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[NEW DELHI] Hundreds of Indian nurses caught up in Yemen's civil war face a stark choice between returning home to financial ruin or taking a chance by staying on in more lucrative jobs that allow them to pay off their debts.
India is trying to get around 4,000 nationals, more than half of them nurses, out of Yemen, where Shi'ite Houthi fighters have swept into the southern port city of Aden despite an air campaign led by Saudi Arabia to check their advance.
The medics' predicament highlights the dilemma facing Indian health workers, many from poor families who borrow heavily to educate their children and then send them abroad to earn the money back.
The debts are sometimes owed to middlemen who charge exorbitant fees to place Indians in jobs abroad, and the government has moved to crack down on the practice by banning foreign recruitment by private companies nationwide. "For now I'm staying," Indian male nurse Meljo Joy told Reuters by telephone from the Al-Naqib Hospital in Aden.
The native of the southern state of Kerala, where most of the Indian nurses in Yemen are from, chose not to board an Indian naval vessel that evacuated 349 people on Tuesday from the city, preferring to take a chance despite the fighting. "In New Delhi, a famous hospital will give a maximum of US$400 (a month) as salary," Joy, 27, said. "But accommodation and food is very expensive. "It (Yemen) is good for me, because I get to save and keep my salary in the bank." Lacking experience to work in a more prestigious location, Joy paid US$2,000 to a recruitment agent to land a job in Yemen. He earns US$600 a month, gets free accommodation and sends money to his family to pay off a tuition loan.
As well as those taken from Aden, India has airlifted 80 people from the capital Sanaa, but it has been unable to send in more flights because Riyadh, which has air supremacy over its southern neighbour, has not opened a safe air corridor.
More than 100 nursing institutes in Kerala train thousands of graduates every year, with more studying outside the state, depressing local wages and creating a strong incentive to seek better-paid work abroad.
Monthly wages at hospitals in Kerala start from 5,000 rupees (S$110), rising with experience and seniority to 25,000 rupees.
Fierce competition for jobs abroad, meanwhile, puts nurses at the mercy of recruiters who sometimes demand large up-front fees or renege on promises of more pay and safe contracts.
Following a raid this week by tax officials on the office of one agency in the Keralan port of Kochi, the Central Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into suspected corruption, conspiracy and cheating.
A senior CBI officer told Reuters that the Al Zarafa agency had worked "hand in glove" with a city official whose job was to protect the interests of migrant workers.
The agency was hired to recruit 1,200 nurses to work in Kuwait and, investigators say, charged an up-front fee of 1.95 million rupees (S$42,520) - 100 times the legal amount.
Despite complaints by applicants, Kochi's Protector of Emigrants L. Adolfus failed to take action, say investigators.
Adolfus, contacted by Reuters, denied colluding with Al Zarafa or taking bribes. Al Zarafa's office in Kochi could not be reached by telephone or email. Nobody was available to speak at its head office in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi.
As part of broader efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to improve the pay and conditions of Indian migrant workers, New Delhi has imposed a nationwide ban on foreign recruitment of nurses by private companies.
From May, only two state recruitment agencies will be allowed to operate in Kerala, charging modest fees and working through legitimate diplomatic channels to curb bribe-taking in destination countries.
"We are planning to conduct the recruitments in a transparent manner, without giving any room for any sort of complaints," said K.C. Joseph, Kerala's minister for non-resident affairs.
For A.A. Joseph, a farmer whose daughter Sini Elizabeth has gone to work in Sanaa, the changes come too late.
The family took on debts of 250,000 rupees to train Sini and get her a nursing job in Yemen. When she got there, she was paid 20,000 rupees a month - half what she was promised. "I don't know what we will do when Sini returns - the money I make from my farm is not enough to meet our daily expenses,"said Joseph. If his 26-year-old daughter is not working, her marriage dowry would become unaffordable, he added.
For now, Sini is stuck in Sanaa, but has reluctantly registered to fly home on an Indian evacuation flight.