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Kuwait: Asian And Egyptian Workers Feel 'Trapped Between Two Fires'

Asian and Egyptian workers in Kuwait say they are becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of an Iraqi chemical attack against Kuwait if war breaks out between Iraq and a coalition headed by the U.S. But for many of them the possibility they will lose their jobs if they leave the country now is an even greater concern.

Kuwait City, 25 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A heightened security alert that went into effect in Kuwait yesterday has raised fears about the possibility of an Iraqi chemical attack among foreign workers who are either unwilling or unable to leave the country.

Foreign workers from Egypt and Asia comprise more than half of Kuwait's 2.3 million legal residents. According to official statistics, more than 800,000 Asians live in Kuwait either as short-term guest workers or as long-time residents. Most come from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Indonesia. An estimated 600,000 Egyptians also live in Kuwait.

The foreign workers feel caught between two bad choices. On the one hand, they fear Iraq may use chemical weapons against Kuwait if U.S. and British forces launch an attack from there against Iraq.

On the other hand, foreign workers say they are almost certain to lose their jobs if they leave the country to avoid the risks of war.

Many foreign workers have decided to stay in Kuwait and face whatever the future may bring. Among them is Abdul al-Ghafoor, an employee at a residential building in central Kuwait who is originally from southern India.

"I am a doorman in this building. I've been working for my [Kuwaiti] sponsor for seven years. I will not leave [now because] I'm not sure he will send me a visa [to return once the war is over]."

Al-Ghafoor was in Kuwait in August 1990 when Iraqi forces invaded the country. He managed to leave Kuwait before a U.S.-led international coalition defeated the Iraqis in early 1991. But he said his leaving the country caused him many problems that he does not want to experience again. "I went to the Indian embassy [in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion.] I have a lot of friends there. I borrowed some money, about [$90], and traveled to Amman. From Amman, I flew to Bombay in India. [By the time I arrived back in India,] I didn't even have [a dollar], nor did my wife. My wife came after me to India."

Al-Ghafoor explained that he had to wait several years in India before he could arrange a new employment contract and return to Kuwait.

Sayed Muhammad Abdul Baset, an Egyptian who manages a cafe in Kuwait City, says he does not fear dying in an Iraqi attack. As a Muslim, he says that he cannot escape whatever fate Allah has in store for him. But he admits that he is afraid of losing his job if he leaves.

"I'm staying because my work is here. I'm not traveling even if the war starts." Baset said he thinks most Kuwaiti employers treat their foreign workers well. But he said it is easier for employers to hire new workers who already are in Kuwait rather than going through the complicated task of obtaining a visa and sponsoring somebody who is abroad.

"It depends on the Kuwaiti [who is your sponsor]. He may say 'I don't need you anymore' [if you leave] and then simply hire somebody else [that is already in Kuwait]."

The foreign workers also feel that not enough is being done to ensure their safety in case of a biological or chemical attack. Some Asian embassies are providing gas masks to their citizens who live in Kuwait, but others say it is up to the Kuwaiti government to provide such protection. There are reports that the Kuwaiti government has ordered hundreds of thousands of gas masks, but Kuwait's Department of Civil Defense has not announced any definitive plan on how to protect all of the country's residents from a chemical or biological attack.

For its part, Baghdad continues to insist that it does not have chemical or biological weapons. Officially, Kuwaiti authorities have linked their heightened security alert to national holidays today and tomorrow that mark the liberation of Kuwait from occupying Iraqi troops by a U.S.-led international coalition 12 years ago.

The attempts of Kuwaiti officials to downplay the significance of the security alert has done little to ease the concerns of the Asian and Egyptian workers in the country. More than ever, they say they feel their situation is like being "trapped between two fires."