• September 29, 2020 12:15 am

Reporting From Delhi

Lakhs of expats face uncertainty

BySashikala VP

Jul 10, 2020

Not only are Indians working in the US and Kuwait suffering as individuals from the clampdown on immigrants, India’s economy will be shaken up as it is the world’s largest recipient of remittances

The United States and Kuwait are two countries which have been in the news for adversely affecting the lives of Indians. In the case of the US, months before it goes to the polling booths, President Donald Trump announced new applicants for visas including the much sought after H1B visa, as suspended until December of this year.

The other visas suspended include H4, which is a spousal visa for H1B visa holders, the H2B, L1, L2 and J1. More recently the administration has even gone so far as to say that those on F-1 (student visa) and M-1 (non-academic and vocational student visa) taking online classes only, would not be allowed to remain in the country.

With Kuwait, the problem arose when the National Assembly committee approved a draft expat quota bill last week. This seeks to reduce the number of foreign workers in the Gulf nation. The total number of overseas Indians in Kuwait is over 10 lakh and the quota will see eight lakh Indians lose their jobs and be forced to return home.

First, we look at the situation in America, whose President paid a visit to the country as recently as February, with much fanfare accorded to him by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

No more open arms

The suspension of visas has seen thousands of Indians affected. Some have their spouse and children stuck in India, after a Covid-19 travel ban restricted their movement, and now the visa suspension which has grounded them at least till 31 December. Others who came to visit their ailing parents now find themselves unable to return to their families, their life, their jobs, as those outside the US without a valid non-immigrant visa as of 23 June, are not allowed to enter US soil.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) estimates that nearly 67% of the 2,75,000 H-1B visa applications received for the next fiscal year, beginning from October 1, were from Indian nationals.

While the majority of the H1B visa holders are working with the IT company, they are not the only ones. Varun Rishi, a post-doctoral researcher at California Institute of Technology, is one of those who has found himself barred from the US. He came to India in the month of February before Coronavirus had changed the world. While he was to return the next month, the pandemic took hold and flights were cancelled.

Rishi, who did his PhD from University of Florida before moving on to become a post-doctoral researcher, has seen his nine years of life in that country, uprooted in a flash. “Nobody’s life should be so dependent on one stroke of a government order”, he tells us over the phone from his family home in Shantinagar, Uttar Pradesh.

“When my connecting flight from Europe was cancelled, I decided to stay. At that point I could have found another flight but health was a more important factor. I didn’t know this situation would ever come up”.

NO ENTRY: Varun Rishi, a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech has seen himself being barred from a country he has lived in for the past nine years // PHOTO: Varun Rishi

Now he says he is stuck, much like many others who had come to India for a visit, those who have families waiting for them in America. “I too have a life there. I have an apartment, friends, a place I’ve been used to for the past nine years”.

In Rishi’s case, after he finished his PhD he took the STEM OPT extension which is given for a 24-month period to students on F-1. “I started working at Caltech in October of last year. My contract is till November of this year, and I had to transition from the STEM OPT to H1B mid of my contract. And while the University has filed for my H1B visa and apparently it won’t be affected, and will go through, the problem remains that I will not be able to get a visa stamp.”

He is worried that being new in the workplace – now working from home in India, with a 12-hour time difference, unable to participate to his best ability – that once November comes his contract would not be renewed.  “I do have a few options for different visas, but if I see this through till H1B does not become valid again, I may not be able to go back. I really didn’t think I would be in such a situation that I would need my friends to take my things out of my apartment”.

And so, many like him have been left completely uncertain about their near future, even as Covid-19’s strain is felt world over.

Is the Indian government listening?

The official title of the executive order by Trump reads, “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the US Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak”.

Trump believes his decision to keep immigrants away would mitigate the rising unemployment rate which is blamed on Covid-19. But it’s not just Covid, since before his election and win in 2016, his rhetoric has been anti-immigrant. Now with the elections in November, his key voter base which supports his championship of a country without immigrants, whether legal or illegal, will be pandered to.

Even while working on this report, and responding to people who had tweeted about being affected by this shock suspension, there were numerous responses on the lines of Indians or immigrants taking the jobs which effectively increased the number of jobless Americans.

IT companies and thus the country itself, has however, benefitted immensely from the pool of Indian brains (and from other countries like China) coagulating into its shores. So it was not surprising that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook reacted adversely to this decision on Twitter, saying, “Like Apple, this nation of immigrants has always found strength in our diversity, and hope in the enduring promise of the American Dream,” adding, “There is no new prosperity without both. Deeply disappointed by this proclamation.”

Sunder Pichai, an Indian immigrant himself, and now Google CEO, focused on what was being lost, tweeting that “Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today. Disappointed by today’s proclamation — we’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all.”

H1B visas have always been of concern to the bilateral relations between Indian and US, as about 70% of the 85,000 who secure it every year are Indians. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said in December, after visiting the US, that “flow of talent” had “sort of” been underlined. His exact words were “I sort of underlined our interest in ensuring that the flow of talent from India to the United States should not be obstructed and no unreasonable legislative provisions should constrain that. That was the subject which also came up when I was at the White House…”

He went on to say, “I cannot overstate the importance of the flow of talent for Indo-American ties. That was a point I made that: Look, this is important for you, it is important for us. It’s important for the relationship. So, let’s work together to make sure this stays sort of open and vibrant and active.”

