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This Bird Has Flown

Jan 7, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Magazine| May 07, 2007

punjab: illegal migrants

This Bird Has Flown

The Punjabi will go abroad. It feeds a dicey cottage industry.


Here's the dark side of the illegal emigration story:
  • Punjab is the hub of the Rs 12,000 crore human trafficking racket
  • Agents enjoy political patronage, so little action is taken against them
  • 'Pigeons' pay anywhere between Rs 10-25 lakh and are forced to trek through Russia, Ukraine and the Czech republic to reach Austria. From there on, they are left to fend for themselves.
  • Several families have been ruined in their attempt to settle abroad
  • More than 30,000 'migrants' are languishing in jails abroad
The airwaves were full of it, a BJP MP caught red-handed in a human trafficking racket. The news may have shocked the nation but in Punjab, national capital of the illegal emigration racket, no one is surprised. Politicians and even bureaucrats smuggling 'pigeons' (a euphemism for illegal immigrants)by including them on official delegations, sportspersons going abroad as part of a team and happens all the time. In fact, many Punjab politicians may be guilty of what Katara did. The BJP MP (from Gujarat) caught last week, Babubhai Katara, was trying to sneak a Punjabi woman and her minor son on a flight to Canada on the passports of his wife and child—all for a consideration of Rs 32 lakh.

In Punjab, human trafficking is big business. Estimates say the state accounts for the bulk of the Rs 12,000 crore a year the racket rakes in annually. As many as 30,000 youth from Punjab are currently languishing in jails abroad for travelling on forged documents or overstaying their visas. But this hasn't dampened the 'foreign country' craze.

Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, president of the Lok Bhalai Party, has been running a campaign against illegal migrations for some time now. He's scathing about the role netas play in the racket: "Punjab's politicians have made 'kabootarbazi' (helping 'pigeons' take flight) their trade. They are ruining the lives of the youth here. Why aren't there crackdown on these unscrupulous travel agents who, mixed up with the international mafia, take people for a ride?"

Punjab's politicians have figured in many cases but the most widely reported has been that of the BJP's Tikshan Sood, now minister for forests in the Parkash Singh Badal regime. In '01, he was accused of taking a certain Raj Lakhanpal on an official tour to Canada, passing him off as a personal assistant. According to Capt Vikram Singh of the Punjab Bachao Morcha who had raised the issue, a sum of Rs 12.5 lakh had changed hands. Singh says he had "written letters to then state BJP state chief Brij Lal Rinwa. The matter came to light when Lakhanpal alleged that while the minister did take him to Canada, he reneged on getting him a job. Later, after some BJP leaders intervened, Rs 7.5 lakh was returned to Lakhanpal's family under a compromise formula." The issue was quietly buried.

Another shocking case in 2001 was that of an official delegation of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) which which went to Vancouver for Baisakhi celebrations. The five priests on the trip scooted and never returned. A hue and cry was raised at the time after then SGPC secretary Gurbachan Singh Bachan took up the issue of religious delegations being used for human trafficking with the Akal Takht jathedar. Herb Dhaliwal, a federal minister in Canada who had recommended the visas, was even censured by immigration authorities there.Gurbachan Singh told Outlook: "These things happen quite frequently in Punjab but no action is ever taken. Voices like mine are ignored."

A recent documentary by Sabyasachi Jain with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) throws light on the risks and hardships illegal migrants endure. After paying between Rs 10-25 lakh to agents, the 'pigeons' fly to Moscow on a visit visa. The rest of the route is planned out by the international drug cartels there. Prospective migrants are taken in groups on foot or on mules across Russia, through Ukraine, the Czech republic and finally Austria. The journey involves walking for several days at a stretch with little to eat. Once in Austria, the emigrant has to find his way into Germany or UK.

The latest ploy employed is for illegal migrants to declare themselves gay and express a wish to get married. The modus operandi is for a 'gay' couple to claim they want to migrate since they are being harassed in India. Some six countries including Canada, UK and Australia have legalised gay marriages, so this route is fast becoming popular.

Till the UK authorities cracked down on fake colleges run from one-room establishments in Southall, thousands had found their way into England as students. Says Harjap Singh Bhangal of the London Immigration Services which works with the British High Commission to check illegal immigration: "Many of these colleges have charged students Rs 10-15 lakh for admission, but they don't have any teachers, not even furniture. Students have no choice but to continue as illegal immigrants."

Meanwhile, the list goes on. Two years ago, six rafters from the Punjab Armed Police representing the Indian Rafting Association at a tournament in the US went AWOL. Last year, 19 kabaddi players who had gone to participate in tournaments at the invitation of the Ontario Sports Federation in Canada stayed on. Scores of sports clubs flourish in Punjab's Doaba region, most of them specialise in getting invites from friendly associations in Canada or the US. Along with genuine teams, some 'pigeons' too are taken for a hefty fee.

Stories of thousands ending up in jails or rendered penniless in their bid to migrate has not acted as deterrent. The Jalandhar passport office alone (serving the Doaba region) issues a whopping 1.75 lakh passports each year. As Anil Malhotra, a leading immigration lawyer, puts it: "The Emigration Act 1983 has outlived its utility. States have virtually no role in its implementation. If an unscrupulous agent commits a crime, neither the state government nor the local police can take any action to protect the emigrant's interests. The limited penal action taken under the IPC for cheating neither leads to a conviction nor deters offenders." He feels a new legislation giving more teeth to the police is called for. Till that happens, there is no stopping the Babubhai Kataras and others of his ilk.


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