The increasing global influence of India and its workforce has meant a sharp rise in overseas travel over the past decade. This also has an unintended consequence - it has led to the proliferation of fly-by-night travel agencies that were committing visa and immigration fraud.
The fraud has grown exponentially over the years and is starting to create a reputational issue for India and its travellers so there is pressure on the government at the state and central level to firmly act against unregistered travel agents.
Almost every other day, there are reports of Indian travellers being held back or deported from foreign countries because their visas or the information provided to secure the visas were found to be fake.
The people in the state of Punjab, keen on travel to countries like Canada which has a large immigrant Sikh population, are one of the biggest victims of immigration and visa fraud.
According to the data released by the Punjab Police on Twitter, 900 cheating and fraud cases were registered against travel agents in Punjab between January 1 2017, and March 15 2018, with 137 cases (or 15 per cent) reported in Mohali city. Police in Mohali registered 190 cases of visa fraud in 2018, receiving an average of five complaints a day.
Punjab is also the state which has the most number of illegal immigration consultants, with only 2,880 registered while over 6,000 firms were found to be operating without a license.
A CARIM-India paper on irregular migration to the European Union found that irregular migrants from Punjab constituted 72% of the cases between 2012 and 2018.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), one of Punjab’s major political parties, last week put pressure on the ruling Congress government in the state and demanded they take action to stop unscrupulous travel agents from defrauding people.
“This has become a serious issue. The Congress government should take immediate steps to check frauds being committed in the name of sending youths abroad, ” said SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia.
Majithia said that a delegation of the party’s youth wing would also meet the External Affairs Minister in this regard.
It is all good that the opposition party in the state was raising the issue but the problem of curtailing visa fraud is not easy.
The Punjab Travel Professionals’ Regulation Rules, 2013 make it mandatory for all travel agents or those running ticketing or consultancy businesses, to register with the government.
However, it is almost impossible for the police and administration to effectively enforce these rules.
In November 2018, alarmed by the increasing number of immigration fraud cases, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had asked the police in Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh to verify whether all such agencies were registered.
The Mohali administration published a list of 288 immigration firms registered with it, but an estimate by the Deputy Commissioner’s office found over 700 immigration firms advertising in the city. In short, there were large numbers of unregistered immigration firms.
A report from the Regional Passport Office in Jalandhar revealed that in 2018, they handled over 5,500 cases of deportation of citizens holding passports issued from their office. In a majority of these cases, the removals were a direct consequence of either visa overstay or illegal immigration. On some days, the RPO was handling as many as 30 deportation cases daily.
Authorities in India are trying to curb immigration fraud and its impact through education. Other steps are also being taken but it will take time before the government is in control of the situation.
The Central government issues a list of illegal immigration firms periodically, but cannot keep up with the rate at which such agencies are mushrooming across the country.
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had ordered a blueprint to be prepared for opening foreign employment bureaus across the state and also announced that his government would be launching campaigns to deal with immigration fraud.
“When people are informed about the consequences of illegal immigration, they would get discouraged from taking the illegal route to shift to other countries,” he said.
The Ministry of External Affairs also announced plans to cooperate with the immigration regulatory agencies of other countries to deal with issues such as the return of Indians who were duped and stranded abroad.
Representatives from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the UK Border Agency and the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship stated they were cooperating with Indian authorities to combat immigration fraud.
They also planned social media campaigns and published guidelines and precautions to raise awareness among potential visa applicants. Also, their strategy involves highlighting the adverse impact of using forged documents on the victims as well as fake agents.
Thomas Greig, former Regional Director, South Asia, UK Border Agency, warned against listening to unlicensed agents when applying for a foreign travel visa.
“We have very effective processes for detecting fraud and work with our international partners and Indian authorities to do so,” he said.