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  Opinion   Columnists  17 Oct 2023  Patralekha Chatterjee | As migrants in war zones return, do more to help

Patralekha Chatterjee | As migrants in war zones return, do more to help

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Oct 18, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Oct 18, 2023, 12:00 am IST

This is not the first time Indians have been trapped in a war zone. Nor is this the first rescue flight

Successive Indian governments have evacuated Indian nationals at varied times from war-torn regions, as during the First Gulf War in the 1990s and Operation Rahat in Yemen in 2015, and Ukraine last year. (File Image: DC)
 Successive Indian governments have evacuated Indian nationals at varied times from war-torn regions, as during the First Gulf War in the 1990s and Operation Rahat in Yemen in 2015, and Ukraine last year. (File Image: DC)

T. Ramesh was travelling in a local train in Tamil Nadu when I called late evening last Saturday. Even amid the background noise, it was hard to miss the joy in his voice. There was good news at long last! Prof. Rathika Selvaraj, his wife, had boarded the plane in Tel Aviv, he told me. Minutes later, he shared the boarding pass she had WhatsApped to him from Terminal 3, Tel Aviv airport. Rathika had been allotted seat no 18J in the flight scheduled to take off at 15.50 pm local time in Israel. Soon she would be home.

Forty-year-old Rathika, an associate professor from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), was in Israel for a two-month training programme at Ben Gurion University, Beer Sheva. Little did she expect that a work-related trip would turn out the way it did, and that she would be holed up in a room in Negev, just 60 km from Gaza, as the war raged.

After several days, Rathika finally made it to one of the flights in the ongoing government-sponsored “Operation Ajay” to repatriate Indian citizens from affected areas. The special flights are part of the operation launched on October 12 to facilitate the return of those Indian nationals who wish to return home.

As I write, comes a text message from Ramesh. Rathika has landed in Chennai. The whole family, including their 13-year-old son, are on their way to receive her.

Prof. Rathika Selvaraj’s story has a happy ending. She was among the many Indian nationals to have been rescued from war-torn Israel since “Operation Ajay” was launched. But not every story of a foreigner trapped in a conflict zone ends on a happy note. Sheeja Anand from Kannur, Kerala, who works as a caregiver, was injured in the missile strikes on Ashkelon, an Israeli coastal city, while she was on a video call with her husband. She is reportedly in a hospital in Israel, undergoing treatment.

Lost in the blizzard of news about Palestinian militant group Hamas’ savage attack on Israel on October 7, its slaughter of civilians, and Israel’s counter-airstrikes and blockade of Gaza, home to two million Palestinians, nearly half of them children, are poignant stories of foreign workers, students, scholars caught in the crosshairs of the ongoing war.

Some were killed, some were injured, some have been taken hostage by Hamas.
No one quite knows what lies ahead. Nor what is true or false: lots of misinformation is swirling around. Media reports say the Israeli forces are preparing for a potential ground assault on the northern Gaza. Inside besieged Gaza, conditions are deteriorating drastically; thousands of Palestinians are trying to flee to the overcrowded south of the enclave. On Sunday, the World Health Organisation reported that four hospitals in northern Gaza were no longer functioning as a result of damage and targeting.

Already, there have been a huge number of deaths: the surprise, savage attack by Hamas is reported to have killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, including women and children, 126 Israelis have been reported taken hostage by Hamas, while the Israeli counter-airstrikes have killed at least 2,600 people in Gaza.

This is not the first time Indians have been trapped in a war zone. Nor is this the first rescue flight. In April-May 2023, more than 3,000 Indians were evacuated from strife-torn Sudan under “Operation Kaveri”. Successive Indian governments have evacuated Indian nationals at varied times from war-torn regions, as during the First Gulf War in the 1990s and Operation Rahat in Yemen in 2015, and Ukraine last year.

Nor are rescue missions a uniquely Indian story.

Many foreigners killed and captured by Hamas in recent days were migrant workers from other Asian countries. They had nothing to do with the conflict between Israel and Hamas. They sought a future in Israel’s agricultural, construction and healthcare sectors. They desperately wanted a better life for themselves and their families. The pay was higher than back home.

Many, like Nepalese farm worker Prabesh Bhandari, had their dreams snuffed out prematurely. Bhandari wanted to save money to build a house for his family. But death struck him in the form of Hamas before he got his first salary. Ten Nepali nationals were among those killed when Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel.

Thai workers who work in large numbers in Israeli agriculture have been among the worst-hit. As of last Sunday, 28 Thai workers had been killed in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Many Thai workers are also believed to have been taken hostage.
How should countries in the region prepare themselves as conflicts continue to erupt and migrants from South and Southeast Asia continue to move to at-risk regions?

Repatriation of citizens stranded in the conflict zone is an obvious priority. But it is becoming increasingly clear that emergency preparedness must go beyond repatriation.
“While sending states have, to varying degrees, implemented support systems for their outgoing migrants, none have robust programmes in place to support returning migrants with their reintegration. This gap is even more acute for large-scale returns. Migrants repatriated following evacuation from conflict zones or other disasters face multiple challenges on arrival. In addition to potential emotional trauma, they are likely facing unemployment upon their return,” notes a policy brief on Stranded Migrants by Migrant Forum in Asia, regional network committed to protect and promote the rights and welfare of migrant workers.

Some countries have started looking ahead.

Thai workers who have been affected by the Hamas-led attack on two Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip will be compensated by both Israel and Thailand. The Thai government has said every worker who returned to Thailand would get a compensation of 15,000 baht. It would also provide 40,000 baht as restitution to the family members of those who were killed, and an additional 40,000 baht to cover funeral expenses, according to a report last week in 'The Nation', a Thai newspaper.

This is in addition to the compensation by the Israeli government to the families of Thai workers who were killed and to those who were injured. Reports in the Thai media also talk of government plans to help those Thai workers who have not completed their contracts to return to work in Israel if they want, and try to find new jobs for those who no longer want to work in the Middle East.

The Indian government is doing a good job getting Indian citizens back home from the war zone. But now is the time to also think of what we should do after the repatriation.

Tags: israel, hamas, gaza strip, thai workers, southeast asia