Lifelines of Gulf Migration

by Aamir Ali

A portrait of migrants journeying from Palamu to the Gulf via Bombay, as they form networks and institutions to tackle precarious work conditions and search for a better life, with resilience and care.

Bataua, Palamu, Jharkhand. 2024.

Courtesy of Author

In Palamu, a district in Jharkhand (India), hope has long been overshadowed by poverty, feudal conflicts, the Maoist movement and counter-insurgency measures. Growing up in a village in Palamu during the peak of Maoist activities and having survived several armed fire exchanges and encounters, I have always felt that life and misery coexist here. An obscure rural landscape defined by agricultural livelihoods inherited across generations, Palamu has witnessed a steady exodus of its people in the wake of these scenarios, making migration, not merely an option but a way of life. However, since 200304, the Persian Gulf has gradually emerged as a beacon of hope for many migrants, inducing socio-economic mobility and paving a path towards new beginnings.

A Modest Shelter in a Chaotic Metropolis


Anchoring dreams of young dropouts from villages in Palamu, in the heart of Mumbai, lies Palamu Lodge, unassuming in its appearance but influential in the lives of those drawn towards lucrative job markets for semi-skilled labour in countries bordering the Persian Gulf. It was established by a group of first-generation migrants coming from the hinterland of Palamu who had faced the challenges of finding affordable accommodations during their Gulf sojourns. In Mumbai, where finding a place to even rest one’s head can be daunting, the lodge serves as a lifeline with its clear goal—to create a support system for fellow migrants embarking on journeys that warrant an escape from poverty. 


Naseem Khan, an ex-in-charge and a migrant who has returned from Saudi Arabia, mentions that the lodge, located in a chawl in Gavanpada in Trombay (Mumbai’s eastern suburb), has been catering to the basic needs of those who cannot afford expensive housing since approximately 199697. It functions on a rental basis and is built on the pillars of trust and solidarity, operating as a largely self-regulated community. Its layout, caretakers, and residents keep changing, but the fundamental principles of support, empathy, and trust remain unwavering. Each member chips in for daily costs, ensuring that all needs are met without external financial support. When migrants receive their first salaries from their Gulf employers, they are expected to contribute a certain amount to the lodge. This has helped it function during difficult times like the COVID-19 pandemic—a practice that ensures sustainability and binds its members in a shared commitment to help future migrants.


The lodge maintains an impeccably detailed register that chronicles migrant journeys since 1999. It records the dates of migrants’ arrival and departure, destinations and other essential information like their native addresses and the companies they worked for, in the Gulf. It serves as a testament to the lodge’s legacy and is a tool for migrants to keep track of their journeys. There is also a committee of people who originally established the Palamu Lodge that provides guidance and advice but has no involvement with who stays there and how they live, because even they work in the Gulf. Those who have been staying here for a while, are responsible for maintaining the register and whenever they are about to leave, they pass it on to the ones arriving after them—a mutual arrangement that has endured for twenty-five years.


Palamu Lodge harbours a crucial network that empowers individuals and fosters a sense of security and belonging. While studies concerning international migration typically focus on the economic impact of remittances, places like these offer transformative support, knowledge and camaraderie. Previously, financial support was extended through a fund but later discontinued due to internal mismanagement. The significance of Palamu Lodge also lies in its function as a knowledge hub. Khan recalls how, for a long time, newspapers have been arriving at the lodge, packed with information about new job opportunities. These papers, like the Assignment Abroad Times, Overseas Assignment, N.R.I. Times, and Gulf News have been subscribed to by the lodge (some still in circulation) and are a window to the outside world. They help individuals learn about unsafe companies and face other potential challenges in unfamiliar territories.


The relevance of this shared knowledge reinforces the lodge’s role as an informal conduit in the migrants’ journeys. It urges researchers and policymakers to look beyond economic facets and understand how migrants from economically disadvantaged regions survive. This knowledge can help develop more robust support systems for migrant labourers, ensuring that their journeys are smooth and secure.

Young migrant workers playing cricket near their workplace in Bahrain, 2022.

Courtesy of Afroz Khan, Bataua, Palamu.

Going Beyond the Geopolitical


As a son of a Gulf migrant, my childhood was shrouded in confusing stereotypes. In those days, people assumed that migrants’ children were incapable of handling newfound wealth and likely led astray without their ‘male guardians’. Feudal mindsets propagated the fear that the money received by migrants’ wives would disrupt familial life. However, these misconceptions, veiled the truth, especially for upper-caste landholding families who used to control all aspects of the socio-economic mobilities of lower-caste and landless families. Eventually, among the poor families, Gulf migration became a vehicle to escape the perils of poverty, marginal farming and landlessness. In a society where the upper-caste elite controlled maximum resources, Gulf migration ushered in financial autonomy for those who had long yearned for it.


