The boat-capsize incident near the South American country of Panama, in which around 20 youths from Punjab trying to enter the US illegally are feared dead, has yet again brought into focus how immigration firms are cashing in on the craze of settling down abroad.
In the past five years in SAS Nagar alone, 578 cases were registered against immigration consultants, often after complaints by people who alleged they were duped.
Most of the victims are not only wailing over their shattered dreams, but also the losses: they had paid the firms after taken loans or selling off their property, and are now struggling to get the money back. But some were too broken.
In December last year, Sukhwant Singh, a 28-year-old from Sangrur, committed suicide after a Phase 1-based firm — Rudraksh Group Overseas Solutions — failed to repay the Rs 2.5 lakh he had paid for them to send him abroad. Sukhwant had tried for two years to get back the money he had borrowed from a commission agent.
Vanishing like shadows
According to official data, there are more than 1,000 immigration firms in SAS Nagar, but only 32 are registered since the high court made it mandatory, aiming to bring in accountability. Seventy-eight others are pending approval.
And with the authorities having failed to implement the high court orders, unregistered firms continue to ruin more lives.
Tarsem Singh, 35, hailing from a village in Patiala, still awaits repayment of the Rs 2 lakh he had given a company in Sector 70 years ago, before it vanished one day.
“I had taken a loan from my relatives and friends to pay for immigration,” Tarsem wrote in his police complaint in 2014. “I was told that I had got a job as driver and would be taking off from Amritsar airport, but no one turned up there to hand over my passport and the visa. All their phones were switched off.”
Kamlesh Singh, a 30-year-old from Hoshiarpur, wanted to go to Saudi Arabia and sold off his ancestral land to pay the company. But when he went to ‘collect’ the visa and the tickets, the office of the immigration company was locked, never to be opened again.
Rupnagar resident Jaswinder Singh had paid Rs 5.4 lakh to a Phase 7-based firm and wanted to go to Singapore. He was sent to Malaysia instead.
Buck stops where?
The authorities receive around five complaints against immigration firms on an average each day. SAS Nagar deputy commissioner Tejinder Pal Singh Sidhu says his office has also been “writing regularly” to the police to carry out inspections and take action.
But none of the firms has been penalised so far. Also, the cases registered by the police are on trial, meaning the accused firms, including those that are registered, are yet to be shut down.
SAS Nagar senior superintendent of police (SSP) Gurpreet Singh Bhullar says awareness is the key.
“People are unaware of the fact that no travel agent is authorised by any embassy to arrange visas. They continue to fall prey to these unscrupulous elements,” he says.
“Before paying the money, people desirous of going abroad need to know that these travel agents can, at the most, help fill up the visa forms.”