Human rights inquiry set for warehoused Asians in Iraq

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military and defense contractor KBR are investigating possible human-rights abuses at a compound near the Baghdad airport where a Kuwaiti company housed about 1,000 Asian men it recruited for jobs in Iraq that didn't materialize.

About 400 of the men continue to wait for flights back to their home countries more than a week after officials from Najlaa International Catering Services said they were planning to repatriate the men. The others were sent home, a Sri Lankan who's still living on the grounds said Friday.

"We're tired of their drama. We just want to leave," said Manoj Kodithuwakku, 28.

McClatchy and the Times of London first reported on the men in the compound Dec. 2, when they started to protest their living conditions in the three windowless warehouses where they'd spent the past two to three months.

Kodithuwakku said the men had received better accommodations since then, such as new jackets, but that they were eager to get home.

"They are trying to only change the outer look, putting plaster on the wound instead of healing it," he said.

The men — from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka — reported paying middlemen $2,000 or more to get to Iraq, meaning that they'll probably go home in debt. Their jobs with Najlaa would have paid them about $600 to $800 a month.

The International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq this week each disclosed reviews of the compound and a separate outdoor camp where South Asian workers had been living near the airport.

The men in the outdoor camp weren't promised jobs with Najlaa, though they also came to Iraq with the help of middlemen whom they paid thousands of dollars.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations' top envoy in Iraq, focused on the warehouses Thursday. He urged a quick return for the men living there "so that the suffering of these people, whose hopes have been shattered and who have had to endure severe hardship and disappointment, is rapidly brought to an end."

The migration group reported that men in the warehouses had had their passports taken from them, a violation of guidelines for the treatment of foreign workers in Iraq that the U.S. military drafted in 2006. Men in the warehouses told McClatchy a week ago that they had their passports but that Najlaa wanted to take them to prepare visas for their flights home.

The migration organization is preparing to send home a group of Nepalese men who are living in makeshift tents in a dirt lot.

"Winter is fast approaching, and they cannot be left to stay out in the open like this without proper facilities," said the organization's chief of mission for Iraq, Rafiq Tschannen.

Najlaa officials have maintained that they took care of the men's basic needs while the company sought to match them with jobs. It moved to send them home after the reports from McClatchy and the Times of London.

KBR, a Texas contractor, is involved because it's managed Najlaa's work in Iraq.

The press office for the U.S. military in Iraq said that KBR, the Army Criminal Investigations Command and the Multi-National Forces-Iraq were investigating whether "human rights or other legal violations" had occurred at the warehouses.

"Coalition forces take any allegations of possible human-rights violations very seriously and condemn the use of substandard camps by any U.S. contractor or subcontractor," the office said in a statement. "We expect KBR, Najlaa International Catering Services and all U.S. contractors, as well as their subcontractors, to abide by established laws and standards of conduct and to investigate and rectify any violations."

(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee.)


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