The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Out of one jail, in fear of another

Wagah, Sept. 8: “From jail to jail.” This was the refrain of one of the 16 Sikh illegal immigrants released by Pakistan late this afternoon.

“We left to search for greener pastures. It was a dollar dream that crashed. Our parents literally sold everything they possessed to send us abroad so that we could earn and look after them. But we were duped by travel agents we had so much faith in. I will have to start life all over again,” said Harvinder Singh.

For Harvinder, it was a tearful reunion with his family which had raised Rs 3.5 lakh for a ticket to Turkey. Instead, he found himself stranded in Iran after travelling across West Asia and CIS countries, finally making his way to Pakistan and prison. “It was jail there, it will be jail here, what with the security agencies hounding us every now and then and no jobs to sustain us,” he wept.

Pakistan’s decision to release 16 Indian Sikh illegal immigrants is seen as a goodwill gesture aimed at bolstering the peace process between Delhi and Islamabad. The Indians were held for crossing into Pakistan without legal documents. Ten Sikh youths released today had been jailed in Quetta; the rest were serving sentences for entering Pakistan illegally at Lahore. Many had been jailed for over a year.

Other than Sarabjit Singh and Bachittar Singh — residents of Pehowa in Haryana — the others released today all hail from Punjab. “We have nothing much to say except that we were treated well in Pakistan,” Sarabjit said before being led away to the customs enclosure by a police officer.

But Harvinder had a different story to tell about the condition of Indians languishing in Pakistani jails, He said many had turned mad. “I have a message from them: Pakistan insists that they were not being released because the Indian government is not releasing Pakistani prisoners. Those who are still in Pakistan jails are in miserable condition. Some have even died. They have been cremated and their ashes are still lying in various jails but nobody has come forward to take possession of them from India.”

“We appeal to the government on their behalf that efforts should be made to get them released. We also heard stories in Quetta that there were even Indian women jailed there,” he added.

The Sikh youth were herded into a small office where their papers were checked after being released. They were then transported by a police truck to the immigration office where they were briefed by security agencies while their papers were being checked.

In Punjab, the craving to immigrate has meant that human traffickers can charge a higher premium. Most of those who returned home today paid between Rs 3.5 lakh to Rs 6 lakh for illegally entering West Asia, Europe or the US.

Since October 2000, Indian embassies in 32 countries have forwarded to the Punjab government nearly 9,000 cases of stranded would-be immigrants for verification.

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