Manjit Singh has worked in the UAE for 17 years, surviving the difficult conditions of life to provide life for his poor family at home in India. After coronavirus began to spread this year, his employer suspended the operation, leaving him in trouble. Commercial flights in the UAE were canceled, India was locked on March 24, and Singh stopped receiving income.
“For the past two months, we have been sitting in rooms and our company is giving us salaries, but now they say they cannot give us salaries and we have to buy tickets to go home, but where should we buy tickets?” 44 years old told CNN.
Singh is one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers across Gulf Arab countries who compete with livelihoods, camps are crowded and there is no easy path for repatriation, said Amnesty International, Migrant-Rights.org and Business & Human Rights Resource Center.
In a forced labor camp on the outskirts of Dubai, hundreds of newly unemployed workers spend their days walking in the yard with their friends planning their plans to go home.
“I have not received a salary for the previous month … they gave 150 Rupees (about $ 2) for food and told us to manage it,” said a construction worker who CNN agreed not to identify because he was afraid of punishment by his previous employer.
“We don’t have money to eat. Sometimes companies give money. Sometimes they give a partial amount. Sometimes there is no money at all,” said an Indian worker who declined to be named.
With the little money they still have, the men buy vegetables in a temporary market near their residential building. “The company gives us one meal during Ramadan. But how can people manage it with one meal?” said a construction worker, referring to the Muslim fasting month.
Gulf States say they are working to control the spread of the virus in these camps and neighborhoods while looking at the millions of workers who are now unemployed and without permanent jobs.
On May 3 in Kuwait, Egyptian migrant workers protested at a state shelter, demanding repatriation, Kuwait’s interior ministry said.
The Egyptian government has since said it will start scheduling repatriation flights earlier this week.
The Indian government began repatriation efforts this week for thousands of “depressed” Indians trapped overseas. Around 200,000 Indian citizens in the UAE have registered for repatriation, according to the Indian embassy, and so far more than 700 have been returned. More than 5,000 people are set to be repatriated from the Gulf this week.
The embassy tweeted that Indians would bear their repatriation bills, posing another obstacle to stranded migrant workers.
Several embassies representing the majority of South and East Asian workers in the UAE have repatriated a handful of displaced citizens. The Philippines last month flew 494 citizens back to Manila.
Pakistan has evacuated 3,928 Pakistanis out of 60,000 who applied to return, according to the Pakistani consulate in Dubai.
For decades, oil-rich Arab countries in the Gulf have relied heavily on millions of migrant workers to develop their vast economies. Workers flock to these countries in search of relatively higher salaries and employment opportunities.
The camp is a coronavirus hotspot
As of Friday afternoon, the UAE had 16,793 confirmed cases of the virus and 174 deaths from the pandemic. Nearest Saudi Arabia has more than 35,000 cases and 229 deaths. Kuwait has reported more than 7,000 cases and 47 deaths while Qatar has 20,201 cases and 12 deaths.
But the Gulf government says it is trying to curb the spread of the virus at work and is pressuring the government to repatriate its citizens.
“There are steps in testing these labor camps, screening them and isolating those who are positive so that there are many efforts in the government and non-government teams to ensure the welfare of workers and labor camps and high density areas in general,” said Amer Sharif, head of Dubai Covid-19 command center.
With the pressure associated with the corona virus increasing on private businesses in the Gulf, the government has responded with an economic stimulus package and laws to reduce unemployment. But these steps, according to human rights groups, will not help much to reduce workers’ difficulties, Amnesty said.
For now, Singh only asks for the basics: his house and his salary. “If not, at least give us food. We will also be happy with it,” he said.
CNN Sarah El Sirgany, Zeena Saifi, Sanjiv Talreja and Manveena Suri contributed to this report.