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Hayk Makiyan

Saro Baghdasaryan

Indian Migrants: The Armenian Dream

By Luise Glum and Hayk Makiyan

Indian migrant workers are coming to Armenia in increasing numbers. They pay large sums to agents and have high hopes for their future. But difficult conditions await them. Those profitting aren't the migrant workers but others.

When Ishan Kumar came to Armenia from southern India in early 2023, he thought he was coming for a better life. 

Ishan Kumar is not his real name. Hetq changed it to protect his identity. A friend living abroad introduced him to the idea of moving․ “He said I’d earn a lot of money there, about 1000 dollars per month. He said it's a European country,” Kumar recalls. 

His friend organized the trip through an Indian agent in Armenia. Kumar says he paid 650,000 Armenian drams, (US$1,610) for an e-visa, the flight and securing a Yandex delivery driver job. There was no agreement other than a Whatsapp chat, but Kumar decided to make the move.

His new home was the Cherry Hotel on Leningradyan Street, a busy road some thirty minutes from downtown Yerevan. It’s a two-story building with a small parking lot out front where scooters are lined up. Stepping inside, one sees Indian men with tired faces sitting on the couch next to the entrance. The receptionist says the hotel is fully booked and the restaurant closed. The rooms for Indian workers are downstairs, Kumar tells us. He slept there for the next six months. 

Kumar soon started working for Yandex delivery. Job conditions differed from his expectations. 

“They said to me for one order we will receive 1,900 drams at peak times and 1,400 drams at other times of the day. But when I came here, I realized that it is all a scam. That they are giving us 1,300 and 900 drams only.” Text messages Kumar shows us from before and after he arrived in Armenia indicate his salary. But Kumar says he worked hard, from morning until midnight. In the end, his first salary was close to what he had expected: 384,000 drams ($950) 

However, Kumar claims he could only save a small part of the money he earned. He had to pay 100,000 drams monthly for food and a bed in a room shared with ten people. He paid another 150,000 for a scooter rental. Allegedly, he wasn’t informed about these costs before he left for Armenia. “After I paid all that, I had only 50,000 drams to send to my home.”

Indians are the second largest group of migrants in Armenia after Russian citizens. According to Armenia’s Minister of Economy, 20,000 to 30,000 Indians currently live in the country. 2,600 of them are students. Indians have been coming to Armenia to get higher education since Soviet times. 

In 2017, the Armenian government decided to change the law to make it easier for Indian citizens to get an entry visa. Since then, the number of Indians living and working in Armenia has increased. Last year, 3,200 Indians were granted a work visa, compared to 530 the year before and 55 in 2021. The head of Armenia’s Migration and Citizenship Service recently announced that more Indians are now working than studying in Armenia.

During our investigation, we repeatedly heard similar stories. Workers tell us they were promised a high salary, which convinced them to pay large sums to agents to move to Armenia. Some said they spent even more money than Kumar - 1 million drams or even 1.5 million. Some claim they weren't provided with any work or didn't receive the salary they were promised. They also had to pay tremendous sums for bunk beds in crowded rooms. 

Most workers we spoke to originate from the same region in India: Kerala. People from Kerala started migrating in large numbers in the 1970s, says S. Irudaya Rajan, Chair of the International Institute of Migration and Development in Kerala. “The main factors then were poverty and unemployment,” he says. Today, they are mostly “aspirational migrants” from the middle class who strive for a higher standard of living elsewhere. Armenia is not their number one destination, but rather Gulf states like Qatar or Saudi Arabia. 

Rajan says job placement agencies abound in Kerala. Their advertisements are everywhere, on planes, in buses and train stations. “Migration is hope. The recruitment agencies are selling people dreams.” According to Rajan, fraud is a problem in this industry. “Definitely, I know hundreds of cases where people were being cheated.” He tells us that in many host countries, migrants are abused and endure bad living conditions. “It's a new form of slavery. Often, after migration, their life is much worse than before.”

Kumar‘s agent once was such an “aspiration migrant”. Raihan Sainelabudeen grew up in Kerala too, where his father owns a jewelry store. Sainelabudeen came to Armenia to study medicine. In 2021, he registered his first company, Edutop International. His business partner was another Indian migrant, Abin S., who also worked as an agent. He’s now awaiting trial in an Armenian jail. He’s accused of murder – a dead body was found next to a gas station, less than fifteen minutes away from Cherry Hotel. His defense attorney confirms that the murder victim was an Indian worker. “The defendant does not accept the accusation.” The investigation is ongoing.