For first-generation migrants like my father, it was an emotional odyssey fraught with sacrifices beyond physical movement. His journey began with a leap of faith when, as a school dropout, he left the village in 1975 at the age of fourteen to support his family. After toiling for nine years in plants and factories across India, he learned about opportunities in Iraqi factories. While working in a mining company in Goa in 1983 as a semi-skilled fitter, he once landed an interview in Panjim. Being unaware of the prevailing exchange rate, he was offered a salary of 110 Iraqi Dinars, to which he enquired if the company could send ₹2000 to his father back home, every month. The company agreed to send ₹1500 to his father’s account, and directly paid him the rest of the salary in Iraq. However, in 1983, the unfolding war between Iraq and Iran, curtailed his stay and he returned to India within six months.


He spent the next eleven years persevering through several temporary jobs and while working in Guna, Madhya Pradesh, met with an accident that left him bedridden for two-and-a-half years. He recollects, “Life was difficult as the income stopped and pushed the family into more poverty with the responsibility of supporting a wife and two children. Fortunately, I recovered and recommenced working in India for the next seven years.” 


While working in Surat, Gujarat, he would travel overnight to Mumbai for interviews and subsequent medical check-ups, sleeping and freshening up on railway platforms. Juggling a daytime job and such trips, he navigated the megacity, bound by his promise of uplifting his family from poverty. However, the main struggle began after selection by a factory in Saudi Arabia, when he was asked to deposit ₹15,000, a heavy amount for a labourer earning ₹5000 per month in India. To make matters worse, passport agents often demanded exorbitant fees and local police stations solicited bribes for verification. Failure to pay often resulted in negative reports, complicating applications. Their offer of 1380 Saudi Riyals per month marked the beginning of his life in Saudi Arabia in 1995 for the next 23 years. 


In those years, we communicated through letters and airmail, and would always exchange happy stories despite the hardships. He recollects, “Life in a labour camp, with people from many countries, provided little opportunity to interact with the Saudis”. In these rare moments, he grew fascinated with English and would always push us to learn it. “If you know English, you will not be a labourer like me and earn good money in Saudi Arabia.”, he advised. Also, he would jokingly describe his conversation with his local supervisor wherein he would say, “Shafi, you bolo, me follow.”, meaning “Shafi, you tell me and I will follow.

An Eid card sent by my father expressing his longing for the family in Palamu, 2002. 

New Waves of Change


Migration, though laden with complexity and sacrifice, is an aspirational step for those seeking better socio-economic conditions. Against this backdrop, in 2018, seven volunteers from Palamu, fuelled by their fellow villagers’ experiences, formed an unregistered entity known as the B.T. Foundation (Bataua Foundation) to address the financial hardships faced by first-generation migrants before they depart for the Gulf. Its inception embodies the power of collective action and empathy, particularly for those in Palamu who are compelled to borrow from exploitative money lenders to pay on average, Rs. 60,000-70,000 to brokers. 


The foundation, now managed by a team of 15 members, aims to provide interest-free loans by contributing a modest sum each month and has supported over fifteen migrants till now. Although its objectives are not yet precisely articulated, it believes that financial demands should not hamper migrants’ dreams. As a co-founder and one of its only two non-migrant members, seeing friends and families struggling to arrange money for brokers has been instrumental for me in nurturing a profound relationship with it.


For a region densely marked with droughts, poverty, and political strife, Gulf migration demands intense emotional and physical relocation with several monumental hurdles accompanying it, as many migrants spend years being exploited in the hope of brighter futures. Both, the B.T. Foundation and Palamu Lodge, thus underscore the uncertainty, resourcefulness, resilience, and solidarity that shape migrant lives across borders, yet go unnoticed amidst grander narratives.


Also Read: Gulf Calling

About the author

Based in New Delhi, Aamir Ali has worked in the development sector for more than 8 years. He graduated from TISS, Tuljapur, with a major in Rural Development, and earned a master’s degree in Development Studies from TISS, Mumbai. Aamir is the recipient of both the German Government’s DAAD and the UK Chevening scholarships, and completed his M.Sc. in Public Policy at University College London. He has worked with organisations such as NITI Aayog, Piramal Group, Tata Trusts, and IDinsight, across various states in India. His personal and professional journeys reflect his strong commitment to the development sector.


He is on Instagram: @aine_aliamir