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Posted at: Jul 16, 2017, 12:14 AM; last updated: Jul 16, 2017, 12:14 AM (IST)

Merchants of phoren dreams

Rachna Khaira in Jalandhar
Illegal immigration continues to thrive in Punjab two years after an Act promised to regulate travel agents and streamline foreign settlement. The police and govt authorities are yet to act together. Result: hundreds of youths languish in jails abroad

Punjab travel industry

  • Number of travel agents in the state: 20,000
  • IATA approved agents: 224
  • Travel Agents Association of India-approved agents: 86 (176, including Chandigarh)
  • Immigration agents accredited by the Ministry of Tourism: 14
  • Agents accredited by the Ministry of Labour: 24
Merchants of phoren dreams
FLIGHT OF FANCY: A couple offers a toy plane at a gurdwara in Talhan (Jalandhar). The entire village has hoardings displaying names of travel agents — mostly illegal. Photo: Malkiat Singh
Excited by the prospect of changing his fortunes in Germany, Amrik Singh (24) embarked on a life-changing voyage in 2014. A native of Banga village in Nawanshahr district of Punjab, he soon found himself, first, in Libya, and then, dumped in Malta by his travel agents.

After spending nearly a month on the streets of Valletta (Malta), he shared a bed with many other Punjabi youths in a room illegally built at a construction site in Gozo Island, Malta. He had no permanent job and was forced to do menial jobs.

“I wanted to return to my village, but I had no money. My tourist visa expired and I was afraid to go to the airport as I could have been arrested anytime. I boarded a flight to Frankfurt (Germany) but I didn’t know how I landed in Tripoli (Libya),” recalls Singh. The Libyan agent wanted Rs 2 lakh more to send him to Italy, but his father was in no position to pay more: he had already sold his two acres. The agent wanted him to go to Syria to work in an arms factory, but he refused. Amrik finally returned home last year after paying another Rs 2 lakh to the agent.

Amrik is among dozens of Punjabi youths who paid Punjab-based travel agents anything between Rs 6 lakh and 10 lakh for reaching a European country.

These incidents over decades have failed to dissuade Punjabi youths. They want to go ‘bahar’ (abroad) come what may to be prosperous. The Punjab Travel Professionals’ Regulation Act, 2012, and formation of its rule in 2013 by the state government to curb human trafficking has failed to stop illegal immigration in villages. Hoardings of travel agents — there is no way to ascertain their legal status — line up city thoroughfares to lure youths. The Act provides for punishment for up to seven years and a fine for unregistered/illegal agent. Not a single case is registered under the Act.

The historic village of Talhan near Jalandhar city exemplifies the entire scenario. A huge board of a travel agent welcomes you on the outskirts of the village, boasting about its historic feat of facilitating “hundreds of Punjabi youths to settle in Europe.” There are hoardings of study visa consultants, foreign language trainers, nanny trainers, tourist visa consultants and IELETS trainers installed on every wall of the houses, electric poles, and even on tubewell rooms. Most of these hoardings belong to unregistered travel agents. The local gurdwara running under the district administration is also not spared. 

Since early morning, devotees carrying model planes bought from one of the shops outside the gurdwara gates are seen standing in long queues to seek blessings for settling abroad. “I alone do around 50 ardaas every day for people who want to go abroad,” says a granthi. “People from all over the state visit the gurdwara to offer toy planes here. Many of them are trapped by unscrupulous agents.”

Does the new Act offer any provision to punish those unregistered travel agents who advertise? “No, there is no such provision,” says Gurpreet Singh Bhullar, SSP (Rural), Jalandhar. He says victims approach the police when they are already duped by travel agents. “The villagers get lured by fellow villagers who manage to reach foreign shores miraculously. They get in touch with unregistered agents and mostly land in trouble,” says Bhullar.

The SSP says his department is trying to get an order issued from the deputy commissioner so that unregistered travel agents advertising through hoardings are proceeded against. Clearly, the Act is a failure. “Illegal immigration is continuing as the state government remains half-hearted,” says Kuljit Singh, president of the Punjab Travel Agents Association.

Singh says in Jalandhar, half of the travel agents are registered two years after the Act was enforced in 2015. “The district administration has not acted against unregistered agents. Nor have their offices closed or sealed. There is no check on renewing the annual licence.”

The Jalandhar deputy commissioner says over 250 travel agents have been registered under the Act in the last two years. An equal number of them continue to function. “We have recently issued an advisory to the people that they should approach only registered travel agents. The information has been uploaded on every website of the district administration in Punjab,” says Sharma. He says the administration is “soon” going to act against the unregistered agents.

Do village panchayats play any role in curbing the illegal immigration? “We get to when a deal goes wrong or a youth is stuck somewhere,” says Sunita Rani, sarpanch, Talhan.

According to Satnam Singh Chahal, executive director, North American Punjabi Association, unrealistic hopes drove Punjabis to foreign shores a decade ago. “The same aspiration of their children is at work even now.”

“An estimated 15,000 Punjabi youth are languishing in prisons in other countries for staying illegally. But no agent in Punjab is ever convicted for sending them abroad. The police deal with complaints as mere cases of fraud. The cases eventually lead into an abyss since complainants fail to prove that they paid money to the agent,” says Chahal. “Despite the Act, hundreds of Punjabi youths are stranded along US borders and other countries.”

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