It’s the quintessential film arc, or even the premise of so many American election campaigns. A young man dreams of travelling to the promised land, a place where everything and anything is possible--USA. The reality though is far more grim than we realise, as an increasing amount of stories, like the Panama boat tragedy in which two Punjabi youths (Gurwinder Singh and Gurjit Singh) drowned after the boat in which they were travelling from Colombia to Panama drowned. Both youths had left their homes in Kapurthala late last December to try and enter the US illegally, and another young man with them is believed to have survived. This incident from late January brought into sharp focus the dodgy business of illegal immigration that is deeply-rooted and thriving in Punjab. Washington-based Pew Research Center carried out a study that showed 450,000 unauthorized immigrants from India reside in the United States, every eighth person of Indian origin living in the country is an illegal immigrant and though getting a precise regional breakup of the people is hard, according to members of the community the group appears to be dominated by Punjabi Sikhs.
In the middle of nowhere
But to even get to being an illegal immigrant is a far cry better than what happens to so many of these men. Under the guise of travelling to the ‘land of opportunities,’ young Punjabi men often find themselves duped and abandoned in some of the most unexpected places from where there is no easy return home. In recent years, they’ve been brought fraudulently to destinations like Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama and Colombia, and even Mexico; places that have adjoining borders and easy access to cross-over into USA.
Travelling via South America is a way around the process of visa acquisition and lower in expenses. Adventurous young men from villages pay absurd amounts of money ranging between 10 lakhs to 20 lakhs to unscrupulous and unverified travel agents who claim to know an illegal route to sneak into the US. “My brothers are in Italy and that was the only other part of the world I knew,” says Aktoobar Singh of Tapprian Amar Singh village to Times Of India. “But I have heard of Guatemala and Mexico. My son was made to stay there by travel agents for around 10 days during which he called up thrice for very short conversations and then we lost all contact with him,” he says. The story is familiar and similar to that of various other families across the region who aren’t even sure if their sons made it to the US or are still stuck somewhere in South America. The Panama Canal is crossed by boat and Mexico, with its border with USA, are prime locations where many of the immigrants travel to, usually via big cities like Delhi or Mumbai then onto Turkey. But the risk they’re taking is also very real, boats capsize and many are caught at the borders and remain in jails with no way out.
Despite the State government’s 2012 legislation, the Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Act and another in 2014, Punjab Travel Professional Regulations Act to monitor and regulate the trade business, the racket of human trafficking continues. “The business of human trafficking is flourishing in Punjab. The number of youths coming into the clutches of travel agents is astronomical with many illegal migrants are being deported,” reads an order issued by Punjab’s State Commission for NRIs.” Doaba is the focal point for well-entrenched travel agents, who operate at the village level having multi-tier international connections. Thousands of trafficked people from India in general and Punjab in particular are languishing in various jails, refugee homes and camps in various countries.”