As the icy ocean waters swirled around him in the dark, Mandeep Singh prepared to die on the sinking boat, like the hundreds of screaming desperate men crammed around him.
Suddenly, a rope appeared, one of several dangling from a ship that loomed above him. “I caught the rope and got a new life,” said Singh (35), one of the few men who survived the 1996 Christmas Day sea disaster off the Greek coast, also known as the Malta boat tragedy. Others were not as lucky. Some 300 men from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan died instantly in the freezing waters.
The rope to a new life is what Singh and lakhs of other youth have sought in India for decades, using illegal routes, duplicate passports, fake visas and false identities, boarding wobbly boats and crammed containers and trudging through deserts, mountains and dangerous forests – all part of a worldwide illegal human smuggling business worth billions of dollars. Many Indians, from Mississippi to Malaysia, allege exploitation. Many others, officials say, die.
Singh never gave up his dream, and now lives in Italy, where he says he went legally. He has words of advice for those trying to go overseas: “Eat half a roti if you are getting it here, but don’t go illegally like I tried to.” Most such people are taken by agents on valid tourist visas, only to disappear. Several take temporary visas for countries en route and take land and sea routes onwards. And most people do not want to register complaints even after being cheated, with an eye on the next opportunity.
“Most of these people are going on tourist visas. They are ready to pay up to Rs 10 lakh to agents,” said Arpit Shukla, senior superintendent of police in Jalandhar. Policemen on leave and children as young as 12 years are among those who went illegally, according to Punjab Police officials.
“Over the past five years, this trend of going abroad has multiplied many times. In the last (state) elections, 10,000 voters in my constituency — a tenth of the total voters — had to be deleted from the rolls because most of them had gone abroad, illegally,” said Sukhpal Singh Khaira, legislator from the Bholath constituency.
The illegal agents in Punjab place advertisements, offering overseas tickets with “visa free”, and get hundreds of inquiries. They rent offices, hire staff and computers, seem busy and accept cheques. By the time the customers realise they have been duped — either when they do not get a visa or after being dumped somewhere overseas — the office has moved, the agent has disappeared. With inflation, prices of fraud have risen too. Illiterate farmers sell or mortgage land and pay up to Rs 35 lakhs to illegal agents for help in paperwork for short-term visas to the United States and up to Rs 15 lakh for European countries, officials say. In a few years, more people in the family are packing their bags.
“This is a madness here, a disease. Some gurudwaras in Europe have become the hub of human trafficking from here,” said Balwant Singh Khera, head of the unofficial Malta Boat Tragedy Probe Mission. Jalandhar lies in the ‘Doaba’, one of the three regions of Punjab, and India’s heartland of immigration rackets. Doaba residents have smaller land holdings, which are shrinking further with joint families getting divided. So agriculture doesn’t pay and the youth are averse to hard work and taking up other trades. “In my constituency, the youth have given up studies. They say, ‘why go to school? We have to go abroad’,” said Khaira, the MLA.
And the wealth from remittances is showing in the villages. Double-storied mansions with glass facades stand in the middle of acres of green fields. Expensive cars are common. And many homes have erected water tanks shaped like aeroplanes to show that their family members are abroad. “In my village, one person from each home has gone abroad – from my family, two,” said Kuldeep Singh Kang, headman of Bagwanpur village. And even in death, the obsession does not fade. At a meeting a few years after the Malta boat tragedy, Khera asked for volunteers from the families of the dead for a fact-finding tour of Europe. Dozens stood up, clamouring that they would go.