India must stand up for migrant workers in the Gulf

Migrants RightsBY NIKHIL EAPEN (Researcher at Amnesty International India)

It was a cold night in June 2007 when Haroon (name changed) arrived in Ha’il in Saudi Arabia. As his airport taxi drove out of the city, the city lights grew distant before they disappeared entirely. The mobile signal became weaker before it eventually died and when the taxi finally came to a halt, Haroon found himself outside a goat farm. To his shock, he was told that this was the place where he would work for the next nine months.

Earlier that year, Haroon had borrowed heavily from his friends and family to pay close to 1, 50,000 rupees to a recruitment agent in Kozhikode in Kerala, who had promised him a job as a cleaner at a lodge in Saudi Arabia. He was assured a monthly salary of 1200 Saudi Riyals–approximately 20,000 rupees—which was more than twice of what he earned as a labourer on the tea plantations in his town.

Instead, Haroon was put to work as a goat herder. It was not the job he had signed up for, and not the conditions he expected to work in. Haroon’s passport was confiscated by his employer and he was not allowed to leave the farm. He was made to work 18 hours a day, often went hungry when his employer didn’t give him enough food, and was even beaten up occasionally. But what troubled him the most was the salary.

“I could have adjusted to working on the farm and I would have survived had I been paid my promised salary,” Haroon told Amnesty International India in Wayanad, where he now lives. “But my employer paid me only 600 riyals a month, half of what I had been guaranteed by the recruitment agent. For the first three months, I wasn’t paid anything. I had borrowed heavily from my friends and family, so I could not afford to return home with nothing in hand.”

Unable to withstand the work conditions, Haroon escaped from the farm and worked as a tailor for the next two years. He knew this was illegal but he waited. The day his debt back home was paid, Haroon turned himself in to the Saudi authorities and asked to be deported to India.

Haroon is just one among many Indian workers who travel to the Gulf every year in search of a better life and livelihood. According to data from the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, in 2012, about 82 Indian workers were granted emigration clearances to travel to the Gulf every hour.

Migrants are recruited to work as attendants in supermarkets, lay pipes and cables on construction sites, sweep streets, cook in restaurants, look after children, and serve in households as domestic maids. This ever-increasing population of migrant workers contributes to making India the largest recipient of remittances in the world.

However, for several migrant workers like Haroon, dreams come at a cost. They go into heavy debt in order to travel to the Gulf, only to be deceived about the terms and conditions of work, endure abusive working conditions and not be able to see their families for many years at a time.

To escape poverty at home, some workers are ready to go to any lengths to find a secure, well-paying job, and even consent to working under irregular arrangements in the Gulf.

The ‘free visa’ is one such arrangement, where the ‘sponsor’ of a migrant worker allows her to work for other employers in various jobs—a practice not allowed under Saudi Arabia’s labour sponsorship system. Under the ‘kafala’ or sponsorship system existing in all the six Gulf States, every migrant worker must have a specific job and a sponsoring employer under whom she works.

‘Free visas’ increase the risk of exploitation and abuse. As they are not recognized under Saudi labour law, Indian migrants working under such an arrangement have little recourse or remedy in the event of human rights abuse. Workers on ‘free visas’ cannot approach labour courts if they are not paid their wages or are exploited at work. If found out, they may instead face heavy fines, arrest and deportation. The recent implementation of the ‘Nitaqat’ programme in Saudi Arabia brought into focus the number of irregular Indian migrants employed on ‘free visas’.

Amnesty International’s research on migrant workers in Qatar found that even workers recruited on regular arrangements face serious human rights abuse – including deception about the nature of their work, payment of lower salaries than promised, and excessive (and sometimes extreme) working hours. Researchers met migrant workers who had not been paid for six to nine months, who didn’t have enough – or any – food and were unable to get out of the country.

On 18 December 1990, the UN General Assembly adopted an international treaty in a landmark step to recognise and protect the rights of migrants and their families. Each year, the UN calls on states to recognize the contributions of migrant workers and the vulnerabilities they face, and promote respect for their human rights, including the rights to life, liberty, adequate conditions of work and the freedom of movement. So far, the treaty has been ratified by only 37 countries. Neither India nor any of the Gulf countries have signed it.

Countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia that benefit immensely from its foreign labour force need to acknowledge that migrant workers in their countries are at risk, and address the serious flaws in the sponsorship system which can facilitate exploitation and abuse. They must enforce their labour laws to protect vulnerable migrants from abusive employers.

India, too, has a responsibility to ensure that its migrant workers are treated with dignity and respect. India should develop inter-governmental dialogue and cooperation on labour migration policy, and also enforce and strengthen its bilateral agreements to protect the rights of Indian migrant workers and promote their welfare.

At home, India should take immediate steps to strengthen and enforce the regulation of recruitment agencies. Rogue recruiters who deceive migrants or recruit them on irregular arrangements should be investigated, prosecuted and handed appropriate penalties. The government should establish better pre-travel training, assistance and orientation for all migrant workers, and increase the support provided by its diplomatic missions to migrant workers in trouble.

Many other Haroons are still at risk of exploitation and abuse in the Gulf. Today, on International Migrants Day, India must begin to stand up for them.


Thousands call for release of Prisoner of Conscience Irom Sharmila


Over 16,000 people have supported an Amnesty International India campaign seeking the immediate and unconditional release of human rights activist and Prisoner of Conscience Irom Chanu Sharmila.

“The governments of Manipur and Delhi should heed the thousands of voices urging them to drop all charges against Irom Sharmila and release her immediately,” said G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Chief Executive of Amnesty International India.

“Irom Sharmila is a Prisoner of Conscience, detained solely for the peaceful expression of her beliefs, and her time in custody is a continuing reminder of India’s intolerance to dissent.”

Irom Sharmila has been on a prolonged hunger strike for the last 13 years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).

She was arrested by the Manipur police shortly after she began her hunger strike on 2 November 2000, and charged with attempting to commit suicide – a criminal offence under Indian law. In March 2013, a Delhi court also charged Irom Sharmila with attempting to commit suicide in October 2006, when she staged a protest in Delhi for two days.

Irom Sharmila is being detained in the security ward of a hospital in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, where she is force-fed a diet of liquids through her nose. Visitors, including her family and friends have to go through a lengthy process of obtaining permission from the Manipur government.

On 30 October 2013, India’s National Human Rights Commission directed the Government of Manipur to immediately remove the restrictions on access to Irom Sharmila , calling them a “breach of India’s obligations under international human rights standards and principles, and a grave violation of human rights”.

The Commission acknowledged that Irom Sharmila was being detained solely for the peaceful expression of her beliefs, and said that the Manipur government was “trying to break her spirit through this enforced isolation, for which there is no judicial mandate”.

“Thousands of people have acknowledged that Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike is not an attempt to commit suicide but a protest against human rights violations,” said G. Ananthapadmanabhan. “Authorities must not use charges of attempted suicide to deflect attention from the important issues that Irom Sharmila is raising at a huge personal cost.”

In February 2012, the Supreme Court of India observed in its ruling in the Ram Lila Maidan Incident case that a hunger strike is “a form of protest which has been accepted, both historically and legally in our constitutional jurisprudence.”

The British Medical Association, in a briefing to the World Medical Association, has clarified that, “[a] hunger strike is not equivalent to suicide. Individuals who embark on hunger strikes aim to achieve goals important to them but generally hope and intend to survive.” This position is embodied by the World Medical Association in its Malta Declaration on Hunger Strikers.

Speaking to Amnesty International India in September 2013, Irom Sharmila, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, said, “My struggle is my message. I love my life very much and want to have the freedom to meet people and struggle for issues close to my heart.”

Amnesty International India’s public campaign seeking Irom Sharmila’s release was launched on 2 November 2013, and has been supported by groups and individual supporters across the world.


Irom Sharmila Chanu began her hunger strike in November 2000, after the killing of 10 people in Manipur by the Assam Rifles (a paramilitary force) in Malom, Imphal. She has consistently demanded the repeal of the AFSPA.