Sainelabudeen has rented Cherry Hotel since December 2021. The registered owners are Armen Ghalachyan and Armen Gyurjyan. However, we later learnt from the agents that the real owner is a former Armenian politician, Vahan Karapetyan, famously known as ‘Cherry Vahan’. He was a Prosperous Armenia party MP.

Sainelabudeen’s current business partner is Anna Petakchyan, who operated a similar set-up in Russia. Find Your Progress LLC is registered under Petakchyan’s name at the Cherry Hotel address as a travel operator. They operate an additional office in Kollam, Kerala. The company’s ads claim they provide “amazing salary and benefits” and a highly attractive “compensation package” that “ensures that employees are rewarded for their hard work and dedication”.

Kumar’s experience was different. It was snowing at the time in Yerevan, he tells us, and he had an accident riding his scooter. This made him decide to change jobs. That's when his situation got worse, Kumar recalls. For several months he was jobless. He couldn't afford the rent in Cherry, so he had to go into debt with his agents. He later got several jobs, but they were short-term. He had to pay his agents a commission for these jobs, and they withheld his wages. “They didn't give me that money until now. They tell me I must pay them money for rent and food.” He wanted to leave Cherry, but being in a foreign country, it was hard for him to navigate his new surroundings. “I didn't know where to go. That is why all of us are staying there like this.” 

Some of his companions eventually found work on their own and Kumar wanted to join them. But he says there was another problem. He claims his agents had taken his passport and that he had to lie to them to get it back. “I said I want to go to India, I want to get a ticket, give me the passport.” He‘s convinced if he had told them the truth, they would have kept it. “I just escaped from there. I didn't tell anything to anyone.”

Several men who stayed at Cherry told us their passports were taken. We also received a police report in which several Indians accuse Sainelabudeen and Petakchyan of taking their passports, one man claims he was beaten. One worker told us he complained to the Indian embassy in Yerevan. We contacted the embassy. In December 2023, we met with Consul Aditya Pandey for a background story talk. However, the embassy didn't answer our request for an official statement until publication.

We were told several times that Sainelabudeen allegedly uses violence and were forwarded a group chat in which an Indian man shared a picture of his bruises. According to his police statement, Sainelabudeen ordered several men to hit him. They threw him on the floor, kicked him in the stomach, and punched him in the head. Then, they used a razor to shave his head and beard. We asked Petakchyan about the cases. She denied the accusations. The investigations are ongoing.

Lawyer Ara Ghazaryan has dealt with migration cases for many years. Withholding passports is one of the initial indicators of trafficking, he says. “By holding the passport, they control the movement and the life of the migrant.” Generally, only government agencies are allowed to hold on to a person’s passport. „The passport is a property.”

According to Article 188 of the Armenian Law on “Human Trafficking or Exploitation”, trafficking is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, hiding or receiving of people for the purpose of exploitation. A person is placed or kept in this exploitative position by using or threatening to use violence or other forms of coercion.

The crucial point is the motivation behind the recruitment of the workers, Ghazaryan says: “If the purpose is not to give a normal and safe employment environment, but to exploit, then it's already a crime”. Employing a migrant who doesn't have immigration status, or a work permit, is a crime, he says. The same goes for violating labor rights that are the same for all. Migrant workers, Ghazaryan notes, shouldn't be paid in cash. They should have a valid employment contract and place of work, normal working hours, annual leave, sick leave, weekends off. And of course, no ill treatment or threats. “Are there indicators of fraud, trafficking, or exploitation concerning these cases? I would say, yes.” 

The Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs tells Hetq they dealt with fourteen cases of Indian labor migrants as possible trafficking victims in 2023. To date, none of them have been acknowledged as trafficking, but there were violations of labor relations and fraud. In some cases, passports were taken by employers, but not by force, states the ministry. They were given to the employer for processing work permit papers. 

Obtaining a permit to stay and work in Armenia legally can take some time. To enter Armenia, Indian citizens must obtain an entry visa online. It can be issued for a maximum period of 120 days with the possibility of an extension for another sixty. If an Indian citizen has entered Armenia to study, one applies to obtain residency status. If one wants to work, they must ask the employer to submit an electronic application during the legal time limit, to obtain work permit and residency status at the same time. The yearly fee is 105,000 drams. A one-month deadline is set for the processing of applications, but we’ve been told it currently takes up to four months.

However, Ghazaryan says providing the original passport document isn’t needed during this process. A simple copy is sufficient.

Half-way into our investigation, we received a message from Anna Petakchyan. We planned to contact her before publishing our findings, but apparently one of the workers had already informed her about our investigation. “My lawyer is filing a complaint against you”, she writes, “Wait and see.”

