Trafficking in false promises
Immigration tricksters in Punjab region prey on Indians who hope for new lives in Canada
SOUTH ASIA BUREAU
Jan 29, 2009 04:30 AM
Kapurthala, IndiaOne morning in February 2007, Harvinder Singh read an ad in a local newspaper that promised to change his life.
The ad offered a visa to Canada and a $450-a-week job as a kitchen helper at a Crowne Plaza hotel in Toronto. Singh answered the ad, and agreed to pay an immigration consultant a $12,500 advance and an equal amount when his immigration documents were prepared.
Today, however, Singh, 31, is still working for his father in this blue-collar city in the northern Punjab region, manning the family photo shop and tending 1.2 hectares of wheat fields on the outskirts of town.
Police say the rise of unregulated immigration consultants is the most troubling crime trend in the state, ahead of a burgeoning drug problem and sectarian violence.
Singh, who has filed a complaint with the police, said he wanted to immigrate to Canada for his two young children, daughter Manbir Kaur, 4, and son Garpreed, 2.
“My father said it first, `We're being cheated,'” Singh said.
Standing in his family's photo shop, Singh pulled out an undated, three-paragraph note, one of several that urged him to come up with more money for the consultant.
One note was typed on a sloppy imitation of Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts' letterhead the email address itself was a tipoff: email@example.com”; the “.ca” written in pencil over top of “.au.”
Another two-page letter given to Singh warned there were 158 other candidates in India for the kitchen-helper job.
Singh didn't want to miss out and, even though his father disapproved, kept handing over more cash until his father last summer said “enough.”
“I don't know about the formalities of these things,” Singh grimaced. “I just wanted to go to Canada. It's a country where they appreciate hard work, right? I hope I can still go there one day.”
A city of about 1.4 million where a distillery and railcar assembly line are the main employers, Kapurthala may be ground zero for immigration fraud, say Canadian immigration officials in Chandigarh, the state capital of Punjab.
Scams like the one that has ensnared Singh highlight the scale of the desperation in Punjab these days.
Historically one of India's breadbasket states, where the average per capita annual income of $484 is still the highest in India, Punjab has fallen on troubling times in recent years.
The water table is sinking to critical levels and two years ago soil scientists at Punjab Agricultural University announced that 80 per cent of the groundwater in Punjab was not drinkable and often laced with arsenic.
The male-to-female birth ratio, meantime, is one of the worst in India, meaning young men are having a difficult time finding brides. “There's not much of a future for many young men there,” said a Canadian visa officer. “It makes them do desperate things.
“The five visa officers who staff the Chandigarh mission's consular section are deluged with applications sent with phony documents, mission staff say. Over the past year, 85 per cent of employment letters related to work visa applications have been forgeries.
Although no hard statistics are available, staff say other categories such as temporary visit and student visas are similarly rife with fraud. And unlike Singh, some would-be immigrants are willing participants in their bogus applications, staff say.
A presentation made by Chandigarh visa officers to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney during his visit this month highlighted the myriad tactics used to dupe Canadian officers.
One doctored bank document suggested a visa applicant had a balance of about $25,000 when he actually had about $7.50
A fake airline ticket submitted in another case shows an applicant had booked a direct flight between Toronto and New Delhi on a route Air Canada no longer flies.
Then there are forged letters from Canadian funeral homes, submitted by applicants asking to travel to Canada after a death in the family.
Punjab's chief minister promised Kenney a special inspector would be appointed to act as a liaison with the Canadian mission to battle immigration crime.
“These unscrupulous, unregistered operators take huge amounts of money from people selling the false promise of coming to Canada,” Kenney told the Star.
“When this turns out to be a lie, I think it hurts Canada's reputation. In a sense, these people are trading off the good name of Canada. It's nothing but a form of exploitation.”