Dubai: The 24 Indian men, two of them too young to shave, were sitting under the fake palm trees in the transit zone at the Dubai airport, dressed in track suits like a sports team—but one dejected by loss.
The 24 were making the last leg of a journey home to the farmlands of Punjab. They had not meant to return so soon. Most had left six or nine months ago on a desperate voyage along the newest route of migration from Asia to Europe, going by plane to West Asia, then across Africa and by sea up the west coast towards Europe.
But the voyage ended in disaster, leaving them stranded in a dismal warehouse in Mauritania. Now they were being escorted home.
As they headed home, they told the painful tale of their failed migration, just a few stories from the vast global saga of people in motion. Some spoke of horrors at the hands of people-smugglers, drug injections, beatings and knife-fights in the dark hull of an ailing ship.
Yet, for all the fear and privation, there was scant relief in their return to their villages and farms. Ahead of them lay shame, vanished livelihoods and insurmountable debt.
“For a short time my family will be happy,” Naresh, 37, a sugar cane farmer from Punjab, said on the flight that took the group from Tunis to Dubai. “I feel very sad because of everything we have lost.”
Ajay, 26, used to sell clothes in a Punjab market. His boy was just 15 days old when Ajay left home nine months ago. “How can I show my face to my son?” he asked.
Farmers, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, these men are all victims of a criminal network that profited from their need to survive. Misled wholesale by gang members who recruited them where they lived, they were promised a quick and safe passage to Europe, with no mention of Africa or any journey by sea.
With the active support of their families, the Indians borrowed against everything they owned to raise the average $7,000 (Rs3 lakh) fee for a trip to Europe in the hope of few years’ work abroad.
Now the individuals were returning with just $500 each from an aid agency.
Smugglers “gave us a visa to go by aeroplane, not by ship”, said Davinda, who claimed to be 18, but looked younger. “They said it would take three days and it took six to nine months, and they behaved like Ali Baba.”
The 24 were reluctant to give any details about the smugglers. Nervous after facing so many threats, they also asked that their full names not be given.
In the airport, the men stuck together in small bands, based on age or shared experience, as they wandered past Arab sheiks in flowing white robes, the Pakistan junior field hockey team in green blazers and drivers of passenger buggies in canary yellow uniforms.
Each of the men from India had an envelope with $500 from the International Organization of Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental agency that helps distressed migrants go home.
It had distributed the money between flights to ease the immediate pain of return.
Amid the airport’s duty-free opulence, some of the men contemplated buying cigarettes or whisky to resell on arrival in India. But facing questioning by Indian migration officials in New Delhi, and reluctant to attract more atte-ntion, none of them risked any purchases.
Although affectionate among themselves, the men were mistrustful about the world they were negotiating after their ordeal. Fearful of being robbed on the way, the men, time and again, sought assurance that they would be accompanied, as planned, right through the New Delhi airport by Khaled Qadir, a representative of IOM.
Qadir said the men, although deeply disappointed, should not bear the full brunt of their failure.
First, he said, they fell victim to smugglers.
Second, “the families have a role to play”, said Qadir, adding that people from such remote regions had few resources to help them judge the smugglers’ claims. “They are illiterate and uneducated, and it is very easy to give these people a rosy picture, telling them they can get to Greece or Spain and make thousands of dollars and make the family happy,” he added.
The migrants left India on separate journeys and landed in Africa, where they were among nearly 400 men rounded up by smugglers and ushered onto a boat whose fate this newspaper has chronicled.
Their decrepit shrimp trawler, the Marine I, meandered at sea for 11 miserable weeks until it was rescued in international waters between West Africa and the Canary Islands of Spain, and towed to safety on the coast of Mauritania.
After first withholding their names and nationalities, most of the larger group began to identify themselves and volunteered to go home.
Issued temporary travel documents, the 24 are among the 161 Indians whom IOM has now repatriated.
Giving new details of the risks of migration, the Indians said they had been ferried out to the corroded hulk of the Marine I by night, in small boats, 25 to 35 at a time, fear mingling with relief at being on their way.
Naresh, the sugar-cane farmer, waited six months in a house with 115 other men before embarking.
He said that when they boarded, “Conakry men” tried to inject the migrants with drugs—500mg doses of ampicillin—that they said would put them to sleep.
“They had injections and when we saw them we were very afraid,” Naresh said. “They were very big. In India we have very small injections.”
He managed to resist, he said, but some of the passengers did not.
Ajay said he was on one of the last boats to reach the Marine I. He estimated that 330 men—Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis—were already huddled in the hold. The heat grew stifling. There were no sanitary provisions and with the men below deck forbidden to come up for air, tensions quickly arose.
Some of the passengers “behaved very badly”, Naresh said, adding that they were aggressive in commandeering the rations. “They hit us and wouldn’t give us food.” Some had knives, he said.
Fed once every 36 hours on nothing but rice, the men shared one bottle of water a day between six. It was hot, Naresh said, but “we drank just one drop at a time”.
They slept where they sat, on filthy mats. Some passengers smoked; some discarded their trash in the hold. The men had only salt water to wash their faces. Fever broke out. They were plagued by lice and rashes. “I wanted to die,” said Naresh. After weeks at sea, the ship was buzzed by surveillance aircraft and at that point the captain took off, ostensibly to bring back food. The passengers never saw him again.
A Spanish rescue vessel towed the ship to port, where the migrants spent weeks playing cards and doing aerobics classes run by the Red Cross. Time and again the men expressed their gratitude to Spain. “The Spanish saved our lives,” Naresh said.
But in the shelter, it slowly dawned on them that they would never make it to Europe, and the first of the 369 men asked to go home.
“I cried when the first group left, because I realized that we had no chance of going to Spain,” said Mandeep, a bright-eyed 27-year-old who studied history and Punjabi. “Then I understood that I, too, was going back, that everything was finished, that all my money was gone, and I had risked my life.”
The roots of their tragedy in Africa developed in India, where for most of them their families had bought into their dreams of a passage to Europe. The men borrowed against their houses, their shops or the farms passed down the generations.
Deepa, 24, a taxi driver who wound-up trapped in a house in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, for 18 months, had earned Rs2,500 in Punjab. Lured by the promise of earning $800 a month as a driver in Europe, he pawned his taxi and his home.
And Ajay was sold a promise made by an agent he met “through a friend”. The man told him that European immigration would never grant him a visa, whereas the agent could get him to Italy “in two or three days”. Ajay’s relatives pooled their jewellery and his parents mortgaged their home to provide a “deposit” for a pawn broker who loaned him $7,000—the agent’s fee.
“I don’t know how to pay the money back,” Ajay said in English that he had taught himself from a book. “They said I must pay in one year. If I don’t pay it back, they will take the house,” he added.
Ajay is an experienced migrant, having worked for two years in a fast-food chain in Kuala Lumpur before returning to be married in Punjab. In Malaysia, he made $200 a month and sent most of it to his family. He had counted on earning more in Europe.
Naresh sold the sugar cane farm inherited from his grandparents to raise money for an agent who promised a trip to Greece. Sonu, 23, a wheat and rice farmer, sold his buffalo and most of his farm after he “made a friend” in a Sikh temple who promised to get him to Europe for $7,000.
Mandeep sold two toy stores he had inherited. “I am going to India, but my shops are gone,” he said. “What can I do? You tell me.”
Despite all they lost, many of the 24 said they would make another attempt to get to Europe. But not Deepa. “God saved my life,” he said. “I’m not going to try again.”