The World

The Vulnerability of Iraq’s Foreign Workers

Iraq’s largest oil refinery, Baiji, was attacked by ISIS rebels today, and its foreign staff have been evacuated, but not all international workers in the country have been so lucky.

According to the Turkish media, about 60 foreign workers from Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan, and Nepal were reportedly abducted by ISIS near Tikrit. The 15 Turkish citizens in the group add to the 49 Mosul consulate staff and 31 truck drivers from the country abducted during the fall of Mosul. Separately, 40 Indian citizens working for a Turkish construction company near Mosul have been abducted, according to India’s foreign ministry.

While the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have gotten a lot more attention, Iraq has also seen a recent influx of foreign workers from South Asia and some African countries. These arrivals sometimes come under illegal or exploitative circumstances.

Reuters reported on one such case in 2011:

Fairouz Jubidali, a 19-year-old Bangladeshi who came to Iraq in 2009 through a Bangladeshi job agency, said he paid $4,500 to obtain work for three years. He earns $300 a month cleaning, stocking and selling at a Baghdad food store.

He says he was duped.

“I was deceived by the agency. They did not tell me that I would go to Iraq,” he said. “I thought I was going to Gulf states. When my contract expires I will leave Iraq because the situation is not safe.”

In another case documented by NGOs, 54 Sri Lankan and Ethiopian workers were falsely lured by contractors and only realized they were in Iraq after hearing bomb explosions. In 2011 a group of Sri Lankans working for a Lebanese construction firm in Maysan province went on hunger strike, demanding two years of back pay.

With unemployment high, the Iraqi government has attempted to limit the number of foreign workers in the country, but there are thought to be thousands of foreigners continuing to work in Iraq illegally. Their legal status could increase their vulnerability to violence with the security situation in the country breaking down.

Foreign workers have also been on the receiving end of terrorist violence in the past. In 2004, 12 Nepalese hostages were killed after being abducted by a Sunni terrorist group in what the country’s ambassador called one of the “worst days” in his country’s history.

The Chinese media is also reporting that 1,000 Chinese workers at a power plant near Samarra have been stranded by fighting between government forces and rebels. Unlike U.S. companies, which are pulling many of their civilian contractors out of the country, China—Iraq’s largest investor—appears to have no intention of ordering an evacuation. After the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, the government sent ships and aircraft to evacuate Chinese workers. An estimated 15,000 Chinese citizens work in Iraq.