NEW YORK, December 19 2004
When 18-year-old Manjit Singh boarded a flight to Damascus en route
to Greece from New Delhi in April, he believed he was leaving a life
of drudgery behind.
Eight months later he has nearly lost his arms and feet and is languishing
in a Sikh gurdwara in Tehran waiting to be sent back to his hometown
of Jalandhar in Punjab.
Singh is one of 83 men from Punjab who were lured by the promise of
a good life in Europe by job recruiters who turned out to be human traffickers.
The men, pushed back from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, somehow
ended up in the 50-year-old gurdwara in Iran. Some of them, including
Manjit Singh, walked 1,500 miles (2,400 km) for over two months through
Iraq to finally reach Tehran.
"After we landed in Syria I thought our agents (brokers who promised
him a job) would take us to Greece. They did not. Instead they severely
mistreated us and made us walk over 1,500 miles (2,400 km) through Iraq.
On the way I was beaten up by my agents. We had to walk barefoot through
snowy mountains and rough terrain. I practically lost my arms and feet,"
Singh told IANS in a telephone interview from Tehran.
Human smuggling from India has become rampant, with traffickers charging
unsuspecting job seekers from small towns hundreds of thousands of rupees.
Singh said he paid Rs.200,000 ($4,400) to a broker who identified him
Fifteen others, who also came from Jalandhar, paid between Rs,400,000
($8,800) and Rs.1 million ($22,000) to migrate to Europe, without many
of them realizing that they were doing so illegally.
Parvinder Singh, a social worker in Tehran who is coordinating their
return to India, told IANS the men were illegally migrating to Europe
"duped by employment agents who mistreated them, starved them and
The men, Singh said, were deported from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon
where they were treated 'inhumanely'. Many of them walked barefoot through
the snow-covered mountains of Iran before they managed to find their
way to Tehran Gurdwara Sahib, the only Sikh shrine in Iran. Most of
the men are between 18 and 25 years of age. Some of them were so badly
frostbitten that their toes had to be amputated. "They all have
their horror stories to tell," Singh said.
He said 10 of the 83 were sent back with the help of donations raised
within the 100-odd Sikh families in Tehran. However, he said, it would
be impossible for the local Sikh community to take care of the rest.
He has issued an appeal to Sikh and Indian organisations in the US
and elsewhere to help finance their journey back.
"It is our duty to help anyone in need, especially Indians. But
our gurdwara is not equipped to handle so many people at the same time.
We have just four toilets and hardly any room to sleep. To look after
over 80 people, and that too those in such pathetic condition, is impossible,"
Rajpal Singh, secretary of the gurdwara, said in an interview.
The men have been stranded in Tehran for over two months and have been
a strain on the Tehran gurdwara's resources. The daily cost of hosting
the men is five to seven dollars per person, he said. In Iranian currency
that is a considerable sum.
Parvinder Singh, who like Rajpal Singh was born in Tehran, said while
the Indian embassy was trying to help resolve the issue, its response
was not quick enough.
"As I see it, there are two ways to handle this. One is to strictly
go by the book, which the embassy is doing, and the other is to treat
it as a matter of pride and concern for India, which they are not. It
is a question of nationalism. Instead of taking such a long time to
process their papers for deportation, they can do it in a week if they
choose," he said.
Rajpal Singh said the gurdwara authorities were grateful to the Iranian
government for not "throwing these men into prison".
"They are acting leniently because of the personal guarantees
of the Sikh community and the fact that they respect us. Otherwise these
men would have been in jail," he said.