Human trafficking to the U.S. under cover of cultural shows rampant, say Malayali artistes

Trafficking people to the United States of America under the cover of film and cultural programmes is rampant in Kerala, say members of the Malayalam film and music industry.

Traffickers allegedly apply for group visa claiming to organise cultural programmes in the U.S. While some members of the group would be genuine artistes, others claiming to be support staff or technicians may have paid agents to get them to the U.S. The trafficking, spearheaded by unscrupulous visa sponsors based in the U.S., is carried out under the guise of the P3 visa given to artistes and entertainers.

Playback singer Madhu Balakrishnan said he had a bitter experience with the trafficking racket a few years ago. A sponsor requested the singer to take part in a show in the U.S. and promised to arrange an orchestra to back the singer. “I met the ‘orchestra’ members for the first time when I went to Chennai for the visa interview. A few of them came up to me after the interview and said that they had no musical experience and had paid Rs.3 lakh each to the sponsor so they could get to the U.S.,” Mr. Balakrishnan said. The sponsor had listed Mr. Balakrishnan as the group leader and the visas of all 19 persons in the group were approved. While the singer then backed out of the show, others in the group successfully made their way to the US.

The singer believes he has been suffering the fallout of that day. Mr. Balakrishnan said that after the episode, he had not been able to get a visa to the U.S. for the past 10 years for his name being associated with the illegal immigrants.

A prominent Malayali film actor recounted a similar experience. He said that artistes unknowingly got pulled into such scams as the sponsors signed contracts with them before they found out about the trafficking. “They applied for visa with my name as group leader. They were exploiting my fame as an artiste to traffic people abroad for money. Because I protested, I was treated inhumanly when we reached the U.S. Three members of our group fell ill and they weren’t even given any medical treatment because the sponsor did not buy us insurance to cut corners,” said the actor. He said trafficking racket was still rampant in the State. The sponsor exercised great control over the illegal immigrants and exploited them in many ways, he said. Those trafficked abroad usually find jobs in supermarkets, petrol pumps or as manual labourers. They sometimes stay on for longer periods than allowed under the visa and return after a few years.

“According to our information, those who overstay the visa period in the U.S. are simply deported. This makes people more confident about going to the country illegally. People make some money and then return to India. Genuine artistes who fall on hard times also use the P3 visa as a way to make quick money,” said Manoj K. Varghese, founder of a Kochi-based artiste and event management company.

The artistes, however, reiterated that many genuine sponsors organized good programmes in the U.S. and facilitated cultural exchange. Few unscrupulous agents, however, were exploiting the loopholes in the system.

The U.S. Consulate in Chennai said they received 674 P3 visa applications in 2013 and most of these were issued. “The P3 visa category provides a fantastic opportunity to build cultural links between the U.S. and India. Overall, the visa applicants we see in Chennai are very well-qualified and we issue in the vast majority of cases. At the same time, we take the misuse of U.S. visas very seriously, and investigate all credible allegations of visa misuse,” said a Consulate official.

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