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High & dry chasing a dream

Chandigarh, Nov. 4: Fate cannot deter them from following their dreams.

For the thousands of Punjabi youths who migrate illegally to Europe and the US every year, the lure of money is greater than the fear of death or arrest.

With land holdings getting smaller and smaller and agriculture no longer a profession whose returns are huge and tax-free, the youths set sail in search of greener pastures.

Parents do not see anything wrong in sending their children abroad illegally and travel agents enjoy a roaring business despite police action.

Reports of incidents like the arrests of over two dozen illegal immigrants in Israel recently, the April boat tragedy off the Turkey coast in which many Indians allegedly died and the Malta capsize in which 289 illegal immigrants perished fall on deaf ears, government officials said.

The Doaba region of the state, instead, continues to reverberate with success stories of people who have made it big after entering the US or Europe illegally.

Parents are often forced to mortgage their land to pay travel agents who promise youths jobs in a country of their choice. However, once out of India, the agents take their passports away and they are handed over to complete strangers. Arrests sometimes lead to rigorous imprisonment and even torture.

Swaran Singh, 33, a resident of Kairon in Amritsar left home a year ago in pursuit of his dream of becoming rich. But he landed in jails in Ukraine and Slovakia where he lost his fingers to the severe cold.

“I wanted to become rich. I wanted to see myself as the owner one of those houses with a replica of an aeroplane on the rooftop. Saara sapna naash ho gaya (My dreams have been shattered),” he wept.

Swaran’s dream was to “shift” to Europe. A local travel agent promised him passage to Germany. On February 21, 2001, Harjinder Singh, a travel agent, handed him over to a local contact at Moscow airport and disappeared.

“I was taken to a flat in Moscow where to my astonishment I found nine other Indians waiting for their turn to be provided papers for entering Germany,” he said.

Four days later, all 10 of them were moved to another location in the Russian capital where they were asked to wait for “further orders” which came a couple of hours later. “We will take you to Ukraine and then to Germany. You may have to cross snow-capped mountains,” the agent told them.

Swaran said the journey was arduous and “jaan leva (killer)”. On the Ukraine border, they were met by another batch of 11 Punjabi youths and made to walk the entire night on treacherous terrain. “I had no gloves and my fingers froze. Another member, Balbir Singh from Hussainpur in Nawanshahr, I believe, lost his foot after his shoes tore. It was very cold,” Swaran said.

The agony did not end with the cold. “For four days, the agents watched us writhing in pain but did nothing. Finally, when our conditions worsened, we were taken to a hospital where my stomach was cut open and my hands were thrust inside for two days. Worse was to follow — the hospital authorities refused to treat us for being unable to pay the bill. We were then discharged. With nowhere to go and not knowing anyone, we were forced to seek the help of the travel agents again,” he said.

Swaran somehow managed to contact the Indian embassy in Moscow which informed his parents. He, however, declined to comment on how he managed to contact the embassy. “One has to do a lot of things if one takes the risky route. Rab mera nal siga (God was with me).”

Swaran’s family members, he claimed, had to deposit Rs 25,000 at the passport office to ensure his return.

“Most of us who illegally migrate do not realise that the risk involved can even kill. I was forced to go through indignity, humiliation and ran around many countries like a fugitive. I know many who are doing jobs worse than what they were doing in India. Many of them even beg to send money home. They cannot face their parents who have sold their land and pawned their jewellery,” Swaran said.

While Swaran is one of the lucky few who survived, the list of those still languishing in prisons across the world is endless.

Punjab police sources said as many as 5,760 Punjabis are waiting to be deported from various countries. “The largest number of inquiries we have received from the external affairs ministry come from Greece followed by Rome. Italy has now asked most of the illegal migrants to get documents to regularise their stay. No other country is willing to take such a step. It is sad that many agents who lure people with promise of jobs abroad are actually unauthorised,” an officer said.

The Punjab government is trying to launch a scheme involving local administrations and panchayats to ensure that youths do not take the help of fake travel agents to go abroad. “It is a tall order. We cannot stop people from going abroad illegally. Creation of more jobs will help. A total shift from agriculture to an industrial economy is needed, but that will take time and political will,” a senior minister said.

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