We spoke to Petakchyan the next day for over an hour. She agreed to meet us at Cherry for an interview.

Petakchyan and Sainelabudeen showed us around the hotel. All workers pay them $1,500 in advance, they tell us, which covers plane ticket, job placement and the first month of food and lodging. Apparently, some of the conditions have changed since Kumar arrived. Petakchyan confirmed that at the time, food and rent were not free, adding that workers were informed about this before their arrival. In addition, all workers sign contracts now, Petakchyan said. She shows us a binder full of documents, each page tucked into a transparent cover. The contract we read, however, lacks the amount of wages and the agent’s signature.

Petakchyan says the companies they work with don't want to register Indian citizens. That's why they hire the workers through their own firm which then provides services to others. According to Petakchyan, that is the reason why salaries are not transferred directly to the workers. “We pay them exactly the salary they are receiving”, she insists, “A lot of agents take ten, fifteen percent of their salaries.”

As we descend the staircase to the basement, we feel the atmosphere changing. The air is stifling, moist. We reach a long corridor with rooms on either side. Petakchyan says forty workers live there. “I don't say it's perfect, but it's the minimal that Indian people need.” 

Suddenly three workers join our conversation. They say they didn't receive their full wages. Petakchyan replies she wasn't able to come to Cherry due to personal issues. Sainelabudeen adds: “There are a hundred people here. Everybody who is working is getting the salary.” Petakchyan calls another worker to give an interview. “People come here not having a job, a place to live, food to eat. Here, come, tell us about your experience.”

The worker says he initially paid more than 700,000 drams, but that after arriving in Armenia his agent left him. 

“For one and a half months I didn't have work. Nothing. Everyday eating lavash, drinking some water.” He says the rent was 45,000 drams, so he was desperate to find a job. “But for every job we have to pay a commission. If we pay the money to them, they will give us work for one month. After two, three weeks they kick us out and say you are not doing well. And again, they put another one. It’s like a cycle.” The worker tells us he eventually saw an open position for a receptionist at Cherry hotel. He applied and got the job.

The three workers who complained about their salary tell us they paid 1.4 million drams each to come to Armenia. A part of that money went to another agent in India who was involved in their recruitment process apart from Petakchyan and Sainelabudeen. Petakchyan says her business has a “very complicated structure”. To recruit one worker, sometimes three or four agents are involved, and each one earns a commission. Petakchyan insists that Find Your Progress LLC received only half of the money those workers paid.

More men join in as an argument unfolds between workers and agents. Several men claim Sainelabudeen and Petakchyan are holding on to their passports. Sainelabudeen disputes this. “You have some proof?”, he asks. Petakchyan confirms they take workers‘ passports to file residency applications. “After, we return the passport,” she says, adding that she didn't process any documents for the workers we are speaking to. “We didn't take their passports.”

We can’t say who’s telling the truth. In any case, it is clear some of the workers are without passports. A few minutes after leaving Cherry Hotel, we receive a message from Petakchyan: “Right now, I'm kicking out those boys.”

For Petakchyan and Sainelabudeen, Find Your Progress LLC seems to be a successful venture for now. Some months ago, they opened a second hostel in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district. Petakchyan claims they are working with some of the biggest companies in Armenia - hotels, restaurants, gas stations. Then there’s Yandex, where Kumar worked. 

We wanted to know what Yandex had to say about the working conditions of Indians like Kumar. We asked whether they check the workers’ legal status. Yandex’s press service responded:

“Delivery services are provided by service partners who are obliged to comply with all requirements of the legislation of the Republic of Armenia when providing services. The couriers are not employees of Yandex, the company has no commercial or working relationship with them.” 

Migration has created a shadow labor market in Armenia, migration expert S. Irudaya Rajan tells us. “Employers want this kind of cheap labor,” he says, adding joint political effort is needed to improve the situation of migrant workers. “We have to look at the migration policies in India and in Armenia. You have to protect them even though they are holding Indian passports.”

When we talked to Kumar one month after our first meeting, he was unemployed. The manager of the factory where he worked told us Kumar had to leave because health problems impacted his performance. Kumar said he had to ask his family in India for money. He hopes he can soon start working as a Yandex taxi driver.

Kumar would like to go back to India, but it's not an option for him now. He needs money for the plane ticket. But most importantly, he had to borrow a large sum to come to Armenia in the first place and must pay it back.

“After all that, I go to India”, says Kumar. But for now, he is stuck in Armenia.

Luise Glum is a German journalist cooperating with Hetq.

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