Home / Politics / News /  Crossing borders below the radar, and making it back

Ludhiana/Jalandhar: One day in 2006, 18-year-old Gubachan “Gary" Singh, an illegal immigrant in Manila, Philippines, was on his way to work when he was approached by four stocky Filipinos. One pulled out a gun, pressing the barrel into the small of his back, while another blindfolded him and shoved him into a van. Singh spent the next two months in a small, windowless pink room. “I couldn’t tell if it was day or night," he says. The ransom demand of 22 lakh was made to his parents back home in Ludhiana. The person who made it was the same travel agent, or smuggler, who had helped Singh illegally enter the Philippines.

People smuggling is a thriving industry in Punjab where, by one estimate, around 20,000 young people, mostly men, pay smugglers to ferry them to countries they can’t legally migrate to: mainly the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. At best, these people arrive safely at their destinations, find work, and live under the radar of immigration authorities. At worst, the smugglers cheat them, abandon them midway through the journey, sell them into bonded labour, or work out—like Singh’s agent did—a way to get more money from them. Even in cases involving trafficking, very few smugglers are ever caught, and fewer are put in jail. It’s a high-profit, low-risk business that, in the absence of anti-smuggling laws, authorities find nearly impossible to police. “There is no legislation on the smuggling of migrants," says Cristina Albertin, the regional head of the United Nations Organization of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “How can you prosecute if you don’t know what you are prosecuting?"

Thriving industry: (clockwise, from top) Gary Singh was held for ransom for two months in the Philippines; in Punjab’s Doaba region, some houses have brass plaques on the walls indicating where the owners have migrated to; other home owners rely on mounted model aircraft as indications of the origin of their wealth.

In Punjab, smuggling is a “shadow" industry that’s hardly hidden: Six-foot billboards publicizing “travel services" greet visitors in Jalandhar. Advertisements for “travel agents" dominate the back page of local newspapers in Chandigarh. Their phone numbers are splashed in sloppy paint on boundary walls of houses in villages and on walls that line public freeways. Radio stations across the state blare their messages in sultry female voices—“Going to the US? Do you want to go the UK? We can help you…"—between Bolllywood hits.

The ads should tell people something is wrong, says Kuljit Singh Hayer, president of Universal Travels, one of the few legitimate travel businesses throughout India approved by both the Travel Agents Association of India and the Air Transport Association. “No legitimate travel agent would be able to afford to take an ad in a newspaper," he says. “Travel agents don’t make that kind of money. It’s a clear indicator that something isn’t right."

Smuggling is a business driven by booming demand: Approximately 20,000 young people from Punjab attempt irregular migration every year, according to a UNODC study published in 2009. Interpol reports that two million Indians cross international borders illegally every year. Indians account for the largest unauthorized population in Europe, and the second fastest growing unauthorized population in the US. While Punjab has a long history of emigration, authorities have detected a recent shift: travel fever is spreading like a virus, inching across the border into Haryana, which is quickly becoming a new hub state for unauthorized immigration. It’s also on the rise in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Pavitar Singh, who runs a local non-governmental organization that works with Punjabi youth, cites high unemployment rates, the poor quality of education, and skyrocketing drug abuse as some of the factors pushing Punjabi youth abroad. “They don’t think that they have a future here," he says. “They are not getting educated; there are very few jobs. They think that leaving the country will solve their problems."

But economic factors can only part explain the mass exodus. “This is a cultural phenomenon," says Krishan Chand, an immigration scholar with the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development. “Punjabis aren’t driven by poverty, but by their aspirations. They want more than they can have here."

In some villages, having worked abroad is a prerequisite for marriage. In the Doaba region, villages boast multi-storey homes—all built by non-resident Indians (NRIs)—looming over generous plots of land. On more than a few, owners have mounted gaudy, 6ft model aircraft painted the colours of foreign flags, a showy advertisement for the origin of their wealth. Others mount brass plaques on the walls in front of their homes—“Singh Family, Canada," “Kumar Family, United Kingdom". Little surprise then that the UNODC study found that five-six people from each village in the Doaba region of Punjab have migrated irregularly to Europe in the past one-two years.

“The phenomenon of irregular migration is not a stigma amongst the families of the migrants, provided it is successful," the report says. “The social structure in the village, which was traditionally based on caste, landholding, family background and educational achievements, has now been transformed to distinguish between those families which have members in other countries, and those which do not."

For Gary Singh, for instance, there was never any question that he would one day live overseas. A young Punjabi from a largely agricultural family, working abroad before marriage had become a sort of coming-of-age ritual. His father had done so. So had his grandfather, many of his cousins and male friends. What he didn’t expect was the kidnapping. So, after his escape, he did what many immigrants in trouble do: he called B.S. Ramoowalia.

Ludhiana-based Ramoowalia is like a lighthouse for illegal immigrants in trouble. On a recent Thursday, eight grown men clutching faded photocopies of passports, phony visas, and travel documents crowd the back room of a stuffy, three-storey apartment building that serves as his makeshift “office", waiting to file complaints against travel agents they claimed have cheated them. An immaculately dressed man in a spotless white kurta, churidar and crimson turban, Ramoowalia lounges casually on a plush gold couch, thumbing through the papers pushed at him with a dainty, almost effeminate flourish.