Irom Sharmila has never been convicted of attempting to commit suicide. However, as the offence is punishable with imprisonment for up to one year, she has been regularly released after completing a year in judicial custody, only to be re-arrested shortly after as she continues her fast.

Although attempting to commit suicide is a bailable offence in India, Sharmila has refused to sign the bail bonds, maintaining that she has not committed any offence. Instead, she has called for the criminal charges against her to be dropped. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges of attempting to commit suicide, saying she is involved in a non-violent protest.

Amnesty International and several other rights organizations continue to demand the repeal of the AFSPA.

The AFSPA, which has been in force in parts of North-eastern India since 1958, and a virtually identical law (The Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990) in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990, provides sweeping powers to soldiers, including the power to shoot to kill in certain situations and to arrest people without warrants. The Act also provides virtual immunity from prosecution for security personnel, by mandating prior permission from the central government, which is almost never granted.

The AFSPA falls short of international human rights standards, including provisions of treaties to which India is a state party; and is inconsistent with India’s international legal obligations to respect and protect the right to life, liberty and security of person, to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, and to an effective remedy.

Several UN bodies and experts, including the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, have stated that the AFSPA must be repealed.

A number of Indian bodies, including the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, the Jeevan Reddy Committee and the Prime Minister’s Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures in Jammu and Kashmir have also urged the repeal of the law.

The Justice Verma Committee, set up to review laws against sexual assault, said in January 2013 that the AFSPA legitimized impunity for sexual violence. The Justice Santosh Hegde Commission, set up by the Supreme Court in January 2013 to investigate cases of extrajudicial executions in Manipur, described the law as “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.”


Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

Nelson MandelaAmnesty International paid tribute today to one of the world’s most visionary leaders in the fight to protect and promote human rights, Nelson Mandela.

The death of Nelson Mandela is not just a loss for South Africa. It is a loss for people all over the world who are fighting for freedom, for justice and for an end to discrimination.

“As a world leader who refused to accept injustice, Nelson Mandela’s courage helped change our entire world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “His death leaves a massive hole, not just in South Africa but around the world.”

“Nelson Mandela’s commitment to human rights was epitomised by his unswerving resolve to stamp out racial inequality during apartheid, followed by his vital work in combatting HIV/AIDS in South Africa. His legacy across Africa, and the world, will stand for generations.”

Nelson Mandela’s life of political struggle and self-sacrifice stands as an example to millions around the globe. His grace under pressure, his courage and integrity and his commitment to healing and forgiveness over revenge and hatred was remarkable.

“One was struck by this man as being somebody quite outstanding,” said Louis Blom-Cooper, who was involved in the foundation of Amnesty International in the early 1960s and was an observer at the long-running trial of Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders on treason charges prior to their acquittal in March 1961.

“Literally, to face him and hear him speak, one felt one was in the presence of a very substantial individual who one day would become a very prominent citizen of South Africa.”

“He had a very appealing face and when he spoke to you, you felt the most important person at that moment was yourself and not him.”
In the years following his presidency, Nelson Mandela’s outspoken and determined advocacy on behalf of the millions of people living with HIV, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa including South Africa, showed his passion for upholding human dignity, the right to equality and access to justice had not dimmed with time.

His insistence that these were human rights issues helped to ensure that the circumstances of people living with HIV remained an urgent global concern.

In November 2006, Amnesty International declared Nelson Mandela an ‘Ambassador of Conscience’ in recognition of his work over many years of speaking out against human rights abuses not just in South Africa but around the world.

Accepting the award Nelson Mandela said: “Like Amnesty International, I have been struggling for justice and human rights, for long years. I have retired from public life now. But as long as injustice and inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. We must become stronger still.

“Through the work of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, I am continuing my struggle for human rights.”

On the same occasion the organization presented Nelson Mandela and the Nelson Mandela Foundation with five volumes of public reports and campaigns issued by Amnesty International between the 1960s and 1994 on human rights abuses in South Africa.

In accepting the Ambassador of Conscience Award, Nelson Mandela graciously acknowledged Amnesty International’s contribution in the fight for human rights.

Nelson Mandela was a victim of great injustice, tried and sentenced under a system of apartheid founded on racism and denied a fair trial.

