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Punjab's broken dreams

Millions head abroad to make it big, and return empty handed

Punjab's broken dreams

Jatinder Singh: his stay in the UK cost thousands of dollars and ended in deportation 

Ritu Sharma, Punjab

February 28, 2014

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A large poster of the London Eye towers over Jatinder Singh as he sits in his room pondering an uncertain future. Five years ago, Singh packed his bag and left for the United Kingdom. His family had spent more than US$16,000 for his ticket, visa and travel agent fees; Jatinder wanted to make big money.

But last year, British police arrested and detained him. He was later deported and found himself back in his village in the Jalandhar district of northern India’s Punjab. His crime: he had overstayed his six-month business visa by four and a half years.

Jatinder is among thousands who have lived illegally overseas and been deported home, often with the country of deportation slapping a three-year ban on them. An estimated 15,000 from Punjab state alone are languishing in jails abroad for migrating or staying illegally.

“It [the business visa] was a just to way get out of India,” he says. “I have no idea how to start a business. I wanted to earn lots of money and initially worked at a construction site but my visa expired after six months and I had to be careful about what I did, otherwise the police would have arrested me earlier.”

Punjab’s population has undergone something of a drain, with 10 million people migrating to developed nations, largely drawn by images of prosperity they see on television. Many however end up on the streets, or working in the sex industry, their dreams shattered.

"Survival is difficult for those staying illegally because they cannot get a job and so they engage in illegal activities to earn money," said Ranjeet Singh, 26, from Nawan Shahr, who was deported from the UK in December last year after overstaying his visa. “I have seen many of my friends getting into drugs. Girls become sex workers to earn easy money.”

The wasted money and ambition can cut deep. “My family spent millions of rupees for admissions,” she says. “Our savings all got wasted on me and I spent the prime of my life doing nothing in the UK.”

Amanpreet Kaur, 29, from Amritsar district, said some people sleep on the streets of Western capitals and take food from "community kitchens organized in Sikh shrines.” Those who go on an education visa are often duped, said Kaur, who returned from the UK last August. Youths in Punjab are so obsessed about going abroad that "they don’t even check the details of colleges they join."

Realizing the extent of the duplicity of travel agents who broker visas for migrants, the Punjabi government passed a law on February 25 – the Punjab Travel Professional Regulation Act – which makes it mandatory for agents to get a government license to operate in the state.

“It is quite a positive move. It will help track down the movements of Indian people in other countries as the record of every travel agent will be registered with the government,” Monish Sekhri, an Amritsar-based travel agent told

Caritas International, the Catholic Church's social service wing, supports Caritas India in helping find new jobs or business for the deported. The organization informs its New Delhi office of deportation cases, and offers financial assistance to deportees to start businesses. 

Jackson Hans from the Caritas office in Punjab said the project, which began in 2011, has handled over 200 deportation cases and now receives seven to eight cases a month, he said.

The migration pattern shows few signs of letting up. Many in Punjab sell all their farmland with the hope of making it big in the West. Those who do not have any land mortgage their homes or borrow money from their relatives or money lenders. When deported, they return broke, both financially and mentally.

“Some want to earn money so that they can repay the debt their parents have taken for sending them abroad,” said Jackson Hans, lamenting that the decision to up sticks and leave, places migrants at significant risk. “They don’t like coming home empty handed as losers, so they over stay putting their life at stake.”

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