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Russia jobs scam traps Indians on Ukraine war frontlines

WHEN Raja Begum heard an Indian had died in Ukraine, she collapsed to the ground, convinced it was her missing son – one of dozens of young men lured to Russia on the promise of jobs, then sent to fight in the Ukraine war.

“I can’t stop thinking about the last message my son sent,” said Begum, 60, who has not heard from the 31-year-old tech graduate since January – just weeks after he left the family’s village in Indian-administered Kashmir to head to Moscow.

Indian federal investigators say a major human trafficking network duped at least 35 men, who expected to work as “helpers” in the Russian army, and the case has increased concern about online scams targeting desperate jobseekers in India.

Family members of Azad Yousuf Kumar, who got duped into fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war, sit at their home in Poshwan, Kashmir, Febraury 28, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kamran Yousuf
Family members of Azad Yousuf Kumar, who got duped into fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war, sit at their home in Poshwan, Kashmir, on February 28, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kamran Yousuf

India’s urban unemployment rate stands at 6.6% after dropping in recent years, but rural joblessness and high rates of casual labour remain a problem – especially among the young – driving many to seek better-paid opportunities abroad.

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The country’s large population and tough job market make it fertile ground for trafficking rackets that often use social media to recruit and tap into jobseekers’ despair, cybersecurity experts say.

“(They) often create a sense of urgency or desperation in their victims, making them more likely to act quickly and without thinking critically,” said Sheikh Asif, a cybersecurity expert and founder of Manchester-based Thames Infotech.

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Appeals for help

Begum’s son Azad Yousuf Kumar, previously a tube-well digger, was searching for jobs online when he stumbled upon a YouTube post promising a job and permanent residency in Russia, his elder brother, Sajad Kumar, said.

Sajad Kumar, brother of Azad Yousuf Kumar, who got duped into fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war, shows a photo of his brother on his mobile phone at their home in Poshwan, Kashmir, Febraury 28, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kamran Yousuf
Sajad Kumar, brother of Azad Yousuf Kumar, who got duped into fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war, shows a photo of his brother on his mobile phone at their home in Poshwan, Kashmir, February 28, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kamran Yousuf

Some of the men were also offered admission to “dubious private universities” along with “free discounted visa extensions” to draw them in, according to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). 

Kumar paid 300,000 rupees ($3,620) to arrange his job, his brother said, leaving behind his wife and baby son when he travelled to Moscow in December.

But when he reached the Russian capital, his passport and mobile phone were seized, and he was forced to sign a one-year contract to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine, Sajad told Context.

“During a 15-day training session, a bullet hit his leg,” he said.

In Kumar’s last message, on Jan. 11, he begged his family to “get me out of this dangerous place”.

“Protect me from death, please take me away from here,” he said in the WhatsApp voice message, which was heard by Context.

At least two of the men who went to Russia have died while fighting in Ukraine, their families have said. India’s Embassy in Russia has confirmed one of the deaths.

In videos circulating on social media this month, seven other men have appealed to the Indian government to help them return home, saying they travelled to Russia on tourist visas but were being forced to serve in its army.

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India’s foreign ministry has said all of the cases had been “strongly taken up” with Moscow.

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The Russian Embassy in New Delhi did not respond to requests for comment. 

At home in Kashmir, Kumar’s mother is haunted by his last message as the family waits for news.

“I haven’t slept properly after listening to his helpless cries,” she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

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By IRSHAD HUSSAIN and MUBASHIR NAIK

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