Illegal immigration: A global problem

The issue of Punjabi youth being duped by travel agents has once again come to the forefront, since a number of Punjabi workers who are stranded in Iraq are those who had paid travel agents large amounts for lucrative jobs in the Gulf, but ended up in Iraq – against their wishes. Over 500 workers from Punjab are stranded in Iraq, the maximum number – 224 – are from Hoshiarpur district. Out of the 40 youth kidnapped by ISIS in Mosul most are Punjabis.

While these youth are promised handsome salaries, they actually get much lesser and work in dismal conditions. Construction workers for example get 1/3rd of the salaries they are meant to get. While they are promised salaries of nearly $1000, they end up getting less than half. Most Punjabi workers are employed as construction workers or plumbers. It is also common practice for their employers in these countries to confiscate their passports. Over 200 youths from Punjab are currently stuck in the town of Karbala, and the company which has employed them has confiscated their passports, and will only return the passports if the workers pay $1100.

While Punjabis have had a penchant for migrating to different parts of the world for long, in search of a good life. During the late 19th and early 20th century migration took place to California and Canada, a large number of Punjabis also went to Malaysia, Kenya during the British period. This trend continued post Independence, with large scale migration continuing, especially to UK, USA and Canada, from the Doaba belt. During the phase of militancy a large number of families from Majha (the border belt consisting of Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts) sought asylum in the Western world, especially UK, Canada, US, Sweden and Germany. The current trend of Punjabi youth fleeing to foreign lands is very different. Innocent youth are selling of their properties and paying large sums of money to travel agents who make false promises to these youth. There are no precise figures. While a report by the UNODC estimates that over 20,000 Punjabi youth migrate using ‘illegal/irregular’ methods. Another 2013 study ‘Irregular immigration from India to the EU: Evidence from the Punjab’ authored by Viresh Kumar Bhawra and Published by the European University Institutes argues that the actual figure is closer to 1,800.

The Lok Bhalai Manch founded by Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, currently with the Shiromani Akali Dal, has been raising this issue of illegal immigration for nearly two decades. The Malta Boat tragedy in 1996 in which 170 Indian youth, out of which 88 were Punjabi, died after their ship drowned in the Meditteranean sea. These youth had planned to migrate to Greece. Due to the assiduous efforts of an NGO by the name of ‘Malta Boat Tragedy Boat Mission’, compensation to the families of these victims was granted nearly a decade after the tragedy. Yet, this has not deterred travel agents from luring Punjabi youth. Instances of youth being cheated continue. Punjabi youth were in fact lured to Iraq and worked in desolate conditions and were paid paltry salaries. These youth were able to return in 2011, due to the efforts of civil rights activists, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the Indian Embassy in Iraq.

In 2010, The Human Smuggling Act was passed in the Punjab Assembly, the name of this act was later changed to Punjab Travel regulation act. While one of the main provisions of the act is that travel agents must have licences, few firms have actually applied for a licence. The act has also been considerably diluted with many travel agents of the state complaining that the provisions of the act are excessively severe on agents. It is not the youth or travel agents who are to blame, but also successive governments in Punjab. Firstly, the economy of the state is in shambles, and there are scarce opportunities for the youth. The level of education, too leaves much to be desired and youth of the state are not employable. A lot of parents are also vary of their children falling prey to drugs, which again is a serious issue afflicting the state.

Second, while other states, such as Kerala and Andhra Pradesh with high migration have set up ‘Migration Centres’, Punjab has not invested in this. On the other hand, large sums of money are pumped in to NRI Sabhas for attracting investments to the state. Another area where the government has miserably failed is launching a sustained campaign against illegal immigration, and cracking down on these agents. Action is taken against these travel agents, but it is sporadic. There is also not enough coordination between the Central and State government on this issue.
Finally, it would be appropriate to mention that the displays of pomp and show by Punjabi NRI’s during their visits to the state, remittances, palatial houses as well as ostentatious marriages influence Punjabi youth who believe that migration to foreign lands will help them in accomplishing their goals. It is imperative, that the state government takes the issue of illegal immigration and tries to come up with both the short term and long term solutions required for dealing with this problem. While the long term solution is creating more opportunities for the youth, and a higher standard of education. In the short term, a number of other steps can be taken: The first is cracking down on all these agents in Punjab, as well as greater coordination between different agencies of the state government.

Second, the government should start a campaign against illegal immigration not just in the media, but also by increasing awareness at the school level. It would also be a good idea to set up centres which provide skills which are in demand, and these vocational institutes along with the government and immigration consultants recognized by the government, can facilitate migration.

Finally, the study by Bhawra also makes an important recommendation that the MOIA appoints a nodal officer who looks after issues pertaining to illegal immigration. State governments like Punjab have already appointed police officers at the district level to deal with complaints, an officer at the Central level who can coordinate with state governments as well as Indian Embassies abroad will strengthen the campaign against this menace.

While other migration related issues get a lot of media space, the issue of illegal migration from Punjab has been neglected for long. It is time that both the state government as well as national government paid attention to this issue.

The author is a New Delhi-based policy analyst
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