JAGTIAL, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Lakshmi Motam sent 20 tramadol tablets from her south Indian village to her laborer husband in Dubai, she didn’t realize the pain relief pills would land him in jail.
Tramadol, a synthetic opioid painkiller that her husband used for his aches and pains was among nearly 400 drugs the United Arab Emirates banned in 2010 for their addictive nature.
“He worked as a coolie and often asked me to send the medicine. This was the third time I sent the tablets to him. They were for his personal use,” Motam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The drug, readily available in India for less than 8 rupees (12 cents) a tablet, last year landed her 35-year-old husband with a 24-year jail sentence.
“Before, he would call every day, and wire money home every few months. I wire him money now so that he can call us,” she said. “He calls once in two months. He was crying on the phone the last time we spoke.”
Indian migrant workers in Gulf states, often find themselves in a cycle of poverty and pain - they put in long hours in the searing heat and then pop painkillers to keep going and ensure their wages are not docked.
Lured by illegal agents with the promise of a free ticket to Dubai, or a well-paying job, many find themselves smuggling the drugs to the Gulf in their luggage, ignorant of the fact they are breaking the law.
Tramadol is described by the World Health Organisation as a “relatively safe analgesic”, but is banned in various parts of the world.
The drug is the most common illegal medication smuggled into the UAE where it is widely used by recreational users, according to local media reports. The drug’s illegal trade has led to strict checks and severe punishments, campaigners said.
Many Indian migrant workers who were caught using or possessing the drug in the Gulf are serving terms in prison.
“Most of these people (caught in drug cases) are poor and illiterate. They are unskilled and come to UAE with big dreams,” said Anuradha Vobbiliselty, an advocate in Dubai who deals with cases of Indians jailed for carrying the drug.
“Tramadol is the most common banned drug found on Indians who have sought legal help from me.”
Srinu Pusula spent his childhood grazing sheep and stepped out of his village Tadpakal in Telangana for the first time eight years ago when he boarded a flight to Dubai to work as a laborer. He visited India last year when he got married.
Before he left home, his agent gave his new wife a packet of medicines he said Pusula must deliver to his relative in Dubai. She packed them in his bag and forgot to mention it to her husband.
Pusula was arrested at Dubai airport for carrying half a kilogram of tramadol and convicted in September and sentenced to seven years in prison.
“We built this house with our son’s earnings. We never had power supply before. Now we do,” Srinu’s mother Posani Pusala, 55, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Her only hope now is a mercy petition Indian activists in Dubai will file on Nov. 15.
“Agents are running the racket and targeting laborers,” said Krishna Donekeni, founder of Gulf Workers Awareness Centre by phone from Dubai.
Donekeni has met Pusula a few times and lobbied officials at the Indian embassy in Dubai about his case.
“He is young, and away from his family. He hasn’t seen his child who was born after he left. He is scared,” Donekeni said.
Another migrant rights activist, Bhim Reddy, said Pusula is the third person from Jagtial district who has been convicted in a drug case in the last three years.
Vobbiliselty has dealt with at least six cases of Indians arrested for using, selling or possessing tramadol tablets, and seen each case end with a sentence of 7 years to up to 24 years, which is life imprisonment.
“India is not doing anything for this problem. Migrant protection officers in India or even immigration officials do not warn workers against carrying this drug,” Vobbiliselty said.
Officials in India’s foreign ministry said help in drug and alcohol use cases is difficult as UAE has strict laws on them.
“But our consular officers meet them (those arrested in drug cases) and suggest names of empanelled lawyers to fight their cases in the labor court,” said M.C. Luther, India’s protector general of emigrants.
Luther said migrant workers going through government-authorized employment agents are given pre-departure training where they are advised against carrying the banned medicines.
But a sizeable number of workers go through illegal agents and have no idea about the medicines they cannot carry or use.
A spokesperson of the UAE embassy in New Delhi said poor and illiterate migrant workers are entitled to free legal aid.
Motam, whose husband is in a Dubai jail, knows the road ahead is difficult.
She has met various ministers, including India’s minister of foreign affairs Sushma Swaraj, to plead her husband’s case.
“When he left for Dubai, I thought our life would improve with his earnings. But now I roll 600 beedis (traditional Indian cigarettes) for 70 rupees every day. That is our only source of income,” she said.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, she touches the feet of anyone - activist, journalist, village elder - who visits her, mumbling: “Please help me.”
Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Ros Russell Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org