Now the Ministry of External Affairs says it would assess “the impact of the order on Indian nationals and industry in consultation with stakeholders.” Its spokesperson Anurag Srivastava went on to just say how “high-skilled Indians” contributed by bringing “important skill sets, bridge technological gaps and impart a competitive edge to the US economy”.

Rishi, who did his Master’s from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, says he never hoped for anything from the Indian government until now. “We hope we wouldn’t need intervention. But H1B visa advocacy now is required. I do hear on the news that they advocate for H1B but I never see them connecting with people. I don’t see any people to people contact from the Indian Embassy in America but maybe they do it at a diplomatic level.”

“A lot of immigrants in America now feel anxious about who’s next. If we have been able to stay here, we have built a life here, or hope to build one…”

Gulf in relations

The economic slowdown from the pandemic has affected everyone, and oil-rich nations in the Gulf are no exception, with drastically lower demand for oil. They have been able to use this pandemic to instil their vision of a more nationalistic workforce.

Through its blog, the World Bank, in October of last year, had already pointed to the rising “anti-immigration sentiment in almost all large host countries for migrants.” It went on to say that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, “where the economies are critically dependent on migrant workers, the policy stance is to discourage recruitment of foreign workers in order to stimulate employment of nationals and impose taxes or other restrictions on outward remittances.”

With Kuwait deciding a quota for immigrants, it joins other Gulf countries who have strict restrictions on overseas workforce. Advocate Jose Abraham, who leads Pravasi Legal Cell says he has been receiving panicked calls from Keralites, from not just Kuwait, “I get calls from people in Saudi Arabia, (the country) which started the nationalisation of jobs a year ago, from Oman, who have done the same, and now there’s also the UAE”.

“Many have already lost their jobs and they stayed back with the belief that things would go back to normal in a month or so. But now with these developments they are all terrified”.

Those who have expressed their fear about being expelled from Kuwait are those in secretarial jobs, Abraham shares. “We understand that it’s an internal issue, but what we can do is submit a representation with the ministry of external affairs asking them to look into this matter. Ask them to let the people who are presently in that country to remain.”

Director of Centre for Indian Migrant Studies Rafeek Ravuther says those who are most vulnerable due to Kuwait’s decision are blue-collar workers, with a majority of population originating from northern states of Bihar and UP.

The Indian embassy website in Kuwait says that out of 10 lakh Indians, 3.27 lakh are domestic workers – they work as drivers, gardeners, cleaners, nannies, cooks and housemaids. But the majority of Indians at 5.23 lakh, are deployed in the private sector — they are construction workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, chartered accountants, IT experts and others. In addition, there are about 1.16 lakh dependents.

ELECTION WATCH: Donald Trump after signing an executive order to revamp the H-1B visa guest worker program // PHOTO: Getty images

So, who would be safe? A social worker attached to the Indian embassy in Kuwait says that nurses and other medical staff are one category who will not be made to leave, because they are needed. For others, she is not sure how things will pan out, “since the lockdown began in Kuwait, there have been many Indians who have lost their livelihood. The embassy’s focus has been to help them with basic essentials”.

But while many are fearful of what the decision to curb immigrants could entail, she says,  they are apprehensive to speak out. “Compared to other countries, speaking out has its limitations here”. What we do know is that the bill wants Indians to not exceed 15% of the population of the country.

Bringing in the cash

While Kuwait is not the largest contributor to the remittances that India receives, it does give a sizeable inflow. In 2018, the World Bank said India had retained its position as the world’s top recipient of remittances with its diaspora sending $79 billion back. Out of this, Indian diaspora in the UAE sent back the most, with $13,823 million followed by the US with $11,715 million, Saudi Arabia at $11,239 million and then Kuwait at $4,587 million.

In 2019, India again saw a huge inflow of funds with $82.2 billion. But then the tide changed. The pandemic has affected the lakhs of Indians in the GCC countries, which has a total of over 84 lakh Indians within its territories.

The World Bank has already predicted that remittances to South Asia will see a sharp decline by 22% in 2020. And when GCC countries start imposing such restrictions, a big part of the fall in their income will be felt by Kerala – and its people – whose remittance accounts for 19% of the total received by India, according to the RBI report released in 2018.

Just like Abraham and the social worker, Ravuther repeats that Indians in GCC countries started losing their jobs just as the pandemic forced a complete lockdown. He wants the central government to now take responsibility and come up with a plan for repatriation and re-integration of its citizens.

In April, the UAE had threatened to impose strict restrictions on countries who were reluctant to take their citizens back in the face of Covid-19. Back then, much like Kuwait now, the UAE mulled over the idea of having a quota in place for recruitment of foreign workers.

In May, reports said over 3 lakh Indians had registered to be repatriated. Ravuther claims it is now much higher, with almost 5 lakh waiting for repatriation from gulf countries.

The situation in the Gulf countries and the US points to how countries are closing up — drawing up policies which seek to restrict immigrantion while at the same time gain from their output.

(Cover: Migrant laborers brought from Kuwait in a special Flight under the Vande Bharat Mission in June // PHOTO: Getty images)