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The death of Indian actress Sridevi in Dubai has highlighted a rarely-discussed issue affecting the families of deceased migrant workers in Gulf countries - long delays in repatriating their bodies.
The 54-year-old, who was widely regarded as India’s first female superstar, died by accidental drowning in her hotel bathtub on Feb. 24.
Sridevi’s body was flown from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to India on Feb. 27, and her funeral was held the following day.
In contrast, it has been nearly a month since migrant worker Bhojanna Arepally died of an unspecified illness in Muscat, the capital of Oman, according to migrant rights campaigner Bhim Reddy.
Arepally’s body is expected to be flown to the southern Indian city of Hyderabad on March 1, said Reddy, who has been coordinating with authorities on repatriation.
He said that it often takes months to return the bodies of deceased migrant workers.
The wait for Sridevi’s body to be returned triggered extensive media coverage, even as Indian embassy officials in UAE said procedures were being followed.
The case has sparked a wider conversation about migrant workers, which Reddy said he hopes will result in shorter wait times for the families of those who die overseas.
“Thousands of them die in the Gulf region every year, but this is the first time the wait for bodies is being discussed,” he said.
“In her death, Sridevi has done a good thing for migrant workers,” Reddy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Government figures show there are about six million Indian migrants in the Gulf states, and nearly 8,000 citizens died overseas last year, mostly in Saudi Arabia, followed by the UAE.
Indian officials cite illness and working in high temperatures as the most common causes of death. Complaints of abuse are frequent and, in order to save money, many migrant workers do not seek medical attention when they are ill.
The UAE embassy in New Delhi said the procedure for repatriating bodies includes securing a medical notification stating the cause of death.
The deceased person’s passport must also be submitted to authorities, along with official identification of the relative or sponsor - the employer, in the case of migrant workers - who is responsible for repatriation, said the embassy.
“In many cases, the body lies in the morgue for days as the employer doesn’t come to claim it,” said Anuradha Vobbiliselty, an advocate who works with migrant workers in Dubai.