Ramoowalia is chief of the Lok Bhalai Party and a former Union minister for social welfare who has cut his political career on illegal immigration, and runs an office to help individuals who have been cheated by unscrupulous agents. Strewn messily on a small wooden coffee table in front of him are stacks of manila folders that catalogue case studies of Punjabi migrants stranded in foreign jails, of people cheated of lakhs of rupees by unscrupulous travel agents, of women married then deserted by NRIs. “There are at least 15,000 cases of fraud annually. It’s a multi-crore industry." says Ramoowalia. “No travel agent or smuggler is scared even slightly by the courts of police enforcement."

There is no way to verify these numbers, though according to the International Organization for Migration, people smugglers makes between $3 billion and $10 billion (Rs13,470 crore and Rs44,900 crore) each year around the world. “For organized crime groups, smuggling humans across borders is a low-risk, high-profit business," according to Interpol. “The modus operandi of the criminal organizations is increasingly sophisticated, with numerous other crimes linked to people smuggling, such as identity-related crimes, corruption, money laundering and violence (including debt bondage and murder)."

In India, the going rate for safe passage to the UK varies from Rs9 lakh to Rs12 lakh. For Canada or the US, people pay as much as Rs20 lakh, according to UNODC. Smugglers operate through sophisticated networks that start with “sub-agents" in villages, who report to main agents based out of international hubs—often Delhi or Mumbai—and work closely with additional agents (sometimes including corrupt police officers and immigration officials) in transit and destination countries.

In a disturbing trend, several primary agents are moving operations to other countries. “This may be due to the fact that it is difficult to prosecute a person if an offence is committed outside India, as it requires special approval of the government of India under the Indian legal system," says the UNODC report.

The routes used to smuggle people out vary according to changes in immigration laws and enforcement practices in other countries, and often involve transporting migrants through countries that issue travel visas to Indians without asking too many questions. One Punjabi migrant says he paid an agent Rs4 lakh to go to Italy, but was flown first into Moscow, packed into a covered lorry with 15 others, and driven the remaining way.

For those going to the US, the route is even more convoluted. Indians now account for the second largest immigrant group—behind Latin Americans—caught trying to enter the US through the south-west border: In the last three months of 2010, US immigration authorities arrested 650 Indian migrants in southern Texas. Their smugglers had flown them from Mumbai to Dubai, to South American countries that didn’t require visas (such as Ecuador or Venezuela), and then to Mexico. From Mexico, the immigrants tried to cross the Rio Grande on foot, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times. Gurnan Singh, a professor who is studying successful cases of illegal immigration from Punjab to Canada and the US, says smugglers are adopting these longer, more complex routes (colloquially known as “donkey flights") as a response to tighter rules in many countries. “I interviewed one man who went through 22 countries before he reached Canada," he says. “These networks are very organized."

Gary Singh’s journey started normally enough. His agent flew him to Hong Kong, where he was given a bulky envelope with a fake visa to paste into his passport before catching a flight to the Philippines. Singh arrived in Cebu wearing a bright orange suit, so as to be easily identifiable to the immigration official his smuggler had bribed to let him through at the point of entry. The plan worked beautifully: the official took his passport, and waved him through. His troubles came later.

Singh is lucky because he is still alive. He is luckier to have recovered some of his money from the travel agent.

People smugglers are also very difficult to prosecute. Balvinder Iqbal Singh Kahlom is the officer in charge of the economic offences unit at the Jalandhar police station. A slim man with a neatly groomed moustache, he reclines behind an oversized book that documents cases of fraud registered against travel agents in his district. There aren’t many: In the past year, he’s registered only 14 formal complaints. Unofficially, he receives about 50 calls per month, he says. Even those are likely only a fraction of the cases that actually exist. Because of the large sums involved, and the slow court process, most people prefer to settle out of court, he says. “I’d say that 80% of the cases are settled informally."

While the number of cases of immigration fraud are increasing by 20-30% in Punjab, it’s rare that smugglers are charged with crimes. “It appears that an informal understanding has emerged between migrants and the established agents whereby a migrant knows that he may get back the money if he does not reach his destination," the UNODC report says. Others refrain from complaining in the hope that their “travel agents" will help them try again.

Prosecution is further complicated by the clandestine nature of the industry: most transactions are done in cash. Without a paper trail, there is no way to prove that someone has been cheated. In the absence of anti-smuggling laws, those who are charged are charged with lesser offences—criminal breach of trust, cheating or forgery—which carry marginal punishments ranging from three to seven years. Even then, it’s rare that agents are found guilty. “In the worst case, they’re in jail for 60 days after registering the case, and then they can get out," says Kahlom. “It’s very rare for people to see prison time."

India’s ministry of overseas affairs is in the process of drafting a new emigration Act, which is reported to include one section on irregular migration and smuggling. In October, the Punjab state government passed a Bill that attempts to address the issue, though it has yet to be implemented. Called the “Punjab anti-smuggling Act of 2010," it strictly defines “travel agents" and “smuggling", and requires all travel agents in the state to be licensed and to register with the government. It also makes it mandatory for agencies to request permission from the government before advertising about seminars, and raises the number of years agents can be imprisoned for to 10 years, depending on the crime. Ranjit Malhotra, a Punjabi immigration lawyer, says the legislation does not go far enough and that it should include steep bank guarantees so there’s a financial burden on violating smugglers, in order to curb the financial incentive. “Still, it’s a step in the right direction."

As for Gary Singh, he works for Ramoowalia and helps people who find themselves in the same spot he found himself in five years ago.

Sahil Makkar contributed to this story.

This is the first in a three-part series on illegal immigration and the problems faced by legal immigrant workers from India told through the stories of three people.

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