Muscat // About 50 South Asians watched television at a cafe run by a 54-year-old Indian national, Rajan Shekhar, in the capital city of Muscat. They meet every evening at the cafe updating each other about part-time job opportunities that are quickly drying up in Oman. Mr Shekhar said most are out of work, without permanent shelter and dependent on the help of friends to survive.
"This is not the only homeless group living by a crust of bread and water," he said. "They are everywhere in the country. Some absconded after their visas expired and some have entered the country illegally." They live in abandoned houses, construction sites, rooftops of commercial buildings, car parks of shopping malls and even behind rubbish bins. Rasheed Osman, a 39-year Pakistani labourer, said he has been absconding for six years.
"My sponsor wanted to send me home when he was cutting down on his construction business and I just disappeared from sight. "There are many like us leaving towns like Nizwa, Ibri and Sur to come to Muscat or bigger towns looking for temporary jobs," he said. According to government statistics, foreign workers make up 25 per cent of Oman's 3.2 million people, the majority of them from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Officials from those countries' embassies said the problem has been compounded by the global financial crunch with Omani employers terminating foreign workers' contracts. Manpower ministry officials acknowledged the problem but said they were more concerned about illegal immigrants with no working permits entering the country. "Absconding employees are one problem that can be contained since we have their records and documents, but illegal workers are a headache because we don't exactly know how many there are in the country," Soud Saif, a labour inspector at the manpower ministry, said.
Both the Royal Oman Police and the manpower ministry refused to give estimates of the number of absconders and illegal workers in Oman, but industry experts said there are as many as 200,000 in the country. "It is a very challenging task to go out there and arrest them. Both the manpower ministry and ROP simply don't have the resources to check every labour camp or parking lot in the country," Mohammed al Rabeea, a manpower consultant based in Muscat, said.
"Oman is a big country with many little towns and villages scattered all over. "If this problem is unchecked, then it would create a demographic problem to disturb the cultural balance in Oman," Mr al Rabeea added. firstname.lastname@example.org