THE DEATH of six-year-old Gurpreet Kaur, a Punjabi girl who died of heat stroke in an Arizona desert last Tuesday after her mother allegedly left her with other migrants and went searching for water, has put a spotlight on the common practice of Punjabis taking the help of unscrupulous travel agents to enter the USA.
According to reports by American news agencies, Gurpreet and her mother were two of five Indians who were trying to enter the country through Lukeville town, where they were dropped by “human smugglers” on Tuesday morning.
A large number of Punjabis are entering North America from Mexico through ‘donkey flights’ (see box), paying huge amounts of money. Law enforcement agencies have little control over this racket and around a dozen people have either died or gone missing on the way.
A look at similar cases in the past few years
On August 21, 2018, 18-year-old Davinderpal Singh from Begowal town in Kapurthala district had died of starvation in a Mexico forest while trying to get into USA via Moscow, Greece, then Italy, claimed his family. He had left his home on June 13, 2018, and landed in Mexico on July 1. After July 6, his family could not reach him.
Many raids, but cases go cold
After several incidents of Punjabis going missing while trying to cross the border — especially the Kapurthala incidents — police had conducted raids to catch travel agents involved in human smuggling. While they file cases, that is about as far as police action goes. The number of cases where these agents are actually caught, is extremely low. In June 2018, Kapurthala police had booked 25 illegal travel agents. In May 2018, Jalandhar police had booked 20 agents who had no licences for operating travel agencies. They were booked for cheating and and under the Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Act. However, most of them are still at large.
Sukhwinder Singh, Davinderpal’s father, said they had paid Rs 24 lakh to a Hoshiarpur-based agent who had promised to take their son directly to the USA. He said that the agent had taken money in two installments of Rs 10 lakh and Rs 14 lakh. Kapurthala police had booked the agent, but no further action was taken, he said, adding that Davinderpal died of starvation as he walked for days to reach the US border. “One should not believe these agents who are smuggling youth,” he said.
On May 30, 2016, 15-year-old Ravinder Singh from Salempur village of Hoshiarpur district, drowned in the All-American Canal just north of the US-Mexico border, in Calexico, California, while illegally entering the United States. His photos were published in American newspapers, seeking assistance to identify the body. One of his uncles in the USA identified him from a bracelet with a Sikh religious symbol, and a partially amputated finger.
Gurpal Singh, Ravinder’s father and an ex-serviceman said he had sent his son through an agent of Nangli village by paying Rs 28 lakh. The family came to know about his death 33 days after it happened.
In January 2016, two youths from Kapurthala also reportedly drowned in the Atlantic sea while travelling by boat along the Colombian/Panama border (South America). Kapurthala police had arrested some local agents, but there was no further development in the case.
In the same year, a Punjab police officer from Tanda broke his backbone when he jumped a wall in Mexico to cross the US boundary. He died in a US hospital.
In December 2017, Gurbachan Singh, a retired police inspector, lost his son in Colombia. Palwinder Singh (39), who was trying to reach America after paying Rs 6 lakh of the total Rs 25 lakh to a travel agent from Daburji village near Tanda.
In December 2017, five youths from Doaba went missing on their way to America. The families had paid Rs 12 lakh in advance to travel agents. The remaining Rs 23 lakh each was to be paid after they landed in the USA.
“My brother left home on May 27, 2017, and an agent of Mehandipur village had told us that he will reach the USA in five days. We last spoke to my brother on August 2, 2017, when he was still on his way,” said Satwinder Kaur, sister of Inderjit Singh (22) of Abdullapur village in Hoshiarpur district. Inderjit was a Class XII at the time. His father serves in the army.
In February last year, 50 Sikhs were put in jail in Oregon USA for the same reason.
The North America Punjabi Association’s (NAPA) executive director Satnam Singh Chahal said hundreds of people from Punjab are entering the US through Mexico and are getting caught by police. “We have been taking up their cases to get them released from jail,” he added.
Since the Malta boat tragedy in 1996 in which 283 youths, mostly Punjabis, were killed, 65 youths have gone missing en-route to Spain and USA between 2002 and 2010.
What are donkey flights?
An illegal method of entering a foreign country. Local travel agents from Punjab, Delhi and foreign countries are involved in such rackets where they get people, mostly youths, to reach the US and other countries by travelling from one place to other in search of illegal entry points to enter the destination nation. “Illegal immigrants are taken to a particular country on tourist visas and from there, different road, sea and air routes are adopted to enter the destination country. Sometimes even fake documents are provided to these migrants at the time of travelling,” said a police officer.
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