying and ask our officials.”

Thousands of non-resident Indians (NRIs) who came to India ahead of the lockdown for various reasons are in a similar situation. Many of them are on H-1B visas to work in the US, and have need to get their visas stamped to be able to return. H-1B visas are given for a maximum of three years, after which extensions are sought. When an extension is sought and the permission is given, people have to return to the home country to have their visa stamped. The ban on air travel combined with the closure of consulates have put many of them in a tight spot. 

The US situation

Ravi (name changed), a software engineer in the US and a Chennai native, came to India with his wife and baby to get their visas stamped in the first week of March, and intended to return at the end of the month.  

“You have a house there, you pay rent there, all your belongings are there. You don’t know when you can go home. People don’t know when they can see their kids or their spouse. There is a lot of uncertainty which is distressing,” he says. 

Ravi has written to the officials, but says that they are getting bounced around between the Ministry of External Affairs and US Embassies and consulates. Many NRIs who are now stranded in the country have now started WhatsApp and Telegram groups, reaching out to other people who have a similar plight and for strength in numbers. But so far, they haven’t received any positive response from the Ministry of External Affairs or the embassies. The MEA told them that it was upto the US officials, but embassy officials say they can't open because of the lockdown. “We have been running from pillar to post,” he says.  

This lockdown comes at a time when the US is considering closing off to immigrant labour. US president Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 23 temporarily pausing immigration for some into the United States for 60 days. “It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labour flown in from abroad,” Trump had said. In the next order, expected to be on May 23, reports state that the Trump administration may be putting a ban on work visas like the H-1B. 

“We never know what is going to be in that executive order. This is a career that most of us have built over many years. We are seeing it be destroyed in front of our eyes,” he says. 

"The order is expected to focus on visa categories including H-1B, designed for highly skilled workers, and H-2B, for seasonal migrant workers, as well as student visas and the work authorisation that accompanies them,” a report by the Wall Street Journal said. According to a Bloomberg report, two lakh H-1B workers could lose legal status by June. 

“We are taking up all these efforts but come May 23, we don’t know if all of this is in vain. He can stop people, and if that is the case, we’ll have to sell off our things, or put them in storage. It seems luxurious, but it’s something we’ve built over time. It is not my fault that we came to India during that particular time. We never knew. It’s our livelihoods we are worried about,” Ravi adds.

In the group that the diaspora have created, Radha and Ravi say many have lost jobs, and need to find a job within sixty days from an employer willing to sponsor their visa if they have to get back. Many of them have been terminated as companies do not allow their employees to work remotely for long. Many others don’t have jobs that can be done remotely. 

Radha says that they have four major issues – student loans, rent, insurance and car mortgages. In the time they have been in India, Radha’s husband has received a pay cut, and the company she works for will be reviewing status in June. Policies of many companies allow employees to work remotely only for a certain duration, usually an average of four months. For some of them, they will not be able to do so after June 30 if they remain in India. 

The UAE NRIs

A large number of Indians are also settled in the UAE. While the country does not allow people to become citizens, resident visas are issued which allow workers to enter and exit the country as many times as they would like. Both India and the UAE have barred flights, with no way in or out. Now, these citizens would like to be repatriated as part of Vande Bharat flights. 

Satya returned to India to drop off his elderly father on March 15 for medical treatment as he cannot travel alone. His wife and two daughters are now in Dubai, which has restarted operations. 

“I have already been asked to go on leave without pay. If I don't make it back, my job is at stake. I am not able to pay school fees or house rent and my bank people are harassing my family and me for payment of bank bills. My family has very little money for day-to-day expenses. My daughters are crying every day. My health condition is worsening. I can't go on like this anymore,” he says. 

Some have been laid off, but with mounting bills, their savings are also close to depletion. Having been terminated, they say that they do not know what to do. 

Kamini Kannan, who is part of a support group for those from UAE with around 400 people, came back to Bengaluru from Dubai to meet her daughter, leaving her husband and mother, both with health problems, behind. 

“Even if repatriation is happening, it’s only from select cities or only one city. People from the south cannot reach a flight taking off from the north and vice-versa. There has to be a system wherein they are able to reach a few important places. They should allow Etihad or Emirates, which have operations in many cities, to operate flights. All people can be repatriated in a few flights. It’s a bad situation emotionally and financially for many,” she says. 

Eligibility criteria for Vande Bharat flights state that for passengers who have documents certifying their eligibility to travel to the specified countries such as health workers holding valid work permits, or resident visa holders, “they may separately obtain written permission from government authorities or Embassies of the above countries resident in India (New Delhi), or their nearest Consulates.”

However, with embassies and consulates shut, this is simply not an option. 

Minister of State for external affairs V Muraleedharan told the Hindustan Times that the government was aware of the situation. “We don’t have any problem in sending them back but the host country will have to allow flight services. Most of these countries have suspended international flights and are allowing only special ones. Once they begin service, they can go on the first flight. If their visas expire, we will help them in getting an extension,” he told the paper. 

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