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'They are victims of systematic human trafficking'

January 08, 2024 08:48 IST
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'We have interesting leads on the agents. The roles of agents in this entire operation, who were doing what.'

IMAGE: A passenger from the flight, which was sent back from France, evades the media as he leaves the airport. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

One of the many investigators questioning the 66 people who were on the flight on their way to Nicaragua and who were sent back to India from France shares interesting insights with Prasanna D Zore/ after questioning the people who were travelling, how they planned to pay anywhere between Rs 60 lakh (Rs 6 million) and Rs 80 lakh (Rs 8 million), and whether or not, and under what circumstances, will FIRs be filed against these travellers.

This official from the Gujarat police requested to speak without his identity being disclosed for this interview because of the sensitivity and involvement of foreign embassies in this investigation which with the help of the CBI -- the central nodal agency in such cases -- spans across Dubai, France and probably countries like Nicaragua, Mexico and the USA.

What are the various possibilities the Gujarat police is investigating in this case where people from Gujarat and Punjab were deported from France on December 26?

We are looking for the possible network of agents -- a mixed bag that would include locals as well as global agents -- who were behind all these passengers travelling to the USA (via Nicaragua, a Central American country).

If somebody is going from here (India) to Dubai and from Dubai to Nicaragua and from Nicaragua to the USA, the process requires agents I guess at every node in this journey.

What made these people take such a huge risk in their effort to reach the US illegally?

Traditionally, people from Punjab and Gujarat have been going to the USA and Canada illegally.

These people must have been fascinated by life there (in Western countries like the US and Canada), which must not be true, but yes, they're fascinated by life there.

Any insights you received while questioning these people from Gujarat as well as the agents you must have arrested or maybe questioned?

In Gujarat, it's largely a tradition in some districts to go to the USA and Canada; same is in Punjab also.


Yes, both the ways -- if legally possible, then legally, but if not legally possible, they will find out alternate avenues.

Did you get a chance to figure out the modus operandi of these agents as well people who were trying to move to the US? Was this -- the India-Dubai-Nicaragua-Mexico-US channel -- used for the first time?

Not for the first time obviously. Earlier also some flights and a few people went to the Mexico border.

As of now we are focused on this particular case in which the plane has been returned from France for immediate investigation.

However, any lead or any agent in between who could eventually pop on our radar, we will go into all those aspects too.

Have you arrested any travel agents from Gujarat yet?

We haven't registered an FIR yet; we are doing primary inquiry only as of now.

Yes, we have travelled a lot, in the sense that our investigation has progressed quite well; probably we'll go for filing an FIR also in time to come.

Will FIRs be also filed against these people who were travelling illegally?

As of now we are treating them as victims of a systematic (human trafficking) racket as of now.

Let us see how they are cooperating with the police and what evidence they bring to the table. Their statements and their cooperation will yield us (help us arrest) some agents and expose the whole network.

We have both the alternatives (to treat these people as victims or file an FIR against them). We'll see how we can take any lawful action against these people after discussion with our PPs (public prosecutors).

IMAGE: Passengers from the Nicaragua bound flight leave the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj international airport in Mumbai. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

How did they get these visas? Did they get a visa to Nicaragua from India or from Dubai?

Visas are issued against the passport. It is immaterial from where you are travelling. If you own a USA passport and you travel from Singapore or Bangkok or Mumbai the visa is issued against that passport that you are a USA citizen. Same about that thing (the visas issued to these Indian travellers).

Till Dubai all of them had a visa with them; from Dubai to Nicaragua for Indian passengers, for Indian passport-holders, visa is issued in Nicaragua on arrival. They were supposed to get a visa at Nicaragua after landing.

Is that the reason why these agents choose Nicaragua for such illegal operations?

That goes without saying. They will be looking for the places from where they can easily make (their journey) closer to the USA border.

What made the French police suspicious about this chartered flight? Are you in contact with the French police?

The input we got is that they had some hint, input (from their local sources) that people from India were being trafficked -- human trafficked -- through this flight.

But when they (the French police) stopped the plane, and all the passengers were interrogated, all were very candid in saying they all were going on a tourist visa. Nobody was being forced, or, nobody was being taken hostage or they were travelling against their will.

After their interrogation and basic inquiry, they sent the plane back (to India).

And these people are being questioned now and being treated as victims as of now?

Yes, questioning is going on and for technical purposes we are treating them as victims. But that is not necessary; (how we treat them) depends on the process of investigation, who turns approver, who gives what witness, evidences to us and who doesn't cooperate with us.

Under which sections would the investigations be carried on or would the FIRs be filed if at all?

We haven't yet drafted the FIR. It will take some time from now. But yes, we will find out the sections (under which to register FIRs against these people); actually the money flow is huge. Huge money transactions are there (These passengers reportedly were to pay Rs 60 to Rs 80 lakh to agents for their illegal travel to the US).

We'll work it out how things (investigations) can move from here. We have good leads also.

Hopefully in the coming few days we'll be able to have clear picture. That picture is clear in our head. But yes, being sensitive, we are not in position to explain it to you.

Are you also in touch with the Dubai and French police?

Basically, in India, the CBI is the nodal agency in such cases (through which the local police coordinate with international police). We are in touch with CBI and we have sought needful information through CBI from my office.

What interesting leads have you got during the investigation?

We have interesting leads on the agents. The roles of agents in this entire operation, who were doing what, etc.

We are still interrogating them and getting finer details so that the story becomes pretty clear.

What are these people, who you are questioning, telling you?

They are telling their stories, their life stories. Why did they want to go to the USA, how their experience (of travelling from India-to-Dubai-to-France) was.

How were they to make the arrangement for Rs 60 lakh to Rs 80 lakh for their travel to the US?

Nobody has made any payment. There is no advanced payment. They were supposed to pay after landing in the USA and that too it was not supposed to be a single installment.

The arrangement was that they would make this payment (Rs 60 lakh to Rs 80 lakh) over a period of three years.

IMAGE: The passengers who arrived in Mumbai. Photograph: ANI Photo

It's like an EMI?

That is like an EMI. As far as Gujarat is concerned, if somebody X from village Y plans to go to the USA then the village people, the elderly, their relatives take the responsibility (to provide financial assistance).

(In this case the village elderly could have assured the agents that) He (someone they knew from among the 66 people who were deported) is from a good family and we'll pay your money back after their landing there and we take the responsibility. That is how it works.

These people (who move to the US via such channels), after going to the USA and finding a job there, get good money from their job, and with some amount of help from there and some amount from here (from the village elderly, relatives, etc), sell their ancestral properties, farmlands, jewellery and make arrangements for fulfilling their financial obligations.

But unless and until you land in the USA, you are not supposed to make the payment. That is why these passengers are also not that cooperative to us.

Are these travel agents reputed or are they fly-by-night travel agents?

They have very a good name as far as the passengers going to the USA are concerned (the passengers who were on board that flight headed to Nicaragua shared a good relationship with these agents).

There are domain experts also, but it is not that everybody is involved in sending people to the USA illegally. There are people who are going out legally also.

How many people from Gujarat were there on this flight?

We have about 66 people from Gujarat and we have questioned all these 66 people. These people from Gujarat belong to Anand, Gandhinagar, Mehsana, Patan and Banaskantha district, which borders Rajasthan.

But yes, for the time being it is also kind of sensitive. Actually there are many agencies involved like the ministry of external affairs, foreign embassies like the French embassy and Dubai (United Arab Emirates) embassy.

Sharing of information is very critical in this aspect. People will think at least ten times before sharing any information.

It should not bring an embarrassment to the government.

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