Expect govts in Gulf to be helpful in facilitating early return of Indians to work: Jaishankar

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New Delhi, Mar 15 (PTI) External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Monday said India is fully cognizant of the employment concerns of people working abroad and expects governments in the Gulf to be helpful in facilitating the early return of those compelled to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement in the Lok Sabha on 'Recent Developments Pertaining to the Welfare Abroad of Indians, NRIs and PIOs', the minister said the focus of the government's efforts in the last few months has now shifted to Indians going back to their usual places of work, study and domicile. To that end, air transport bubble arrangements have been concluded with 27 countries so far.

'The Government is fully cognizant of the employment concerns that our people abroad have in the context of the COVID pandemic. Especially in the Gulf, there has been tremendous economic and social disruption that has impacted them. We have softened it somewhat but real challenges are there to be addressed. Let me assure the House that we take this as a priority,' he said.

The government has led the way for an economic recovery at home, and similar untiring efforts are being made to help renew livelihoods of Indians abroad, the minister said.

'The air travel arrangements are a necessary enabling measure. But beyond that, we have been active in urging our partner governments to look sympathetically at the employment of our citizens as they chart their own recovery pathway. The Gulf has been the focal point of our endeavours, though this is a global effort on our part,' Jaishankar said.

In recent months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has engaged the leaders of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Oman, while Jaishankar has travelled to UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman to discuss the governments there the welfare of people there. 'I have recently hosted the UAE Foreign Minister in India and expect to do so with that of Kuwait very soon,' the minister said.

'From our recent interactions, we have reason to expect that partner governments in the Gulf would be helpful in facilitating the early return of many who were compelled to go back because of the pandemic,' Jaishankar added.

He said the support extended from India for the stay and travel of Indian citizens was warmly acknowledged by the community and the governments alike. The provision of medical supplies and food items from India as an exceptional gesture to the Gulf during this period clearly had powerful resonance. So did the arrival of health professionals and medical staff, especially the dedicated medical team India sent to Kuwait.

The minister said ambassadors and senior officials have been in regular touch with most community organisations and get their feedback on both the health situation and economic recovery. 'We are aware that there are problems of compensation, re-employment and re-skilling that need solutions. And these are today the core of our agenda with our partner governments.' The welfare of students studying abroad has also been of particular concern and embassies across the world have been given instructions to reach out to them, monitor their situation and assist their return, where required, Jaishankar stressed.

As with workers and professionals, the focus has now shifted to their going back to universities. Some countries have been more open in this regard than others, obviously reflecting their particular COVID challenge. This, therefore, remains a high priority and our endeavour will be to encourage an early return to normalcy, he added.

Under air transport bubbles, which are temporary reciprocal arrangements for commercial passenger services until the resumption of regular international flights, the Air India group alone has operated more than 9,500 flights, taking 10.9 lakh passengers abroad so far. The largest numbers have gone to the Gulf.

'During the pandemic, our Prime Minister had declared that the Government would take care of both lives and livelihood. This guidance has been the basis for the activities of our diplomacy abroad,' Jaishankar said.

With regard to seafarers, he said the government has been working with shipping companies to ensure their well-being and where required, return to India. The challenges presented by crew change procedures were daunting but the flexibility shown by various stakeholders allowed us to overcome them.

'Members would also recall the predicament of two crews who were in particular difficulty outside Chinese ports. Their situation was also eventually resolved through great perseverance. We continue to interact with many governments to devise more friendly SOPs for crew change requirements,' Jaishankar noted.

He said serious problems were faced by fishermen who were working out of Iran. Some Gulf nations also witnessed this, perhaps to a lesser degree. The repatriation phase is over and the re-employment one has just started, Jaishankar added.

'I wish to assure this august House that in the days ahead, as our quest for normalcy progresses, as the global market place and work place resume activities, as centres of study reopen the doors, we will be there - to encourage, facilitate, secure and support,' Jaishankar said. PTI JD MIN MIN