South Asians Left Jobless, Homeless In Iraq

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Tens of thousands of poor South Asians have made their way to Iraq since the U.S. invasion, in the hopes of making money to send home to support their families.

Dishwashers, cleaners, drivers and cooks from countries like Bangladesh, India and Nepal form part of an army of contractors that service America's expensive war.

But the system that gets them to Baghdad is riddled with corruption and exploitation, leaving some South Asians living in hovels, jobless and afraid.

Four months ago, Sushil Khadka, 26, left his wife, his two children and his home country of Nepal for Iraq.

"I'd dreamt of a good job, sending home my salary every month to feed my family, to send my children to school. That's why I came here. But that never happened. The opposite happened. It's terrible," he says.

Now Khadka sits in a hut made out of salvaged cardboard, huddled next to a chain-link fence in a dusty corner near Baghdad's international airport. Flies swarm around splattered bits of old food and dirty blankets.

"They made fools of us," he says. "Had we gotten work, it would've been alright but they took our money and ran away."

He sold the family jewelry — all they had in the world — to pay a recruiter in Nepal $5,000. He says the recruiter promised him a job working for American contractor KBR that would earn him $800 a month — a fortune in Nepal. The average income there is $340 a year.

But when he arrived in Iraq he was told there was no work, he says. The agent who was supposed to help him was arrested and the visa in Khadka's passport was ripped out. He was left to his own devices, scrounging around the airport to find shelter and food.

Khadka is not alone. The 40-or-so men who live with him in this makeshift camp tell similar tales.

Upendra Das, 17, sits on the floor chopping vegetables on a dirty plank of painted wood.

"We eat once a day. Sometimes we can't even do that," he says. "I've been here three months so far. To get here I borrowed from the village moneylender. They charge a lot of interest. I can't leave so I'm still waiting, hoping that I will get some work."

Another group of 1,000 South Asians have been held in a nearby warehouse for several months by KBR subcontractor Najlaa Catering Services, a company based in Kuwait. The men say they had their passports taken away and were confined in substandard conditions.

The U.S. military and KBR say they are investigating.

The U.S. State and Defense departments have issued contracting guidelines that are supposed to protect workers in Iraq.

"As in all things, in Iraq there is a policy in place but there is no one really there to enforce it," says investigative journalist T. Christian Miller, who works for Pro Publica and has written a book called Blood Money about the mismanagement of Iraq's reconstruction.

He says that the abuse of South Asian workers in Iraq is common.

"It's definitely a situation of exploitation. You are talking about the most vulnerable people in the world," Miller says. "The U.S. has contracted some of the most dangerous and dirties jobs to some of the poorest people in the world. At this point, five years into the war, there are no excuses for U.S. companies not to be aware of the issue of human trafficking or labor trafficking."

Back at the Baghdad airport, a representative from the International Organization of Migration (IOM) has just showed up offering the homeless South Asians free repatriation. The IOM heard about the men only 10 days ago.

The men crowd around as Thair Issan hands out forms for them to fill out if they want to go home. Issan says the men's plight is desperate.

"Those are victims," he says. "You see the conditions they're living in. It's a very big humanitarian crisis."

Bangladeshi Mohammad Nazrul Islam says he wants to stay here but he's been told he'll be jailed if he does.

"The Iraqi authorities say ... they will jail us if we stay. If we leave right now, it's OK. But we don't want to leave because we've all paid a lot of money to get here," he says.

Where will we find the money to pay off that debt? he asks desperately, adding that he wants to stay but no one will give him a job.

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