“Kabootar bazi” has become an accepted euphemism for human trafficking. The word frequently appears in Indian news media and even in folk songs. In Indian Punjab, the non-resident Indian label is a badge of honour that has seen the price for illegal emigration soar to millions of rupees. Desperate young men may sell their land, borrow huge amounts, hide as stowaways in trailers, trek for several days at a stretch with little to eat through eastern European countries and Mexico before making it to some western European nations, the United States and then to Canada.
In January this year, two adults, a teenage boy and a child were frozen to death and two others seriously injured after apparently trying to walk south across the Manitoba border into the U.S. in extreme winter conditions. They were passing through an area that has become notorious for frequent and treacherous illegal border crossings. The government of India announced later that six people were detained in a crackdown on kabootar bazi. The U.S. authorities also charged an American with human trafficking in the case.
In April this year, three Sikh religious musician-singers landed in Toronto on April 6 to perform their religious duties on a work visa sponsored by the Sikh temple committee. Instead of starting their duties as such, they vanished the same evening. These three were the Huzoori Raagis (respected musician-singers who perform in the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab) who are always held in high esteem by the Sikhs.
In another previous incident, four members of a musician-singer group were given a formal farewell in March 2018 in Ontario, but three of them vanished the same night. They were supposed to get their flight home the next morning.
In 1996, the worst of the tragedies occurred when 283 people, including many from Punjab, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea near Malta on Christmas Eve. They were on an old, wooden ship carrying illegal immigrants from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to Italy.
Of late, Canada’s international student visa program is being exploited mercilessly. Many Indian students offer their female counterparts an all-expenses-paid education in Canadian colleges and universities in return for marrying them and travelling with them to Canada. It is a back door entry to Canada. The offers are even made through newspaper advertisements.
In exchange for funding the foreign student, the pseudo spouses come and live in Canada and legally work up to 40 hours a week. It is an easy way to get permanent residency here. Now reports have started emerging in newspapers about these women refusing to sponsor their “spouses” once they are here in Canada. They feel duped.
In 2019, an Indian, Ravi Babu Kolla, in the U.S. pleaded guilty to charges of running a fake marriage racket. Between February 2017 and August 2018, he ran an immigration marriage fraud business in Bay County, Fla., that recruited U.S. citizens to marry Indian foreign nationals to gain immigration benefits. An investigation identified over 80 fraudulent marriages that were performed in Alabama.
Last year in the U.S., a complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., on behalf of more than 200 Indian construction workers, alleged “shocking violations of the most basic laws applicable to workers in the U.S., including laws prohibiting forced labour.” They were about 200 marginalized workers from India who were allegedly recruited to build an enormous Hindu temple.
The Indian diaspora is very unhappy and shocked at these incidents. They feel they create problems for genuine immigrants. It is a matter of shame for all of the community when highly respected people from different religious backgrounds display disgraceful behaviour and bring ignominy to the name of the community.
The concerned authorities on both sides must have due diligence and India must tackle the few unscrupulous travel agents with an iron hand.
Rishi Nagar is the news director at Red FM 106.7 in Calgary, a member of the Calgary Police Service’s Anti-Racism Committee and a member of the senate of the University of Calgary.