Illegal Indian migrants  | Dream destination, nightmarish journey

A chartered plane from the UAE to Nicaragua was grounded in France for a human trafficking probe. The flight, which was carrying 303 Indians, was finally forced to return to Mumbai. Mahesh Langa reports on how those from Gujarat, frustrated by the lack of opportunities, travel abroad, especially to the U.S. and Canada, by hook or by crook, even if it means risking their lives

Updated - December 30, 2023 02:14 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2023 03:45 am IST

Passengers of the chartered plane, which was grounded in France for four days over suspected human trafficking, arrive in Mumbai.

Passengers of the chartered plane, which was grounded in France for four days over suspected human trafficking, arrive in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: PTI

On December 21, a Legend Airlines flight departed from Dubai carrying 303 Indian passengers. Hours later, the flight, which was bound for the central American country of Nicaragua, landed at the Vatry airport in France, 160 km from Paris, for a technical halt. But the flight was not allowed to take off again. The French authorities had received information that the passengers had possibly been trafficked. They swung into action, converting the airport into a makeshift tribunal and calling judges and lawyers for emergency hearings. The passengers, who were possibly tired and nervous, were summoned before a judge.

“The French authorities had received a tip-off and took it very seriously. All the 303 passengers were Indian citizens and they had boarded the flight in the UAE,” said the airlines lawyer, Liliana Bakayoko. She did not explain whether the tip-off came from a third country or an agency that has friendly ties with France.

Bakayoko said the French authorities launched an investigation immediately. “At the moment, we can say that the aircraft was hired by a non-European client (of Legend Airlines) who had also sold tickets to the Indian citizens on board,” she said. She refused to name the client.

During their interrogation, the French officials discovered that many of the passengers had booked hotel rooms in Nicaragua. A few of them had tickets to return to the UAE. They found this information intriguing as Nicaragua, bordered by Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, is known to be a popular gateway to North America, where thousands travel every year in the hope of moving upwards both socially and economically.

On December 27, however, the French authorities stopped exploring the angle of human trafficking. This was because the detained passengers informed them that they had boarded the aircraft “willingly,” Bakayoko said. The case, which had transfixed France and India for five days, took a crucial turn, for the disclosure indicated that the passengers had probably paid substantial sums of money to board the aircraft bound for Managua, Nicaragua.

The flight was grounded for four days. As neither Nicaragua nor the UAE were willing to host the aircraft, the Indian authorities urged the passengers, who held Indian passports, to return home. The flight landed in Mumbai on December 26 but with only 276 passengers. Twenty-five of the passengers had sought asylum in France instead. They were transferred to a special zone in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for asylum-seekers. “Two passengers were taken into custody as they carried with them multiple passports and a substantial amount of money,” said Bakayoko.

The plane grounded by the police at the Vatry airport took off four days after it landed in France.

The plane grounded by the police at the Vatry airport took off four days after it landed in France. | Photo Credit: AP

Donkey flights

The episode has once again called attention to the staggering number of Indians who migrate illegally to the U.S. or Canada taking ‘donkey routes’. This refers to a method where migrants transit through various countries with lenient visa policies to finally reach their dream destinations, particularly the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. Sometimes, migrants even resort to dangerous ways of crossing a border, such as traversing dense forests inhabited by wild animals and criminal gangs, or travelling in sub-zero temperatures, or crossing rivers and other water bodies in rickety boats and treacherous conditions.

Earlier popular in Punjab, ‘donkey routes’, which inspired the recent Hindi film Dunki, are now popular among Gujaratis too. Among the 303 passengers travelling from Dubai to France, 95 were reportedly from various districts of north Gujarat. The Gujarat Police have identified 21 of them, but have refused to disclose their identities. Gujarat and Punjab account for the highest number of illegal Indian migrants to the U.S. and Canada, said the police. The Gujarat Police have formed special teams to crack down on the agents who operate from villages or smaller towns and promise desperate people an ‘easy’ escape to the U.S. via donkey routes.

A police official said that the man behind this particular chartered flight is Shashi Kiran Reddy, a Hyderabad-based agent who operates a vast network of sub-agents in Gujarat and Punjab, and in the Gulf region, to facilitate illegal immigration to the U.S. “We are getting more details about the agents who facilitated the trip of these passengers,” he said.

A passenger from the Nicaragua-bound aircraft, which was grounded in France on suspicion of human trafficking, evades the media as he leaves the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport after his arrival, in Mumbai.

A passenger from the Nicaragua-bound aircraft, which was grounded in France on suspicion of human trafficking, evades the media as he leaves the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport after his arrival, in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

In Mehsana district of Gujarat, a hotbed for illegal immigration, Ramesh Patel said two of his relatives were on that flight. “I cannot reveal their names but they had been preparing for this journey for a year,” he said. “Both my relatives had gone to Dubai two weeks ago. They had taken this special flight from there.”

According to multiple sources in six villages of the districts of Gandhinagar, Mehsana, and Sabarkantha in Gujarat, hundreds of people have illegally migrated in the last two or three years. “It becomes news only when a flight is grounded or when people die while trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada or Mexico. Otherwise, this practice goes on unabated. Hundreds of people have made it to these places safely,” said Parbat Chaudhary, a resident of Visnagar, a city in Mehsana district.

