Her face is masked but you can see panic and tears in her eyes. She’s dressed in traditional Punjabi salwar kameez and her head is covered with a red woollen skull cap. She’s begging for help. “I have been held captive in Cyprus by an agent called Sandeep Aujla alias Kaifi,” Kaur, a victim of trafficking from the northern Indian state of Punjab, said in a video that circulated on social media earlier this year. “My family has no idea about my real situation. If something untoward happens to me, then he should be held responsible.”
Kaur is a pseudonym; all names of victims in this story have been changed for safety reasons. In the video reviewed by VICE World News, Kaur accuses an agent of deceiving, extorting and holding her captive. When Kaur first engaged with Kaifi in India, she thought she was going to Europe through a legitimate travel agent. It turned out he was trafficking her.
Kaur is not alone. Amrik Singh, a Punjabi rights activist based in Spain, has rescued more than a hundred Punjabi women like Kaur who became victims of traffickers in Europe over the last two decades. Singh, 40, said Kaur’s story follows the same pattern he’s increasingly seeing, with women landing in Europe with the help of travel agents only to realise they’ve been trafficked.
“I found that her social media accounts were deleted soon after the video came out and her phone too is switched off, which makes it harder for us to trace her. God knows where she is, but I am confident that we will find her,” Singh told VICE World News over the phone from Spain. As soon as he saw Kaur’s video on WhatsApp, he started looking for leads in his network to find her.
Based on rescues his network carried out, Singh said more Punjabi women were travelling through agents in the last decade and more were falling victim to traffickers. While women from the state made up 12 percent of trafficking victims before 2010, now almost one in four people trafficked from Punjab are women, he said.
All five survivors VICE World News spoke to are from Punjab, an agrarian state struggling with unemployment. The survivors claim that the agents promised them they would travel legally with work visas on flights to European cities. Once they landed, they found themselves in the clutches of traffickers. In Europe, many survivors said their passports were confiscated on some pretext of safekeeping but were later used as a ploy to blackmail them for more money.
Singh runs a popular Facebook page where he warns his 100,000 followers about the perils of traffickers masquerading as travel agents. He said trafficking gangs in Europe are known for brutally beating their victims into submission.
In December 2021, three women, between ages 19 and 22, left their village near the Punjabi town Kartarpur in India for Europe. Together, they paid about 16,600 euros to an agent to reach their destination countries: Italy and Germany.
Singh said their agent sent the women to Serbia, where, soon after landing, members of a Serbian trafficking gang kept them in captivity at a hotel for several days. The gang operates between India, Serbia and Pakistan, Singh told VICE World News. The women were then taken to Greece through the northern borders of Macedonia, where they were “sexually assaulted, beaten up and held in captivity for around two weeks” until they were rescued by Singh and his team, Singh said.
“They have undergone a lot of trauma,” Singh said.
For years, human rights groups focused on the trafficking of men from Punjab to Europe. A UN report in 2009 suggested that 20,000 men attempt to irregularly migrate from Punjab every year, many duped by traffickers. Based on interviews with victims and Punjabi rights activists, VICE World News found that Punjabi women were now increasingly being targeted by traffickers, with many facing sexual abuse.
Everywhere you go in Punjab, you see posters, billboards and advertisements selling dreams of “foreign travel” and “settling overseas” to Punjabis, who are ever ready to shell out money for opportunities and a better life. Almost every family in Punjab state’s Doaba region has a member living abroad. And the desire to fly off and restart life outside India is evident from the residential architecture. Many build aeroplane-shaped structures on top of their homes in the cities of Jalandhar and Nawanshahr. Agents feed off their dreams. Most operate from villages, where jobs are in short supply and aspirations are high.
Both men and women from Punjab travel overseas in search of jobs to improve their standard of living. But once they reach their destination, they often discover that “the situation is very different from what is portrayed back at home and want to return,” said Amanjot Kaur Ramoowalia of Helping Hapless, a non-profit in the Indian city of Chandigarh that helps repatriate Punjabis trapped abroad.
Ramoowalia told VICE World News she receives many requests for help from families whose daughters are stuck abroad, often in situations of modern slavery in countries in Europe like Ukraine, Belarus and Italy and in other places like Singapore, Dubai and Thailand.
In a recent parliament session, the Indian home minister claimed that there was not a single conviction in trafficking cases in 2020 across the country and all cases resulted in either acquittals or discharges. According to India’s national crime record, 15 women were trafficked from Punjab in 2020 in 11 different cases. But only two cases were processed under criminal offences, and neither led to convictions.
In May 2020, Simran’s family came in contact with what they called a “honey-tongued” travel agent named Lakhwinder Singh, who also goes by the alias Harman. He claimed he had helped many Punjabis in Europe with work visas, ID documents and permanent residency permits. He convinced them that he would help arrange legal documents, a work visa and a ticket for Italy for a fee of 7,000 euros (about $7,470 or 500,000 Indian rupees).
Two months later, Lakhwinder told Simran that her Italian work permit had been approved, but she would only receive it at the Cyprus airport on the day of her travel. “Over the next few days, he would book and cancel my flight reservations at least three times. Even then, no one in my family, nor I, doubted his credentials or his motives,” Simran told VICE World News.
Then one day in August 2020, Lakhwinder told Simran that she would be travelling to Italy through Austria. On the day of her travel, Lakhwinder gave Simran her work permit at the airport and promised to meet on the other side.
