ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Kanaveni Thirupathi, 28, arrived in Erbil from India just six months ago and quickly found work as a cleaner at a local college. Thousands like him have migrated to the oil states of the Gulf, drawn by the promise of consistent and better paid work. For Kanaveni, neither promise was fulfilled.

First published by Rudaw

A dilapidated single-storey house just a few hundred yards from the US consulate in Erbil is home to 25 Indian migrants, all of them left jobless by the coronavirus lockdown.

Two small bedrooms, a single bathroom, a dank sparse kitchen and a bare central living room have become their only refuge since the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) imposed its curfew in mid-March.

Although some containment measures have since been relaxed, life is far from back to normal.

“The college is closed because of the corona problem,” said Kanaveni, standing in his crowded living room. Nobody sits on the single plastic lawn chair – the room’s only furniture.

“The students are not going. They don’t need cleaners,” he said.

Winter rain had recently pooled on the flat roof, causing mould to spread like a brown rash across the bedroom ceilings.

The drabness of the surroundings is interrupted by colourful Hindu icons. A dusty glass of rice and turmeric sits at Lord Shiva’s feet as an offering for wealth.

It is here that Kanaveni and the other men, all from India’s central-southern state of Telangana, share meals cooked on camping stoves, play boardgames fashioned from scrap card, and video chat with families who suddenly seem so much further away.

‘Unique situation’

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged global economies, leaving those with insecure incomes or housing most vulnerable.

Now the aid community in Iraq is waking up to the new reality for economic migrants living under curfews who would not ordinarily qualify for financial assistance. After all, these are not ordinary times.

“Assisting migrants is at the heart of our mandate,” Gerard Waite, Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq, told Rudaw English in a statement via email.

“Migrants are faced with the same threats posed by COVID-19, but when they are already coping with difficult living and working conditions they can be especially vulnerable.”

According to the preliminary findings of IOM’s vulnerability assessment, 80 percent of respondents said their primary concern is their inability to pay their rent due to a lack of income.

That’s why the Government of Canada has made funding available for IOM to intervene.

“Migrant workers are not typically targeted under the humanitarian assistance response in Iraq, but the unique situation and the essential life-saving nature of the assistance it will provide led us to give IOM the green light,” Ashley Durec, Head of Canada’s Embassy Office in Erbil, told Rudaw English via email.

Kanaveni had earned $400 per month as a cleaner. It’s enough to get by, but not enough to save or send home. So when Kanaveni lost his job, just two months after he started, there was no rainy-day fund to see him through.

Even Parigemalla Bojanna, 40, who has been scraping by in Erbil for two years cleaning barbershops, had no contingency plan for prolonged unemployment. His calloused hands and feet seem too big for his skinny frame, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his crowded home.

More than half of the migrants who responded to IOM’s assessment said they have been skipping meals, sometimes on a daily basis, as they do not have enough money to cover their basic food needs.

“Many of the migrant workers send most of the income earned through their low-wage jobs home to their families, who are reliant on these remittances, and they therefore run out of money very quickly when they are laid off and unable to find work,” Durec said.

Most have also overstayed their residency in the Kurdistan Region, leaving many afraid to ask for help. This fear likely masks the true scale of deprivation in IOM’s data.

With a budgetary crisis looming, the welfare of illegal migrants is unlikely to be high on the KRG’s agenda.

And with coronavirus afflicting the lives of Indians back home, New Delhi has limited means of riding to the rescue of Indian nationals residing in the Kurdistan Region – 8-10,000, according to Indian consulate estimates.

Empty pockets 

Mohammed Salman Khan, 26, who came to Erbil six years ago, has been tirelessly gathering money and food among Erbil’s Indian diaspora on behalf of the Telugu Gulf Employees Welfare Association.

“We have used our own money, our organisation. Nobody has provided money. We are providing everything to 150 members,” Salman said. He has raided his own modest savings to keep the association’s needy members fed and housed.

“I have a very big family in India, but I’m not saving money in Erbil,” he said. “I’m not sending money. My pocket is all finished.”

It was a sacrifice worth making, he insists. But it won’t be long before he too will need assistance.

“Kurdistan is a very safe place. There are not too many cases of coronavirus in Erbil. But for the international people, the problem now is work. They need food. They need everything,” Salman said.

“It could be six months to a year before these companies take us back.”

If economic disruption continues for months to come, these men and households like theirs will need outside help.

Chandramouli K. Kern, the consulate general of India in Erbil, told Rudaw English the diplomatic mission has been using social media to keep its nationals informed of the KRG’s restrictions and the situation back home.

It has also provided advice on holistic Ayurvedic medicine to sharpen the immune system and daily tips on yoga “to overcome stress and strengthen the body”.

“We are happy to note that no Indian national has been reported to be COVID-19 positive in the Kurdistan Region,” Kern told Rudaw English via email.

No special commercial flights have been laid on to extract Indian nationals eager to return home. Even if they were, many of these flights are priced beyond the means of most would-be travellers, including westerners.

About half of the respondents to IOM’s vulnerability assessment noted that the main barrier to return to their country of origin is their financial situation, on top of the closure of Iraq’s airports.

Although the consulate is not in direct talks with the KRG and aid agencies about ways to support cash-strapped migrants, including Nepali and Bhutanese nationals who have approached them for help, Kern says his staff are liaising with community groups.

“The consulate has been working with Indian community leaders who are organising the supply of food packets and even cooked food to vulnerable nationals,” he explained.

“In Sulaimani, Indian nationals needing assistance are being helped through some Kurdish friends and Indian nationals.”

IOM’s new migrant assistance scheme may help fill the gaps and ease some of the pressure on community groups.

Cash assistance 

The fund, worth $150,000, means individual migrants in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region could be eligible for a one-off payment of $182, distributed on Switch Mastercards.

The initial phase, which began on June 4, saw cash assistance distributed to 13 of the 22 people in Erbil who were deemed especially vulnerable. The second phase is expected to be rolled out early next week.

Although the scheme is currently only a pilot, based on similar cash assistance given to Iraq’s refugee and internally displaced communities, it could be expanded if the crisis continues and more diplomatic missions appeal for help.

“This initial round of assistance is destined for migrant workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said IOM’s Waite.

“IOM Iraq has developed a vulnerability assessment tool to determine eligibility (based on data about food insecurity and rent insecurity). The tool will also identify health vulnerabilities among migrants.”

“This initial group (of recipients) was referred to IOM Iraq by their embassies — the Filipino and Bangladeshi embassies to be precise,” he added.

So far, 109 people have been referred for assistance, with more expected over time. Of these, 59 were approved.

The Canadian embassy hopes the money, part of a larger CAD $2 million humanitarian fund provided to IOM this year for schemes such as this, will help jobless migrants weather the storm.

“We hope the impact of our funding will enable IOM to meet the most pressing humanitarian needs within the Iraqi context, including this highly vulnerable/at-risk population group specifically due to the current health emergency,” the Canadian representative to Erbil said.

“The Government of Canada is committed to being a flexible humanitarian donor – especially in the COVID-19 crisis context,” Durec added.

For Kanaveni, waiting hungrily for work to resume, there seems to be little worth staying for in Erbil. Given the opportunity, he will leave.

“They should send flights and take us back to India,” he said.