- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

CHANDIGARH, India — Every morning, turbaned Sikh youths wanting to fly away from home at any cost line up outside New Delhi’s foreign embassies.

Several embassies have signs in the Punjabi language. Others have staff who speak the native language of India’s northern state of Punjab, which accounts for the highest number of immigrants from India.

To cater to the growing Punjab market, the Canadian High Commission is opening a consulate in Chandigarh today. Prime Minister Jean Chretien is scheduled to attend today’s opening ceremony.

More than 60 percent of India’s 100,000 permanent immigrants each year are from northwest India, especially Punjab.

Known for their grit, hard work and perseverance, many youths from rural Punjab share a single dream — to leave India for greener pastures. To capitalize on this yearning, travel agents have opened shops all across the state.

They advertise in local newspapers offering “guaranteed visas and safe travel.” Sometimes, they organize fake wedding invitations so people can be sent overseas.

So great is the desire to go to a better place and seek their fortune that the migrants sometimes agree to become human cargo. Many have crossed into Western Europe in frozen-food trucks, sometimes paying with their lives.

On Christmas Eve 1996, a 60-foot wooden boat carrying Indians — mostly young people from Punjab — as well as Pakistanis and Sri Lankans, sank on the high seas in the Mediterranean Sea near Malta, killing nearly 350 people. The boat was overloaded.

Survivors said they paid up to $8,000 each for the voyage.

When authorities finally cracked down on questionable travel agents, celebrities became involved in the issue to publicize the human trafficking to the West, particularly North America.

Illegal immigration is both quick and easy.

During much of the 1980s, Punjab experienced a Sikh separatist uprising, during which both militant groups and the Indian government were accused of human rights abuses. Many Sikh youths used the opportunity to travel abroad for international conferences, then disappeared to request political asylum.

When the rebellion faded in the 1990s, people began using sporting events to leave the country.

In August, five women from a cricket club in Punjab disappeared a day after they arrived in England for a tournament. There have been several other instances when club-level hockey and soccer players have “vanished” on reaching the United States or Canada.

A more secure and reliable way, however, is “the folk route.”

Well-known musicians going abroad take along would-be immigrants as assistants or helpers. These people, known locally as “kabootars,” or “pigeons,” then take flight.

Last week, Punjab police charged India’s best-known bhangra artist, Daler Mehndi, and his brother with trafficking in people. Police say they have 31 complaints against Mr. Mehndi.

Although Mr. Mehndi is on the run after jumping bail, his brother, Shamsher Singh, was arrested after complaints he had promised to smuggle migrants abroad by passing them off as members of Mr. Mehndi’s troupe. Before jumping bail, Mr. Mehndi denied the charges against him and accused his brother of misusing his name.

Police seized six passports of hopeful “kabootars” during a raid on Mr. Mehndi’s home. Police say investigations have revealed that Mr. Mehndi charged hopefuls between $20,000 and $30,000 to disguise them as dancers in his bhangra troupe.

Bhangra music combines folk beats and lyrics from Punjab.

Another Punjabi singer, Sukhwinder Panchhi, was arrested in the city of Jalandhar after being accused of cheating a woman who wanted to send her son abroad. The singer told police he had successfully transported about a dozen “pigeons” to the United States over the past five years.

“We are aware of the magnitude of this problem,” A.A. Siddiqui, director-general of Punjab police, told the Tribune daily, adding that this year through July, Punjab police received 1,909 requests from Indian missions abroad to verify the background and identities of landed “pigeons.”

Foreign missions in India have tightened their visa requirements for cultural troupes after being alerted by police.

Critics, however, say such measures will not deter those who want to leave.

“If police close one door, the travel agents will open hundreds of others to send people abroad,” said Jagat Mohan Jerath of the psychology department of Punjab University in Chandigarh. “The motivation to go abroad is very high, and people would try any method to fly away.”

He said that beside easy money, celebrities tend to ignore the law.

“There is some sort of a feeling that they are immune toward breaking law,” he said.

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