Statement by External Affairs Minister in Rajya Sabha on ‘Plight of Stranded Workers from India in Iraq’
The text of the Statement by External Affairs Minister and minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Smt. Sushma Swaraj in Rajya Sabha on ‘Plight of Stranded Workers from India in Iraq is as follows:
At the outset, I would like to reiterate to this August House that the Government fully shares the concerns of the Hon’ble Members of this House regarding the recent developments in Iraq and safety and security of Indian nationals stranded in Iraq. In response to similar calling attention notices in Lok Sabha, I made a statement on 24 July highlighting the actions taken by the Government with regard to the security and safe return of Indian nationals stranded in Iraq.
The Government of India remains deeply concerned with the ongoing conflict and deteriorating security scenario in Iraq, resulting out of sudden attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). The speed with which the ISIS began their attacks on 8 June and captured several cities in Northern and Central Iraq took everyone by surprise. Since then, the security situation in Iraq has remained critical and fragile.
An estimated 22,000 Indians were in Iraq at the onset of the conflict. This included 500 in Baghdad, 2,300 in Najaf, 1,000 in Karbala, 3,000 in Basra, 15,000 in Kurdistan and 200 in other cities. Some Indians got trapped in the conflict areas following these sudden attacks.
A group of 46 nurses working in a local hospital in the city of Tikrit got stuck due to the conflict. They were taken to Mosul on 3 July by an unidentified group. On 4 July, they were released and a special Air India flight was arranged on the same day to bring them back to India. They reached Kochi safely on the morning of 5 July by the special flight, which also brought back 134 other Indian workers, including 80 to Hyderabad and 54 to Delhi.
Another group of about 41 Indian nationals working in a construction company in Mosul were taken captives by an unidentified group. The Government is making all efforts and taking all steps to secure their release as well.
The Government of India has been regularly and closely monitoring the security situation in Iraq. Since the onset of crisis in Iraq, we have regularly issued travel advisories for our nationals, including on 15 June, 24 June and 28 June. Indian nationals have been advised to avoid all travel to Iraq, until further notification and a ban has been imposed by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs on emigration to Iraq by ECR category travelers effective 19 June, 2014.
We have reiterated our advice to our nationals in Iraq to leave the country by commercial means if it is safe to do so. Our nationals living in areas affected by the ongoing armed conflict have been advised to stay indoors as far as possible and to remain in contact with our Embassy in Baghdad for necessary guidance and updated information on the evolving security situation. Those Indian nationals, who do not have travel documents or need other consular services like air tickets, help with immigration clearances etc., have been advised to seek assistance from our Embassy in Baghdad.
Since 15 June, 24-hour helplines in dedicated control rooms have been set up by our Embassy in Baghdad and the Ministry of External Affairs to assist our nationals in Iraq and their concerned family members in India. The details of these helplines have been well publicized through the media.
We have also set up special camp offices in Basra, Najaf and Karbala and strengthened our Mission in Baghdad through the addition of 25 staff members. These field offices are proactively contacting Indian nationals and companies where they work, offering their services for the facilitation of our nationals to leave Iraq by offering air tickets as well as help with immigration and departure facilities. We have sent our former Ambassador to Iraq to strengthen and coordinate our Embassy’s efforts to assist our nationals. The 300 Indian Community Welfare fund (ICWF) is being used to provide assistance to our nationals in Iraq.
The inter-ministerial “Standing Group for Repatriation of Indian nationals from Abroad” has put in place robust contingency plans for safe and expeditious evacuation of our nationals from Iraq, if situation so demands. While we prepare ourselves to meet any emergency situation, as of now, we remain engaged in facilitating our nationals in safer areas in Iraq to return home by providing all required assistance including, travel documents and air tickets.
As of 2 August, over 4,900 Indian nationals have been provided assistance for travelling back to India, including air tickets to over 3,900 nationals, since the setting up of the camp offices.
The safety and security of Indian nationals, especially 41 Indian nationals in captivity in Mosul, is a matter of foremost concern and preoccupation for us. We are leaving no stone unturned for their safe return.
I assure this August House that it would remain the earnest endeavour of our Government to assist every Indian citizen currently in Iraq and ensure their safe return.
Many misconceptions have been expressed in the speeches I have heard here. I would like to clear the situation in my reply. 22,000 Indians are living in Iraq. They all are not stranded. We have divided these people in three categories. Safe, captive and stranded. 15,000 out of 22,000 are safe. 41 are captives, with whom the government has no direct contact. The remaining all are not trapped. Only 1,000 out of 5,000 who have been brought here are such whom tickets were provided either by the companies or came on their own. The government provided air ticket and travel documents to 3938 people. The Government opened camp offices in Basra, Najaf and Karbala in addition to Baghdad. We said to the officers to bring the people by issuing emergency certificate or by new passport, if the companies do not return their passports. The Government have provided air tickets to all to go to their respective states.
First of all our people went in the companies there. They met the Indians. Persuaded them to come. Passports were given to those who did not have the same. Those who did not have money were provided air tickets. There were brought to Delhi. They were taken to their respective state bhavans through Resident Commissioners. Out of 7,000 people, 5,000 have come. I conveyed message to those nurses who did not want to come, to give in writing that they do not want to come. In future I will not accept that we did not evacuate them.
I am asking all of you that, if you want to evacuate any person of your state from Iraq and Libya, give a list. I assure you in this house that Government would evacuate them by passport, tickets or by providing money. I asked to bring all the people who are trapped in Benghazi to Malta so that Air-India aeroplane could bring them here. We are not talking about money even for a moment. No person would be left, trapped there due to the tack of money. As far as the 41 people are concerned I would like to say here with responsibility that they are alive and safe. We should not believe on rumours. I have met their families several families. Chief Minister of Punjab, team of Akali Dal and all M.Ps from Punjab met me.
Secrecy is the fundamental principle of any such process. We talked all foreign ministers, all Ambassadors from Gulf and our ambassadors in Gulf. We also talked with the countries who can be helpful. I am waiting like a mother who waits for his child. Knocked every door from where we can get help. India has voted in favour of Palestine in UNHRC. There is a full-fledged Ministry to monitor all these things. We want to bring a perfect immigration bill by doing away all the shortcomings of the existing bill. Regarding Daniel Solomon, I would like to inform that we are trying to bring his mortal remains at the earliest. We are also trying to evacuate the people in Libya. Many countries have closed their embassies but our embassy is working round the clock. They are working by putting their life in danger. 98 nurses have come, 126 are ready to come 236 people are ready to go to Malta from Benghazi. I again would like to say to you that if any known person is there, ask him to come from there because Libya is not at all safe at present.
INS Mysore has now returned. Evacuation work in Iraq is almost complete. Now our focus is more on Libya. We are evacuating Indians from there. Their safety is our top most priority. I want to assure all of you that safe return of Indians would be ensured.