Caring for the diaspora, away from home

Caring for the diaspora, away from home
The Community Affairs wing is divided into two sections: labour and community welfare.

Abu Dhabi - Through the token system, an average of 40 grievance cases, queries or requests are heard by the embassy on a daily basis.

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Anjana Sankar

Published: Mon 17 Jul 2017, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 18 Jul 2017, 11:56 AM

Serving a 2.6 million-strong Indian diaspora in the UAE is no easy task. It is, thus, no surprise that Community Affairs is one of the busiest departments at the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi.
Addressing labour grievances, dealing with runaway maids, making jail visits, repatriating bed-ridden patients, attesting educational certificates, issuing emergency exit passes and even brokering peace between hostile couples - these are all in a day's work for the Community Affairs wing. 
A typical day starts at 9 am when the doors of the embassy are open for the public. The 'Open House' hours from 9 am to 12.30 pm every day gives public the chance to meet embassy officials and raise their concerns and seek help.
Through the token system, an average of 40 grievance cases, queries or requests are heard by the embassy on a daily basis.
Apart from the direct submissions, the department gets hundreds of queries and complaints through email and telephone calls on issues ranging from fake job offer enquiries, labour complaints and educational queries. 
The Indian Ambassador to the UAE, Navdeep Singh Suri, said the principal function of the team in Abu Dhabi and in Dubai is to make sure they address the needs of the community. "In an economy like the UAE, with a large expatriate population, we do face issues like companies closing down, unpaid salaries and compensation, ships stranded with sailors on board, or domestic help running away because of duress and looking for succour from the embassy. 
"So we end up dealing with a broad cross-section of cases - everything from interceding with employers to help get salaries, providing financial help to destitute workers, assisting prisoners with emergency certificates, making hospital visits and helping patients who want to go back home but don't have the money to buy tickets and even meeting expenses to embalm dead bodies and send them to India." 
Meet the team that serves expats
The Community Affairs wing is divided into two sections: labour and community welfare.
The Labour section, headed by an attaché, deals with workers' grievances, recruitment through e-migrate, attestation of employment contracts etc. The community ?welfare section, also headed by an attaché, deals with a broad spectrum of issues that concern the welfare of the expatriate community. 
Dinesh Kumar, first secretary who heads the nine-member team, says engaging with the community and being accessible is the formula to best serve them. "The daily Open House has been a successful model where community members directly interact with the embassy officials. It makes them feel that we are hearing them out and doing whatever we can to solve their problems," said Kumar.
He said, in many instances, issues are solved by negotiating with employers or concerned companies. "The Indian Workers Resource Centre (IWRC) plays a crucial role in community welfare. The 24-hour toll-free call centre is a direct platform where Indians in distress can seek expert legal, financial or psychological help."
From January to June 2017, the Centre located in Dubai received 11,700 calls and 640 visitors. The IWRC also conducted 589 legal counselling sessions, 31 personal counselling sessions and 33 financial counselling sessions. A second IWRC Centre in Sharjah will open soon, according to the embassy.
Welfare fund to the rescue 
The backbone that supports the welfare activities of the Indian mission is the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) that provides 'on site' services for deserving cases.
The fund is established by the government of India in 43 missions in countries with significant Indian populations. 
Dinesh Kumar has reiterated that people are not even aware they can avail of the fund. "The welfare fund comes in handy when we have to extend financial assistance to people. In the past years, the embassy has helped hundreds of people financially - be it someone who came on a visit visa and got cheated by the recruitment agent, or an accident victim who wants to be repatriated, runaway housemaids who needs subsistence allowance, people who cannot afford legal assistance etc." 
According to the embassy, they spent Dh666,067 from the ?welfare fund to help 951 expats in Abu Dhabi, in 2016. In the same year in Dubai, 621 Indian citizens received financial help and the ?Indian Consulate spent a total of Dh1,589,973 from the fund.
In 2015, a total of 1,084 people benefitted from the welfare fund. The embassy spent Dh1,137,549 and the consulate spent Dh1,459,127 from the fund to ?assist distressed Indians.
Ambassador Suri said the $15 billion contribution by 2.6 million Indians in terms of annual remittances is a big boost to the Indian economy, that cannot be emphasised enough. "If each one of us here have a family of three or four back home, we are supporting 10 to 15 million people back home. This is a huge contribution to the Indian economy: we must recognise this and do whatever we can to ease their burden," said Suri.
At a time and age when social media is redefining customer service, the Indian embassy has also embraced the platforms quite effectively. Taking a cue from the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, who is fondly called the 'Tweeple's minister' for her instant responses to tweets by the Indian diaspora seeking help, the embassy maintains an active presence on social media platforms.
An embassy official dealing with social media said all queries on Twitter or Facebook are immediately responded to. "When we get Twitter tags of direct messages, we respond immediately and ask them to send the details to us. We also tag their messages to @HelpIWRC and forward the queries to the concerned department immediately. 
"The social media platforms are also used to create awareness about embassy activities, new government rules and regulations, events, awareness lectures etc."
While admitting that social media a powerful instrument that "takes us beyond our visual range of contact and information," the Indian envoy says it is also a double-edged sword. "We also see this being abused in the sense that relatively minor issues get blown up, given the power of social media. Sometimes, the expectations that the embassy will intercede and resolve all manner of issues, even those that are completely outside its jurisdiction or remit, do create issues. 
"Having said that, I am one for social media, for using it to assist the Indian community. It brings greater responsiveness and accountability to the work of the embassy," said Suri.

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