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The Borderliners

Illegal Indian immigrants to EU find friends in the Russian mafia

The Borderliners
The spurt in the number of illegal migrants from Asia, particularly India, is ringing alarm bells in the interior ministries of many countries of the European Union. Using Moscow as their base, and the Baltic states, Finland and Sweden as their main entry points, an increasing number of Indians are reportedly getting into Europe from the north. Deportation figures indicate that a majority of these Indians are from Punjab who have sold off their land to make their journey to the promised land.

According to the Russian embassy here, over 1,000 Indians had been deported from Russia in 2001. "I would imagine the figure would be around the same for last year," says Andrey Zhiltsov, first secretary for political affairs in the Russian embassy, who does not wish to get into specific figures. The number of Indian nationals who evade the net and stay on using forged identities is a guess both officials in South Block and the Russian embassy wouldn't like to hazard. But raw officials say that for every illegal migrant deported, there are three on the run. According to them, the numbers have only been increasing in the past two years.

On January 13, 20 Indians and 70 Chinese, who were illegally put up in two pokey apartments in Ukraine's capital Kiev, were picked up. With the help of "guides", the group had travelled from Moscow and crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. Each of them paid $7,000-$10,000 to an agent for transporting them to western Europe.

Criminal organisations involved in human trafficking have moved in, say MEA officials. There are enough Indians willing to risk the perilous journey. Globally, the network stretches across Asia to Europe. "Often they are left to fend for themselves when they run out of money or when the middlemen ditch them. They, then, swim in icy waters, traverse huge distances in inclement weather and many die," says an MEA hand on the Eastern Europe desk.

The road to Europe is fraught with dangers. Once the money is paid to the middlemen, the migrants are ill-treated and housed in flats with inadequate heating. To cut down on expenses, the agents feed them chappi or dog's food. And when the authorities catch up with them, the middlemen abandon them to fight it out on their own.

The modus operandi of illegal entry varies from one human trafficking gang to the other. The southern route is most often used by Romanians. Says an MEA official: "The eastern route, controlled by the Russian gangs, is used to transport Asians, mainly Armenians and Indians." The starting point is Moscow from where the migrants take the train to Belarus and are then taken by road to the Polish border with Lithuania or Ukraine, and finally into the EU. Most of these migrants coming from the east try to enter Poland through the porous 105-km-long Lithuanian border.

The guards manning these borders can be easily bribed, making the job of sneaking in illegal migrants easy. In August last year, a Ukranian soldier, Sergei Anikeenko, helped 15 Indians and Bangladeshis get in through the Russia-Ukraine border. He was later sentenced to three years in prison.

That illegal migration is becoming a lucrative business for the mafia is not lost on the Indian government and the Russian embassy. At the consular talks held in November 2002, both India and Russia agreed to jointly tackle the problem. However, MEA officials admit that some of the cis missions "deny" that illegal migration is happening. "Almost every day we get 20 faxes from our missions in Russia and the cis inquiring about the antecedents of those who have been illegally staying there and if their relatives can be contacted," says an official.

On its part, the Russian embassy says it has tightened controls on issuing visas in the past two years.Despite this, 18,000 visas were issued from New Delhi alone last year. Russia has consulates in Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai as well. "We now ensure that only original documents are given before we issue visas to prospective tourists," says Zhiltsov. But he admits that from time to time the embassy detects that the furnished documents are fake. "They look exactly the same as the original and only when these people are detained in Russia do we realise they are fraud," he says.
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