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Asian migrants forced to work for military contractors in Iraq

June 11, 2010

Kumar Ramjali was a Nepalese farmer in search of a better life in the US. He ended up in Iraq and his is not an isolated case. Hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants from South Asia have been trafficked there recently.

There were protests in Katmandu when 12 Nepalese migrants were taken hostage and killed in Iraq in 2004
Protesters attacked a mosque in Kathmandu when 12 Nepalese migrants were killed in Iraq in 2004Image: AP

"For people like me, who don’t have a proper education, our only hope is to go abroad and work. In my village there are many people who have done that. They were able to earn a lot of money and now they have a comfortable life," Kumar explains.

He is calm as he tells his story. He looks down and recounts how he decided to take his chances in 2004 and go abroad.

He paid an agency in Katmandu a commission of 1300 US dollars to get him a job in the United States. The sum was gigantic – the equivalent of a year’s wages. He borrowed and paid the money, but instead of being sent to the US, he ended up in New Delhi.

"I had no choice but to go to Iraq"

In India, another agency also wanted money – the same amount – to get him to New York. This agency took his passport off him and sent him to Jordan. It’s only when he got to Amman that Kumar found out he wasn’t going to the States at all – he was on his way to Iraq.

Screenshot from website of
The website of "The Army of Ansar al Sunnah" that claimed responsibility for the killings of 12 Nepalese workersImage: AP

"I had no choice," he says. "I had to accept what they said. They had taken my passport in Delhi and I had no money. My only choice was Iraq."

He was not alone. He was one of 80 Nepalese men who traveled in a bus convoy from the border between Jordan and Iraq towards Baghdad. However, the trip turned into a complete nightmare when insurgents attacked, hijacking one of the buses and kidnapping and killing 12 men.

Finally, Kumar reached his new place of work – the Al Asad US airbase in western Iraq. He was first put to work in the laundry, then in the fuel depot and ended up in the garbage collection unit. Instead of the 1200 dollars a month that he had been promised, he got 280. This was later increased to 500. In return, he had to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Young men tricked by traffickers

Jean-Philippe Chauzy from the International Organization for Migration, which has repeatedly interfered to get stranded migrants out of Iraq, says that their stories are all similar.

The Al Asad air base in western Iraq where South Asian migrants worked 12 hour days, seven days a week
The Al Asad air base in western Iraq where South Asian migrants worked 12 hour days, seven days a weekImage: AP

"It is mainly young men who are tricked when they are looking for work and end up in Iraq. They work on building sites and in the service industry and only manage to get away if they make a huge effort to get assistance. The conditions do not really help," he says.

After four years at the Al Asad military base, Kumar and his colleagues were finally allowed to leave. They were replaced by other workers, who were even cheaper.

Lawsuits against military contractors

Kumar still considers himself lucky because he survived the hijacking of the bus. The families of the 12 men who were killed have taken legal action.

"We are suing Daoud & Partners, which is the Jordanian military contractor that took the men in Jordan, locked them in the room and transported them across the border," explains Agnieszka Fryzsman, their Washington-based lawyer.

Lawyers allege that military contractors in Iraq know that some of the men employed on bases are trafficked
Lawyers allege that military contractors in Iraq know that some of the men employed on bases are traffickedImage: AP

"And KBR, which is the major contractor for the United States military. We allege that they knew that the men were trafficked. There is a chain of brokers who each handed the men off to another. The facts are very strong. We have witnesses like Kumar who was there at the time. Their story really fits the classic paradigm of what trafficking is, with the indebtedness, the confiscation of the passports and the inability to leave."

The suit is about compensation and Kumar is ready to stand as a witness to get justice for his murdered countrymen. His dream of a better life got stuck somewhere between Katmandu and the B-1 Al Asad base.

Author: Claudia Witte / act
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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