As Saudi Arabia implements its controversial naturalization law or ‘Nitaqat’, which seeks to replace foreigners in companies with its own people, India is in the midst of a gigantic effort to bring back over 75,000 people in the next few months. After having failed to regularize their work status, these people have applied for emergency exit certificates to leave the country by July 3, the deadline set by Saudi Arabia for deportation of illegal workers.
If these people, whose number is growing, can't leave the country by July 3, they are likely to be arrested. On his way to Saudi Arabia, in what is first bilateral visit by an Indian foreign minister to the country in 5 years, foreign minister Salman Khurshid said he will take up the issue with his counterpart, Prince Saud Al Faisal, even as he added that Saudi authorities were well within their rights to implement their laws.
"In terms of logistics involved, it obviously is a challenge but we have a grace period and we need to do whatever we can during that period,'' said Khurshid.
Nitaqat makes it mandatory for companies to hire a minimum number of local people before employing foreigners and while the law is not new, Saudi authorities have now started to identify `illegal' workers and send them back. Out of those who have applied for emergency certificates, applications of close to 57,000 have been processed by Indian authorities. However, the Saudi authorities are processing these applications only at the rate of 500 per day making it impossible for India to meet the July 3 deadline. According to the government, Nitaqat mostly impacts blue collar-workers who have stayed back illegally in the country after the expiry of their work visa.
"For all we know, after all this many more Indians would be able to come to Saudi Arabia legitimately,'' said Khurshid in Jeddah. Out of the over 8 million expatriates in Saudi Arabia, Indians account for 2.45 million, the largest.
Unlike what was being thought earlier, these numbers are not limited mostly to Kerala but span the length and breadth of the country. What is actually surprising is that over 21,000 of these are from UP. There are 8695 from Andhra Pradesh, 7913 from West Bengal, Maharashtra over 7,000 and 5430 from Tamil Nadu. Kerala comes only sixth with 3610. It is followed by Bihar with 3035 and Rajasthan 2504. There are significant numbers from J&K, Punjab and Assam too.
Khurshid said massive rehabilitation work will be required also for the rehabilitation of those coming back. "We have already warned the state governments that a little bit of hand holding will be required,'' said the minister.
Khurshid's is the latest in a slew of visits to the country by Indian ministers and bureaucrats since Saudi authorities announced their decision to identify illegal workers.