Shortly after her flight, Simran was unreachable despite several attempts from her family to contact her. “Two hours after making frantic calls, we got to know that Simran had been arrested from Cyprus airport for transgressing international law. The document provided by Lakhwinder was fake and his phone was unreachable,” Simran’s brother-in-law told VICE World News.
Simran was sentenced to a jail term of three months by a Cyprus court. However, she was released early due to good conduct. Today, she is a refugee in Cyprus, with a job in the packaging department of a chocolate factory.
Simran was not the only woman who was duped by Lakhwinder.
Nikita’s father wanted her to work in Europe. The 28-year-old’s father told VICE World News, “I was trying to find a well paying job for my daughter abroad. Lakhwinder told me that he could arrange for a work permit through his sources in Europe and the USA for a fee of 20,000 euros.”
Lakhwinder handed her the documents and disappeared after taking the payment from her father. It was only later that he realised that all the documents provided by Lakhwinder were fake.
Today, there are as many as 100 complaints registered against Lakhwinder in different districts of Punjab such as Bhatinda, Sangrur and Jalandhar for defrauding people of more than 200,000 euros, in addition to smuggling and trafficking young men and women from Punjab to various parts of Europe. His whereabouts are unknown. In some places, he is a “wanted criminal” whom villagers want dead or alive, a police officer investigating the case from Ludhiana told VICE World News.
Despite the predation of trafficking agents, a job in Europe is what many in Punjab pray for. Some travel all the way to the Sikh temple Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara, popularly called Hawai Jahaz or Aeroplane Gurudwara, on a national highway near Jalandhar.
On both sides of the serpentine lanes leading to the Gurdwara, shops are lined with toy aeroplanes. Hundreds of devotees swarm the Gurudwara every day. They make a beeline for the first floor, armed with their passport in one hand and in the other toy aeroplanes that they offer at an altar in exchange for blessings for their migration plans. On the first floor, more than 30 priests recite special prayers for migration and jobs abroad. Success stories of families getting permanent citizenship abroad are announced over loudspeakers.
Amrinder Singh Khalsa, a head priest of a nearby Gurdwara, told VICE World News that he does not believe offering aeroplanes at the altar will help anyone with their work visa, but hard work and staying on the legal path will. “We have to come out of this slave mentality to save the youth of our land,” he said.
Trafficking victims stories circulate within Punjabi families with virality, but no one talks about their plight.
“The trafficking of Punjabi women is often missing from the conversation on trafficking, mostly because female victims are not permitted to talk about their exploitation, owing to the stigma attached,” Dr Suneel Kumar, a strategic and regional studies professor at the University of Jammu, told VICE World News. “A lot of issues have to be taken into account, like who will marry them if such knowledge becomes public.”
“There is desperation among the Punjabi youth to leave the country. While most choose the legal route, there are those who are unskilled, unemployed and living in the rural areas who are desperate to go abroad,” he said.
“In most cases, their rural farms are getting smaller and they are hopeful of a bright future once they reach overseas. Also, since people in these areas do not have the means to fulfill the legal criteria, they get into the trap of these traffickers,” Kumar added.
Besides economic and employment motivations, Punjabis have a history of migration starting from 1849, when Sikhs were inducted into the British Imperial Indian Army and travelled abroad to fight wars. Many returned with stories of promising farmlands across oceans, inspiring troves of Punjabi men to set sail for new countries and homes.
To deter trafficking in Punjab, the state government passed regulations in 2012 and 2013 that included requirements for travel agents. However, agents continue to scam hopeful Punjabis with illegal or fake visas, according to Punjab police. Based on their data, half of the 2,140 cases registered against travel agents in Punjab between 2017 and 2019 came under fraud offences and 25 percent of them came under the anti-trafficking regulation. And then there are 28 anti-human trafficking units across Punjab, which regularly train police officers in handling trafficking cases.
Training is essential. Kumar said that despite the state enacting legislation to fight trafficking, the investigation and prosecution of such cases is difficult given its transnational character and complexity.
Human rights advocate Arjun Sheoran told VICE World News that many people who are trafficked do not pursue legal cases because they are afraid as they think they might come under legal scrutiny themselves. “Since the Indian Penal Code is very broad, prosecution becomes extremely difficult and there is reluctance in pushing forth and implementing these laws.”
In Ludhiana, the largest city in Punjab state, journalist Gurdeep Singh Takkar said that anti-trafficking regulation has curbed the illegal operation of travel agencies in some urban areas, but it has not thwarted their operations in rural areas.
“You name any country and these agents say they can send you there. In fact, many agents first want to know the budget and decide the destination country based on how much money one is willing to pay. As dangerous as it may be, this trend of travel agents duping people will not stop until Punjabis stop risking everything to go abroad and start acting wisely,” Takkar told VICE World News.
“Our biggest problem is we don’t have proper information on how to look for work abroad. In Punjab, many people want to go to Canada and Europe and are ready to pay money just to get there. In such a situation, they come under the influence of agents who end up defrauding them,” Simran’s brother-in-law Harsh said.
In Cyprus, Simran regrets the day she met Lakhwinder. “No woman should go through what I did. There are many women like me who have been duped by agents like Lakhwinder, in some cases, they have even been physically and sexually assaulted, but everyone is scared of naming their accused.”
“What makes me sad is that Lakwinder is still out roaming freely while I suffer alone, away from my family.”
This story was made possible by ‘Modern Slavery Grant’ of journalismfund.eu
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Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Amanjot Kaur Ramoowalia of Helping Hapless. We regret the error.