With joblessness high in Sierra Leone, war-torn Iraq has drawn the attention of thousands of unemployed youths in the west African state, Deputy Labour Minister Moijueh Kaikai said last Wednesday.

"About 10,000 Sierra Leonean youths have signed up for security jobs in Iraq" under a contract agreement brokered by the British security firm Sabre International, he said.

The minister added that "the latest group of 420 youths, including 10 women, left overnight for Iraq, while an overall total of 10,000 are on the roll call for the programme."

He said another batch will be leaving within the next two weeks but did not indicate the number.

"A Sierra Leone ministry of labour official is presently in Iraq in Camp Smith to oversee the programme," Kaikai said, adding "the security situation where they will be working is relatively safe and they will not be working in any combat area.

"According to the agreement, Sierra Leone diplomats in the region will be visiting the workers at intervals to monitor the conditions."

"The government has benefitted from the scheme as the programme has addressed the unemployment situation in Sierra Leone. The workers' salaries will be about $250 a month; $50 will be paid to them in Iraq and the rest deposited in their foreign accounts in Freetown," the minister explained.

"Their salaries will not be taxed and they will be given free accommodation, free medical facility, free transportation and free insurance," he added.

The agreement was welcomed by the Youth for Middle East Overseas Employment group, which has constantly pressured the government to allow youths to seek work in Iraq.

Secretary-General Akim Bangura said, "We are delighted over the development."

"Finally, we are breathing a sigh of relief over the positive outcome. We have fought a successful battle and I have been arrested a couple of times for leading campaigns for jobless youths to find jobs in Iraq. I am happy it has all ended this way," he concluded.

The west African country is struggling to recover from a bloody, decade-long civil war which ended in 2001.

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