Iraqi Crisis Brings Focus On Indian Migrants Who Seek Profit Amid Peril

When the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was captured by Sunni militants, 40 Indian construction workers were taken hostage. It's one of the first diplomatic challenges for the new government in India, which sees millions of migrant workers move abroad and send some $70 billion back home to family.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. When ISIS militants took control of wide swaths of northern Iraq, foreign workers in those areas ended up being trapped. India is working to win the release of some 40 of its citizens abducted in the Iraqi city of Mosul. There are also hundreds more in other locations who are clamoring to leave. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: India said today, doors are opening in the quest to free its construction workers seized in Mosul, and that they have not been harmed. But India's Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin added...

SYED AKBARUDDIN: We will take it day by day because in captivity and safety are a contradiction in terms.

MCCARTHY: Parwinder Singh worked in Iraq for the same company whose employees are now held captive. Among those abducted is Singh's 27-year-old brother, Kamaljit, who telephoned Parwinder on the day he and his fellow workers were kidnapped. Recounting the story from his home in the Punjab, Parwinder Singh says his brother told him the men were divided into two groups.

PARWINDER SINGH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He said their captors separated them - freeing, as he put it - the Muslims Bangladeshis and keeping in custody the Hindu Indians. Six days later, his brother phoned to say they were being beaten up, robbed of their pocket money and phones. He has not heard from his brother since.

While it is not confirmed, Islamist militants are suspected in the abduction. However, former Indian Ambassador to Iraq, Dayakar Ratakonda, says chances are good that the Indian workers will be freed.

DAYAKAR RATAKONDA: They are not a deliberate political target. Jihadist, they are not attacking the foreigners so far. It may come later. That's a different matter.

MCCARTHY: Parwinder Singh says economic desperation is pulling Indians into the perils of Iraq.

P SINGH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: We're so poor, what can we do, he says. We earn better over there than we can earn here. We chose to work overseas only because there are no opportunities for us in India.

Sukhkaranjit Singh is one of 450 Indians working at a hospital site in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala far from the fighting. For $1,000, a deli recruiter secured him a visa and a job as a carpenter. But Singh says the men want out, and the recruiter has washed his hands of them. The company demands they finish their contract even though the men fear the fighting could reach them.

SUKHKARANJIT SINGH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: To earn daily bread, people are forced to go anywhere, Singh says. The government allowed us to come to Iraq and that's why so many Indians came, he says. Singh is one of millions of Indian overseas workers around the globe who send indispensable earnings to their families back home. World Bank economist Dilip Ratha says no country receives more remittances from migrant workers than India.

DILIP RATHA: It is the lower skilled migrants who send so much more money home. Yet, lower skilled migrants are not protected at all by governments.

MCCARTHY: Ratha says they first need to be fully informed, not just of the salaries that can be six times India's national average, but of the risks that can be calamitous.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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