Malta to Panama: Another immigrant tragedy leaves Punjab government unmoved

Chandigarh, Jan 20 (IANS) The lack of will on the part of the Punjab government and its agencies to curb the activities of unscrupulous immigration and travel agents who lure youth from the state by promising them immigration to western countries has again brought misery to a number of families.

The illegal immigration racket has resulted in around 25 youth from Punjab going missing after the boat, in which they were trying to sail illegally to the United States, reportedly capsized near the central American country of Panama on January 10. One of the survivors gave information on the tragedy to his family last week.

The Punjab government, led by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, has just done the customary routine – urging the centre to intervene, setting up a control room to inform affected families and sending officials abroad to know about the missing youth.

The Panama boat tragedy is nothing different from the Malta one of December 1996 in which 283 youth from Punjab went missing after their boat too capsized.

“In the past nearly 20 years, after the Malta boat tragedy, chargesheet has not even been filed against the 29 travel agents who were booked by the CBI,” activist Balwant Singh Khera, who set up the Malta Boat Tragedy Mission and has been pursuing the case, pointed out.

While three accused were punished in Italy, those accused in India have remained free. Seven of these accused have died in the past two decades.

In April 2002, another boat capsized near Turkey in which 20 youth went missing.

The Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Act, which was passed in 2012 and notified the next year, was brought in to check illegal immigration from the state and save youth from falling into the trap of illegal agents.

The law mandated that all immigration agents had to obtain a licence from the state government to operate there. However, hundreds of unregistered agents continue to operate unchecked.

The illegal immigration industry, according to trade insiders, is worth between Rs 2,000 crore to Rs. 2,500 crore annually due to the craze among youth to settle abroad.

“The Punjab government is responsible for taking action against fake immigration agents. The Panama incident has again shown that no action is being taken,” former chief minister and Congress leader Rajinder Kaur Bhattal said.

In April 2014, the North American Punjabi Association (NAPA) had brought to light the plight of Punjabi youth who were detained in a prison in Texas in the United States after being arrested for illegal immigration.

The arrested youth, upset with the treatment being meted out to them, went on a hunger strike inside the prison.

It is believed that over 15,000 youth from Punjab, who became part of the illegal immigration racket, are languishing in prisons in various countries.

In the past, there have been instances of youth indulging in illegal immigration – called ‘kabootarbaazi’ (Pigeon flying).

In 2010, the Punjab government sought the help of the central government to secure the release of 37 Punjabi youth who were languishing in prisons in Spain.

(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at

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