Banned Painkillers Land Indian Workers in Trouble in UAE

The possession of Tramadol, a banned medicine in UAE, is landing workers behind bars.


Indian migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates are finding themselves in trouble with the authorities for using the banned painkiller Tramadol to combat their aches and pains caused by their physically demanding jobs. Tramadol, a medicine easily available in India for less than Rs 8, is banned in the UAE.

While the World Health Organization calls it a “relatively safe analgesic,” the UAE banned it in 2010 along with 400 other drugs, citing their addictive nature. A 39-year-old Indian laborer received a 24-year jail sentence last year for possessing Tramadol. “He worked as a coolie and often asked me to send the medicine,” his wife Lakshmi Motam told Reuters. “This was the third time I sent the tablets to him. They were for his personal use.”

She added: “Before, he would call every day, and wire money home every few months. I wire him money now so he can call us. He calls once in two months. He was crying on the phone the last time we spoke.”

Many Indian migrant laborers put in long hours of work under difficult circumstances and resort to taking painkillers to keep going and to ensure that they don’t skip work. Many a times, they are lured by illegal agents who promise them jobs and better wages in Dubai. Many are found carrying the banned medicines in their luggage, ignorant of the fact that they are committing a crime. “Most of these people (caught in drug cases) are poor and illiterate. They are unskilled and come to UAE with big dreams,” Anuradha Vobbiliselty, an advocate in Dubai who deals with cases of Indians jailed for carrying the drug, told the news agency. “Tramadol is the most common banned drug found on Indians who have sought legal help from me,” she added.

Vobbiliselty has dealt with six cases of Indians being arrested for selling, using or possessing tramadol tablets. All of these cases carry a sentence of 7 years to 24 years.

Tramadol is reportedly widely used for recreational purposes. A huge market for illegal drugs exists in the country, and agents try to capitalize on it. Laborers are often used by agents to sneak packets of Tramadol into the country.

“Agents are running the racket and targeting laborers,” Krishna Donekeni, the founder of Gulf Workers Awareness Centre, told Reuters on the phone from Dubai.

Consular officers meet the laborers arrested in drug cases and suggest names of empanelled lawyers to fight their cases in the labor court. Officials say it is often difficult to help those stuck in these cases as UAE has strict laws on alcohol and drug use.

Migrant workers who go through government-authorized employment agents are given pre-departure training during which they are advised against carrying the banned medicines, according to MC Luther, India’s protector general of emigrants, the report added. However, a large number of workers who go through illegal agents enter the country unaware about the substances they cannot carry or use.

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