As Amnesty International noted in its 1978 report on political imprisonment in South Africa:, “While apartheid remains there can be no structure which conforms with and guarantees recognised standards of human rights.”

“Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner, detained also for his conscience. He was a man who understood how exclusion of groups destroys the social fabric of a country by creating a politics of inequality. The human rights movement around the world owes Nelson Mandela a debt of gratitude All of us who admired him must carry on his struggle,” said Salil Shetty.


Sri Lanka’s misguided attempt to ‘win the world’

Amnesty CHOGM - 7(By Steve Crawshaw, Director of Amnesty International’s Office of the Secretary General, who is currently in Colombo)
Everybody in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, knows all about “CHOGM” – pronounced “choggum”. They speak with enthusiasm, resignation or indignation about the fact that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is taking place here. The streets are garlanded with banners welcoming CHOGM delegates, and the face of the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.Inside the tranquil tropical gardens of the Bandaranaike Memorial Conference Hall, journalists and delegates scurry back and forth from venue to venue. A clutch of events have been taking place all week ahead of the main summit that opens today (15 November), with Prince Charles representing the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.For Rajapaksa and his government, it is obviously a privilege to be hosting CHOGM – a surprising choice, by any measure, given the country’s dismal human rights track record, including alleged war crimes and disappearances, and what a UN report described as “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.

Rajapaksa wants to ensure that the Sri Lankan government comes out of this with his reputation enhanced. As one slogan proclaims, Rajapaksa “won the country” (with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in a most bloody 2009 end to the protracted armed conflict), and now he can “win the world”.

In terms of enhancing the country’s reputation, you might say that Rajapaksa and his colleagues are not doing a great job. In the lead-up to CHOGM, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary was among those refused entry to the country.

Reporters from the UK broadcaster Channel 4 – which worked closely with Amnesty International on producing the powerful, game-changing ‘Killing Fields’ and ‘No Fire Zone’ films on Sri Lanka – were blocked from travelling to the north of the island when a “spontaneous” demonstration broke out. This week, relatives of the disappeared, who wanted to come from the largely Tamil north to Colombo for a peaceful “human rights festival” behind closed doors were turned back – because they “might cause a breach of the peace”. Partly violent counter-protests by government supporters, by contrast, were allowed to go ahead with no problems.

For Amnesty International, the summit provides a powerful opportunity to ensure that the human rights voice is heard. The good news is that journalists want to hear what Amnesty has to say. And diplomats, too, are interested in our findings – even if they do not always act on them.

Under the spreading banyan trees in the old town of Galle, after a speech by the President, I did get a chance to speak briefly to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma. I doubt I was able to convince him that the policy of quiet engagement with the Sri Lankan authorities is not delivering, which is how Amnesty International sees it.

Beyond media interviews and diplomatic lobbying, I have spent much of my time in Colombo meeting with some of Sri Lanka’s extraordinarily brave human rights defenders – Sinhala and Tamil alike – who talk calmly about the threats against them even as they insist on the necessity of continuing the work.

An Amnesty International petition gained close to 200,000 signatures, demanding truth and accountability, so urgently needed for all sides. Those global demands have helped strengthen the backbone of those governments which are wavering when confronted with the familiar question: do they do the right thing, or the comfortable thing? The Prime Ministers of Mauritius, India and Canada have boycotted. The UK has promised to bring strong messages. South Africa has sent mixed messages so far (more emphasis on truth is needed). And Australia: well, let’s not go there. Prime Minister Tony Abbott seems ready, because of domestic considerations on refugee policy, to use the phrase “not lecturing” as an excuse to remain completely silent on violations.

The Sri Lankans I speak to are grateful for Amnesty International’s long-term engagement on the cause of human rights in Sri Lanka.

There is little likelihood of a rosy ending to this story by the time CHOGM wraps up and the Commonwealth leaders and global media machine move on.

But the pressure will continue: the UN Human Rights Council meets again in March, with a resolution critical of Sri Lanka likely to be on the table. With enough energy from around the world, that may include achieving an international inquiry. And if that is achieved, it will be a human rights victory to be proud of.