At least 260 migrant Tamil workers are being held against their will and forced to work for the Kurdish military, the Tamil Guardian has learnt.
Up to 40 of the men refused to carry out the work, which included unloading of arms and the building of bunkers and fortifications, and demanded to be allowed to leave the country, but were then detained and severely beaten by Kurdish security forces, with several suffering injuries. Only ten of the men were subsequently sent back to the island.
The Tamil men, the vast majority of who hail from the Northeast of the island of Sri Lanka, are all employed as contractors for MXCare, which operates in the airport of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, but have been forced to work for the Kurdish authorities for the past two months.
The brother of one of the men who was returned said to the Tamil Guardian that he was beaten with the butt of a rifle, requiring him to be admitted to hospital.
“They initially carried out the work as demanded of them, because they were too scared to resist the Kurdish authorities. But when the [Islamic State] militants drew closer to Erbil, our men started resisting,” S Selvakumar told Tamil Guardian from Pallaisuddy, Jaffna.
Mr Selvakumar said that over 280 men, all working for the same company providing cleaning services in Erbil’s airport, were still in Kurdistan, including 2 of his cousins.
“Around 30 of our men are still held in detention after they refused to do the work. None of them signed up to working in a battle zone. All they want to do now is return home.”
Several of the men are from the poverty-stricken village of Pallaisuddy on the Jaffna peninsula. Relatives of the men brought their plight to the attention of Northern Provincial Councillor Ananthy Sasitharan, who visited the village on Thursday.
“The human rights of these men are being violated by the Kurdistan Regional Government. They have demanded that they be allowed to return but they are being held against their will. We demand that they are all repatriated back to their home towns, as per their requests,” Ms Sasitharan told the Tamil Guardian.
|NPC Councillor Ananthy Sasitharan in Pallaisuddy on Thursday, meeting relatives of the Tamil men in Erbil|
“These men went abroad to earn a livelihood for their families because of the oppression and the related lack of employment opportunities for Tamils in the Northeast of the island. Many of them witnessed armed conflict at first hand and are still traumatised from the war. They are desperate to be allowed to leave Kurdistan,” she said.
Over the last few months Islamic State militants have gained swathes of territory across northern Iraq, displacing hundreds of thousands, with Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces being pushed back from towns they captured after the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. Recent air strikes by the US on IS positions have provided much needed relief to the embattled Peshmerga, who are now going on the offensive.