Stranded in Iraq, Telangana workers face bureaucratic hurdles in efforts to return home

Of the 160 Telangana natives who are ready to leave Iraq's Kurdistan region, 139 do not have 'iqama' or the resident permit.
Telangana labourers stranded in Iraq
Telangana labourers stranded in Iraq
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Paryamola Bojanna, a 42-year-old labourer in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, was hoping to return to his native in Telangana’s Nizamabad district before his liver problem worsened. Although the Telugu Gulf Employees Welfare Association in Iraq offered financial assistance for Paryamola’s treatment, it had to be discontinued as loss of jobs and pay cuts due to the lockdown started taking a toll on even those who were earning a modest salary.

Paryamola was supposed to board a chartered flight to Hyderabad on June 24, along with 159 other Telangana natives stranded in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, their iqama or residency permit papers were not finalised and they were yet to get clearance for travel from the autonomous Kurdistan government. Days later, on Monday, Paryamola passed away.

“If only the Consulate General of India in Erbil had spoken to the Kurdistan government about pardoning the fine, as they promised us, Paryamola could have gone to his native and continued his treatment. Two other labourers have taken ill and are waiting to go home,” said  Dakshina Murthy, president of the Telugu Gulf Employees Welfare Association.

For the last four months, the association has been helping many Indians stranded in Iraqi Kurdistan with food, finding accommodation and providing monetary support. With no respite from the pandemic and the lockdown, many are anxious to return to India.

According to the association and migrant workers, nationals from other Indian states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala have already left Iraqi Kurdistan through the Union government’s Vande Bharat Mission. “Most of us who are still stranded here are natives of Telangana, and 160 of us want to return to India. Of the 160 members, 139 do not have iqama,” said Srinu, a native of Telangana’s Adilabad district who works as a cleaner at a market in Erbil.

An iqama is a residence permit for foreign nationals to stay in the country. Some, who have been duped by their agents, do not have iqama. For many others, their iqama expired and it could not renew as government offices were shut due to the lockdown. In such cases, foreign nationals need to pay the ‘grama’ or iqama fines to leave the country.

“One month’s fine comes to around Rs 40,000. When we apprised the Consulate of our plight, they promised us that they will speak to the Kurdistan government to grant us amnesty. They also assured to help us return,” Srinu told TNM.

According to the association, the Consulate General of India in Erbil assured that they would take care of the iqama and asked them to make arrangements for chartered flights.

It must be noted that the Indian government has not provided any special flights for the Kurdistan region ever since the Consulate started registration for repatriation to India. According to the Indian Consulate’s website, “Chartered flights to India are being organised by various operators to repatriate stranded Indians. Consulate does not take any responsibility for loss, if any, suffered by any individual from such efforts.”

The Telugu Gulf Employees Welfare Association then spoke to Iraqi Airways, the national carrier of Iraq, and arranged a chartered flight. “While many workers chipped in whatever they had, others could not. The association members pooled in and raised the amount for the chartered flight,” said Dakshina Murthy, adding that the tickets are pegged at about Rs 48,500 per passenger. 

On June 17, the association received a message from the airline, stating that the flight to Hyderabad has been confirmed for departure on June 24 based on instructions from the Indian Consulate.

While the 160 were ready to leave, they were yet to receive information about their iqama fines, and hence, could not fly on June 24. “Since there was a delay, the chartered flight was rescheduled for departure on June 30,” said Dakshina Murthy. 

However, on the evening of June 29, the association received a call from the Indian Consulate claiming that the Kurdistan government has announced not to grant amnesty to violators.

On July 2, the Consulate put out the “unofficial” translation of the guidelines (dated June 30 per the post) by the Ministry of Interior of Kurdistan Regional Government, regarding the return of foreign citizens by arranged special evacuation/charter flights.

According to this post, the individual must hold a foreign nationality or residency and they must finalise their residency (iqama) papers at the KR Residency Departments and obtain clearance for travel. “The travellers will not be allowed to board and take the exit flight at the airports, and any airline companies who sell flight tickets to individuals who do not comply with these measures will be fined,” read the post.

“When we went to the Consulate office on Monday, the officials said we cannot leave the country without paying this fine. However, to our knowledge, there is no official announcement on this yet,” said Dakshina Murthy.

He also alleged that the Consulate officials called the local police when a group of labourers gathered at the office.

“We were shocked when our own officials called the police to send us away. We have no other rights than just enquiring about the delay in leaving the country. We even carried the two individuals who are ill to the office to show them the plight of these workers,” said Dakshina Murthy.

Alleging discrimination, Srini asked, “People from UP and MP, too, had iqama fines. How did they manage to fly out then?”

The Indian Consulate in Erbil could not be reached via phone and email for comments. When Arvind Dharmapuri, Member of Parliament, Nizamabad, raised the issue on Twitter, the Consulate said, "Indian Consulate Erbil is fully aware of this matter and is proactively working to address the expired visa issue in cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Dakshina Murthy said that the association is ready to help stranded Indians pay the fine if they have to.

“It has been four months since this lockdown started. We are running out of money and food. Many of us had to vacate our accommodation and are now shacking up with others. Apart from his liver condition, Paryamola was also under a lot of stress. Many others among us, too, are. We need to return soon before there are more deaths,” said Srinu.

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