Nehaben Patel, a resident of Sabarkantha, said this is a common practice and takes place with the knowledge of the local authorities. “One of the factors fuelling this surge is the opportunities abroad. People don’t find any opportunities here. There are no well-paying jobs and sometimes no jobs at all in villages, smaller towns, and even cities. If they move to a big city like Ahmedabad, it is expensive. They would rather spend money to move to the U.S. through illegal routes and make more of their lives there.”

A community leader from Mehsana claimed that most of the government recruitment exams have been rigged or marred with allegations of corruption and irregularities in the last 15 years. “There is a sense that only those who pay money or are well-connected get government jobs,” he said. “There are no well-paying private jobs. So, it is better to be in some menial job in Canada or the U.S. and earn well than stay here in India and struggle forever.”

Tragic journeys

In the last two years, at least nine Indians have died while trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada or Mexico. In January 2022, a family of four from Dingucha village in Gandhinagar district — Jagdish Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; and their daughters Vihangi, 11, and Dharmik, 3, — set off from Dingucha with Canada visitor visas stamped in their passports. About a week later, the family reached Emerson, a small town on the U.S.-Canada border. They decided to make the arduous journey to the U.S. on foot. It was peak winter. Temperatures in the region sometimes drop to below -30°C. The next day, their bodies were discovered in snow. They had frozen to death just metres from the U.S. border. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the incident as a “mind-blowing tragedy”.

In December 2022, Brijkumar Yadav from Mehsana district died while scaling the Mexico-U.S. border wall, popularly called the Trump Wall, with his wife and three-year-old son. His wife and son survived and are now in the U.S.

In April 2023, another family of four from Manekpura village in Mehsana died when the boat they were travelling in capsized in the St. Lawrence River at the U.S.-Canada border. The victims were identified as Pravinbhai Chaudhari, 49; his wife Dakshaben, 45; their daughter Vidhi, 23; and son Meet, 20. Their bodies were washed ashore on marshy land.

In April this year, Jignesh Barot and his wife Vandana from Kalol near Gandhinagar boarded a flight for Colombo in Sri Lanka. From there, the couple had planned to go to Europe, then Mexico, and finally to the U.S. Vignesh and Vandana and another couple had agreed to pay ₹75 lakh-₹90 lakh to an agent, Kamlesh Barot, the police said. Kamlesh accompanied the two couples to Colombo. From there, all of them flew to Jakarta in Indonesia where they were asked to stay till their visa for Canada was cleared. The couples were introduced to another agent, Rajesh Vira, and Kamlesh returned to India.

The two couples spent several weeks in Jakarta waiting for visas which never came. They ran out of money. Finally, in July, they returned to India with the help of relatives. Kamlesh, Vira, and another agent, Prakash Sindhi, reportedly threatened the couples who had demanded that the agents give their money back. The two couples had paid the agents around ₹10 lakh each while taking the flight to Sri Lanka. On returning, the couples lodged a complaint against Kamlesh, who was arrested by the Gandhinagar Police on charges of cheating and fraud.

Editorial | Desperation in distress: On migration attempts by Indians to the developed world 

“Such complaints keep coming because people want to leave and go to the U.S. through illegal routes even if that means risking their lives,” said a police inspector from north Gujarat.

‘No improvement in living standards here’

In Manekpura, few were willing to speak about why middle-class families prefer to live illegally in the U.S. or Canada than remain in India. “There is no future for some people here. There are fewer opportunities, incomes are stagnant, and there is no improvement in living standards. People take massive risks to secure the future of their children. They think it is worth it if they safely make it to their destination,” said a resident.

“Many families have relatives in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. Whenever their relatives come home, people here are in awe of their lifestyle and living standards. Those relatives now own property in cities like Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. So, the people here think that if they also move out, they will be better off in a few years. Here, all they can do is some farming or run a small-time business,” said a local politician from Gandhinagar, who admits that many people seek his help or support for moving out.

Some young people are so desperate to move that they adopt unusual ways to pass through illegal channels, said the police. Last September, for instance, the Mehsana Police booked 45 people for running an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) racket. They had found that four young men from Mehsana had scored a high rank in the IELTS exam without appearing for it and had sought admissions into colleges in Canada. The four immigrants were caught by the U.S. Border Authorities while trying to cross into the country from Canada in April 2022. When they appeared before the Northern District Court of New York, they were unable to speak or understand a word of English.

From November 2022 to September 2023, up to 96,917 Indians were arrested while crossing illegally into the U.S., according to the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Of them, 30,010 were caught on the Canadian border and 41,770 at the frontier with Mexico. A year-wise break-up of the numbers of those arrested or apprehended suggests that the number of people moving to these countries in desperation is increasing. In 2019-20, there were 19,883 Indians apprehended. In 2020-21, up to 30,662 Indians were arrested while in 2021-22 this number was 63,927. After the deaths of the Patel family and due to the frequency of such incidents, U.S. and Canadian authorities have expressed concern to the authorities in Gujarat about the sprawling network of agents enabling this practice.

“Even as an illegal migrant, life seems much better in the U.S. Here, nothing is free except your vote and the empty chatter of our leaders,” said a resident of Mansa whose family members moved to the U.S. about a decade ago and started a business. 

From incidents in January and February this year, nine people remain missing after they left from Gujarat. The Ministry of External Affairs told the Gujarat High Court that India has not been able to locate them. No one knows whether they have reached their destination, were caught and put in jail, or have died.  

With inputs from Kallol Bhattacherjee in New Delhi

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