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Why did 24 Indians die off the Panama coast?

Last updated on: February 03, 2016 06:50 IST

Immigrants rights supporters rally outside the US Immigration Customs Enforcement Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma, Washington state, March 11, 2014. Dozens of detainees went on a hunger strike protesting deportations and detention centre conditions. Photograph: Jason Redmond/Reuters


Lack of opportunities coupled with a desire to get rich quick in the West is fueling Punjab's human trafficking problem.
Rashme Sehgal reports.

The death by drowning of 24 young men off the coast of Panama on January 10 is one more tragedy in a series of accidents involving Punjabi youth who are willing to go to any lengths in their attempts to find a foothold in the West.

These young men were travelling to the United States when their boat capsized. Seven of the boys on the boat were rescued by a woman who happened to be near the scene of the accident.

One of the survivors, Sonu Singh, from Luroi village in Kapurthala district, managed to call his father Rajinder Singh and inform him of the tragedy. Rajinder Singh alerted the local police as also the parents of the boys who lost their lives.

Amongst the victims were Gurjit Singh of Tandi Aulakh village and Gurvinder Singh of Jaid village. Grief-stricken Bachan Singh, Gurvinder Singh's father, says he found out about the tragedy three days after it occurred. He visited Sonu's parents to get a first hand appraisal of what had happened and it was they who informed him that his son had not been rescued.

"My boy had passed his Class 12 exam and was looking for a job. He met a local travel agent who fed him all kinds of dreams about how he would become rich overnight if he went to the West. He fell for those stories and a deal was fixed at Rs 25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million)."

"I had to sell my land and borrow money from relatives to send him abroad. Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) was given to the agent as a first instalment," says Bachan Singh.

Bachan Singh filed an FIR against the travel agent for duping him and other parents. The agent had told the parents that the boys would be flown to the US, but sent them via a sea route in what was likely a rickety boat.

Although two travel agents have been arrested and Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has sought External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's intervention to bring the survivors back to India, the government has taken little action on this front so far.

The bhog ceremony for the drowned boys has been held in their respective villages, but the families have received no official confirmation of their deaths.

The majority of the parents who have sent their boys abroad can hardly be described as poor by Indian standards. They live in proper homes that boast of colour televisions and refrigerators. But within these farming communities, it is the families which receive remittances from abroad who are seen to be prosperous. They live in lavish houses and often have SUVs parked at their doorstep.

It is this keeping up with the Joneses that drives the boys and their parents to take this step. And by doing so, they play straight into the arms of the mafia who run this multi-billion rupee human smuggling trade.

Twenty years ago, 170 youth from the Doaba belt in Punjab drowned off the Malta coast.

The state government had then swung into action and arrested the kingpins of this racket. Despite these arrests, the touts and travel agents have continued their illegal trafficking in immigrants despite the tightening of rules in Western countries.

The Doaba region stretching between the Beas and the Sutlej rivers has a long tradition of sending their boys to the West. Even today, this belt sees a minimum of 500 legal immigrants flying out of Amritsar and Jalandhar every day.

But an equal number attempt to make this journey illegally. Human trafficking is said to rival the arms and drugs trade in size and subterfuge.

"Illegal immigration is controlled by international cartels," says a Jalandhar travel agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, "who provide people with fake documents and sends them along different routes. The minute one route gets too hot, they start using another."

"A shrinking job market acts as a trigger for this illegal immigration," says Santokh Singh Chaudhary, the Congress MP from Jalandhar.

"The state government is no longer interested in the welfare of the public," says Chaudhary. "Why has no strong action been taken against these travel agents?"

Chaudhary alludes to the abduction of 39 Punjabi men by Islamic State. "Why has the Badal government not put pressure on the central government to get our boys released?" the MP asks.</>

Vijay Sampla, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP from the Doaba region, blames travel agents for the human trafficking. "There is no shortage of employment in our state," says Sampla. "But the local people are dazzled by the standards of living of families who get regular remittances from abroad. Everyone wants a similar standard of living even if it is not feasible."

One of the most frightening incidents occurred when middlemen tried to smuggle 12 Punjabi immigrants into Britain at the back of a refrigerated metallic container packed with meat. The boys had been made to wear thick coats and sit on these frozen meat packs on the long flight.

"Are there no opportunities left in their villages? asks Nilambri Singh, a Canadian educationist. "In the past, many young women were married off to grooms living in the West, sometimes with horrible consequences. I don't understand why these young boys are migrating in such dangerous ways keeping in mind the fate of African migrants trying to enter the European Union on overcrowded boats."

"The youth in Punjab are certainly not facing the same dire situation as are desperate families in Africa and the Middle East," she adds.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has conveyed to the government that the majority of illegal Indian immigrants languishing in various prisons and refugee camps in Europe are from Punjab.

In the US, most of the 920 illegal immigrants awaiting deportation are Punjabis.

MPs across parties in Punjab have asked the central government to set up a commission which will work closely with the police to monitor illegal immigration.

IMAGE: Immigrants rights supporters rally outside the US Immigration Customs Enforcement Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma, Washington state, March 11, 2014. Dozens of detainees went on a hunger strike protesting deportations and detention centre conditions. Photograph: Jason Redmond/Reuters

Rashme Sehgal