Kabootarbaazi: The immigration racket
Raj Kumar is a kabootarbaaz, literally a pigeon handler but now the slang word in northern India for those who organise illegal immigration. People like Kumar make money from kabootars — those desperate to get to promised lands where jobs and social security are available. Kumar, who operates out of a South Delhi colony, doesn’t forge documents; he ensures a visa to a foreign country where the potential immigrant must then disappear and make his own way. Here’s what this business is all about, in 45-year-old Kumar’s own words:
You may call me a trafficker, illegal immigrant pusher or kabootarbaaz, but I take pride in my work. Most of us consider our profession as an instrument to level the playing field and bring an end to economic disparity. My clients are largely from rural Punjab or Gujarat, lured by the glamour of a western lifestyle. They approach us by word of mouth. We never make or help make forged documents. Our services are procuring a valid visa and ensuring that the client reaches the destination, often with the help of a ‘carrier’. After that, how the banda (colloquial for person, here client) dissolves into the foreign country is not our headache. For European countries, barring the UK, we charge around ₹5 lakh. For the UK, Canada and the US, the fee is double. The payment is made part in India and rest after the client reaches ‘home’. I specialize in Schengen countries. Most of our clients want to go to Germany as their family circle is there. We have mapped lenient or ‘pliable’ embassies. When we find German embassy ‘uncooperative’ in a case, we get the Schengen visa through countries like Malta (the most preferred one), Czech Republic, Spain, Slovenia, etc. From there, the banda travels by road or train to reach Germany. There are two tricky parts in this game. Not papers, but visa and the immigration. Documents like passport, IT return and PAN card must always be genuine. Normally, embassies suspect young people leaving India for Europe. So, we need a carrier, with respectable track record, to vouch for the client as an assistant or an employee of the traveller (carrier). The carrier, depending upon our client could be a failed sportsman, B-grade musician, retired Army officer or bureaucrat who has fallen on bad times. I have personally used all these categories of carriers. For a group, since the stakes are high, we first visit the destination country ourselves and go through their annual event calendar. We mark events like a trade fair, local cricket tournament or an Indian classic music programme. Now, depending upon the pack, we decide how to plan the ‘departure’. If our pack is an athletic looking young lot, we mark local sports events. Else, a business expo or a local music event. The next target is to search for the right carrier to lead the troupe or team. Here is how it works: I place an ad in newspapers looking for retired officers who are well travelled, and willing to work as partners in a new venture. I then screen the unscrupulous or desperate ones, luring them with a free return ticket to a foreign country, a brief stay and $500. We then disguise our clients as junior musicians, a sports team, or representatives of an exporters group looking for printing tech, and apply for the visa. The invites are mostly genuine and the carrier has his/her career record to back the ‘team’. Very few European embassies seek personal interviews. Besides, the language barrier works to our advantage. Only in a rare case is an application rejected.
WHO MAKES WHAT
Agent: ₹5-10 Lakh Carrier: $500-1000 plus return ticket and boarding expenses Immigration Officials: ₹25-50,000 Embassy Officials: Unspecified
The next barrier is the immigration desk. There are many agents who try to bypass this barrier to save loose change. This is foolish. Immigration officials, often drawn from security services, can easily tell a genuine traveler from a kabootar. Their fee, called cutsey (probably derived from courtesy), barely crosses ₹50,000. If you ever come across a case where illegal immigrants or fraudulent travelers were caught at airport, you can be sure that the agent hadn’t paid the immigration desk. Since immigration desk works under CCTV cameras, last-minute deals are impossible or very expensive. What happens when the banda reaches destination? I told you this is not our concern. But to your information, mostly they contact their community, hide their passports and find local jobs. These jobs could be night shifts at various 24X7 shops, or in remote areas. When the support is good, mostly in UK or US, the banda hires a lawyer and applies for asylum and, later, citizenship. Some stay there in jobs to later apply for social security number with the help of rights groups. In that case, Canada is the most benevolent. In other places, the banda can get away by either bribing the cops or by destroying their passports and preferring a jail term while simultaneously applying for social security benefits with the help of rights groups. The real Ram Rajya for an illegal immigrant is not in India, Sirji. It is in Europe. Try it.
— With editorial assistance from LokMarg; name of travel changed to maintain anonymity