Hazarding the Illegal ‘Donkey Route’ to Britain
The harrowing journey of hopeless, homeless, visaless, immigrants in search of jobs and the good life is presented in stark reality in a new novel by Shamlal Puri. Here is a profile of the novel and the author by Kul Bhushan
Hell bent on entering Britain, a group of young Punjabis board a container truck in Amritsar for their tough journey to jobs and riches. Freezing and bouncing, they arrive in Kabul, Afghanistan. After a brief rest, they trundle to Krasnoyarsk in Russia’s Siberia. From here, the container truck rolls to the Russian capital, Moscow. Next stop is the capital of Belarus, Minsk, before entering Poland for Warsaw and then on to Germany and finally to Belgium or France to take the ferry to Britain.
This is the hair-rising tale of twelve Indians cheated by a dodgy agent who extracts big money from them on false promises and sent off on ‘the donkey route’ through Russia and Europe to Britain.
Once in a while, the drivers stop at isolated spots to relieve themselves, stretch their legs and maybe sip some tea. Many fall sick with no medical care during a real bone shaker drive. The money paid to the Indian immigration agent lasts halfway en route. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, they are forced to pay their own way for the rest of the trip. They beg, borrow and steal to pay truckers.
The real test comes in crossing the English Channel as the police use digital scanners to measure the heat inside the container to determine if any person is hiding. To avoid detection, they wrap themselves in thick, black plastic bags and are drugged. Sometimes, they suffocate to death. One tried to jump on the roof of the chunnel train from a bridge in France, missed the fast moving train and died. Less than half of them survive the long road trip. If discovered during the trip, they are imprisoned and deported.
When they flew to Britain for illegal entry, they were dubbed as ‘kabuttars’ or pigeons. If they go by containers, they are called ‘faujis’ or soldiers battling against impossible odds. After reaching Britain, their ordeal takes a new twist as they have no legal papers to work, no home, not even proper meals. So now they are called ‘illegals’ living in fields, under motorway bridges, in four-wheeler bins and even in cemeteries in Southall, west London, eating from soup kitchens or Sikh temples or gurudwaras and looking for work for a pittance. If they are caught by the authorities, they are deported and their employer fined 10,000 pounds per illegal worker.
Shamlal Puri, a veteran London-based international journalist and a novelist, has tracked, interviewed and recorded the travails of these Indians at every stopover from Amritsar to London in a brilliant work of faction – fiction based on fact – entitled ‘The Illegals: Visa-Less, Homeless, Hopeless – Striving for the Good Life ’(jointly published by Crownbird Publishers and Har Anand Publications) launched in Delhi and London recently.
A group of 12 educated and uneducated Indians from the Punjab, frustrated with financial problems in their own country, set out for a new life in the United Kingdom. They approach an immigration agent who says he would facilitate their trip on payment of a fee to him. Each of them pays sums ranging from 25 lakh rupees to 50 lakh rupees, depending on their affluence, to travel to the UK. The agent misleads them into believing he would obtain UK visas for them and that they would travel by air. The agent is just one link in the long chain of people involved in the racket.
Instead, the men are sent on the “donkey route” through eight Asian and European countries travelling thousands of miles across inhospitable terrain and war zones in the back of container trucks. The money paid to the Indian immigration agent lasts only until four countries on the route. He swindles the balance. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the travellers are forced to pay their own way through for the rest of the trip. They beg, borrow and steal money to pay truckers to take them forward.
The novel traces their journey the Land of Hope. Some of them die on the way or are murdered; others drop out in countries along the way because of frustration, inability to pay more money to human traffickers and fear of an uncertain life ahead. Only three of the 12 make it to the UK. On arrival in the Southall suburb of London, they have a new battle ahead of them. In spite of their desire to work hard and settle down, they end up getting low paid jobs as labourers and are exploited by their compatriots settled comfortably in the UK. They lead an uncertain life. Desperate, homeless, jobless and hopeless, they end up sleeping rough on the streets, behind garages, in cemeteries and garbage bins.
This novel is based on true stories narrated to the author by illegal immigrants, their travails and, in many cases, their failure to eke out a living in the UK. They end of turning into drug addicts and suffering from mental problems. The book lifts the lid off the lives of paperless immigrants. It has a lot of drama. Its action does not stumble. The story is told through the hero Rajainder Singh Bajwa ‘Raja’. Without revealing the content of the book here and its dramatic end I can confidently say The Illegals will be read with great interest by the younger generation. It throws a dampener on those dreaming of entering the country paperless and attempting to settle down in the UK, a country with no jobs and no hopes of a cushy future.
“After reporting on ‘faujis’ for many years, my late father, Hussan Chand Puri, encouraged me to write a book to record their problems so that the Indian children and their parents do not have to go through this suffering,” says Shamlal, “These desperate young me want to get away from Punjab at any cost. Jobless, they just want to start a new life no matter what the consequences.
“Unfortunately, their worst enemies are fellow British Indians who employ, rather exploit, them with far less than legal wages as they risk a huge fine if they get caught. Many small businesses have gone bankrupt by employing these faujis,” he said.