CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women domestic workers from India's southern Andhra Pradesh are languishing in jails in Gulf states after attempting to flee abusive employers or overstaying their visas, said an Indian state minister, urging the national government to help them.
In a letter to India's foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, Andhra Pradesh's minister for non-resident Indian welfare, Palle Raghunatha Reddy, called for action to bring back the women.
"Necessary steps should be initiated to bring them to their native areas safely by providing free travel and necessary visa documents at the earliest possible (opportunity)," he wrote.
"Instructions should be issued to Indian embassy officials in Gulf countries to interfere in the matter and provide necessary help in terms of food, clothing and shelter."
Government figures show there are an estimated six million Indian migrants in the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman.
These include women who leave their villages to take up jobs overseas paying up to three times more than in India, putting their fate in the hands of recruitment agents, who often dupe them.
There is no official data on the exact count of the migrants stranded in Gulf countries but experts put the numbers in tens of thousands, many of them in jail.
Some of the migrants overstay on tourist visas and are unable to pay the fines required to return home. In some cases, they do not have exit visas. Many others have been jailed on petty offences waiting for their case to be heard, according to the Andhra Pradesh state government.
Women from Andhra Pradesh and the neighboring state of Telangana "are being sold like products in a retail shop," Reddy wrote in the letter sent last week.
"Women are being sold to the tune of 400,000 rupees ($6,000)in Saudi Arabia and between 100,000 ($1,500) to 200,000 rupees ($3,000) in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait," the minister wrote.
He added that at least 25 women jailed in Gulf states have sought the state government's help recently.
In response to a query in India's parliament in March, the foreign ministry said their diplomatic missions in all six Gulf states had registered complaints of physical abuse, maltreatment, non-payment of salary, and other grievances.
Requesting anonymity, a senior official in the Andhra Pradesh government said a group of ministers from the state would travel to the Gulf next month to investigate the plight of migrants from their region.
The state government is also in the process of appointing lawyers to provide legal advice to Indian prisoners in Gulf jails, the official said.
($1 = 66.58 rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)