Deepak Unnikrishnan recently wrote the book, Temporary People, exploring the lives of people who left their homes in the southern Indian state of Kerala in the 1970s to work abroad. Today there are around 8.5 million Indians who live and work in the Gulf states.
Branko Milanović, the Serbian-American economist known for his work on income distribution and inequality, believes the Gulf model of immigration is the model for the future. Countries in the west could implement a similar system, attracting much-needed labour without giving immigrants the possibility of full inclusion. He considers the Gulf model to be a more honest transaction between host country and worker, offering both economic opportunities.
Let’s not forget the emotional toll that both long- and short-term employment have on people who must accept the contract of transience. Many who work in the Gulf live with their families and are more fortunate than most migrants in the Gulf who must leave their families behind at home.
Deepak spent most of his upbringing in Abu Dhabi where his father was employed. But the year he turned 20, an adult in the eyes of the UAE, the government cancelled his residence visa. Under the terms of his father’s visa, he wasn’t permitted to sponsor an adult male. Deepak borrowed money and left Abu Dhabi for the United States, where he studied and worked until his mid-30s. As a result, on paper, he is an Indian citizen and a holder of a US green card, with temporary ties to the UAE.
Abu Dhabi is home to far more temporary migrants than citizens. Indians form the largest single demographic group in the country, and a considerable portion of those Indians, mostly men, come from Kerala. There is no question that the residents and the state of Kerala have all benefited from this economic arrangement. But the economy of remittances is built on absence and separation.
Missed reunions back in Kerala are a part of life when it comes to living in the Gulf. Many miss the birth of a newborn child, the funerals of close relatives, family gatherings to celebrate anniversaries and celebrations such as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Many families from Kerala who live in the Gulf return home with their children at great expense once a year or once every two years. So many must bear the cost of family medical insurance, school fees, as well as additional expenses to sponsor their residence visas.
When Deepak’s parents grew old it was time for them to return to Kerala with their health largely intact. In the roasting hot Abu Dhabi summer of 2018, his mother began to sort and discard her things. His parents got rid of old furniture, chucked what couldn’t be used, then shipped to Kerala the dining table and chairs, as well as other boxes of knick-knacks, old crockery, and other items known only to his mother. At the airport they purchased batteries, a large tin of Nido milk powder, Tang, Lipton tea bags, nuts and toiletries, all items that would be appreciated by relatives back in India.
According to economists, Keralites remit $12.6 billion to their home state every year with many houses in Kerala built with Gulf money standing empty. There are old people waiting for their children to return and many children turned into adults without their fathers or mothers. There is no count of how many men take up second families or how many wives keep lovers.
Deepak strongly believes we need new words to define what people like his parents have become, how they produced children like him, boys with little allegiance to nation, state, or even their relatives.