Tracing the ‘donkey route’: How thousands of Indians risk lives each year in pursuit of ‘American dream’ | India News


NEW DELHI: A flight carrying over 300 Indians, which was originally bound for Nicaragua, returned to India on Tuesday after being stranded in France for four days over suspected “human trafficking”.
The “donkey flight” was stopped at the Chalons-Vatry airport after French authorities received an anonymous tip-off that the plane was carrying illegal immigrants from India.
The Nicaragua link has further raised eyebrows since there has been a rise in people from the Central American nation seeking asylum in the United States.

First Visuals of Airbus A340 held in France with 303 Indians, lands in Mumbai

One can hardly overlook the uncanny timing of the incident since it coincided with the release of the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer ‘Dunki‘, a movie made on a similar theme.
The comedy-drama, released on December 21, explores the “donkey route,” an immigration method employed to enter countries like the US, UK, and Canada.
So, what is the “donkey route”?
The term “donkey route” originates from the Punjabi word “dunki,” meaning to move from one place to another.
It typically involves illegal border crossings via indirect routes with multiple stops in different countries.
For instance, individuals might obtain a tourist visa for the European Union’s Schengen Area, allowing free movement across 26 countries, and then illegally enter the UK with the help of “consultants” or “agents.”
These agents often charge hefty fees for services ranging from fake documentation to smuggling via shipping containers.
Each year, thousands of Indians try to enter the United States, Canada or European countries via these methods despite a serious risk to their lives.
A record 96,917 Indians were apprehended while unlawfully crossing into the US between October 2022 and September 2023, according to US Customs and Border Protection (UCBP) data.
The numbers have emerged despite the tragic loss of lives in recent years during such intrusions, particularly through hazardous routes. Of the 96,917 Indians, 30,010 were caught at the Canada border and 41,770 at the frontier with Mexico.
Tracing the ‘donkey route’
According to reports, ‘donkey route’ starts with reaching a Latin American country like Ecuador, Bolivia, or Guyana, where Indian citizens can get visa on arrival or tourist visas easily. Some agents also arrange direct visas for Mexico from Dubai. However, landing directly in Mexico is considered more risky, as local authorities can arrest the migrants on sight.
From Latin America, most agents take their clients to Colombia, which is closer to the US border than Panama. From Colombia, the migrants enter Panama through a dangerous forest called the Darién Gap, which separates Colombia and Panama. This forest has no roads or bridges and is home to wild animals like jaguars and anacondas. The migrants also face robbery and rape by criminal gangs in this region.
If everything goes well, the journey takes eight to ten days through Panama’s jungles and mountains. The migrants then cross into Costa Rica and Nicaragua before reaching Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. From there, they have to cross Guatemala’s northern border with Honduras before reaching El Salvador’s southern border with Guatemala.
From El Salvador’s southern border with Guatemala, they have to cross into Honduras again before reaching Nicaragua’s northern border with Honduras again before reaching Costa Rica again before reaching Panama again before reaching Colombia again before reaching Ecuador again before reaching India again.
The whole process can take up to two years or more depending on various factors like weather conditions, political situations, human trafficking networks, etc.
A longstanding issue
The practice of “donkey flights” has been a persistent and ongoing concern. Human smugglers have been hiring chartered planes to take illegal immigrants to Nicaragua from where offshore handlers facilitate their entry into the US through the Mexico border.
The traffickers show these flights as planes carrying tourists from India. However, these flights came under the radar of law enforcement agencies as they only did one-way trips. The planes that left for Nicaragua never returned with passengers, indicating something fishy was going on.
Sources in the police and agencies said the kingpin in the case involving the plane grounded in France, Shashi Kiran Reddy from Hyderabad, had been regularly arranging for flights to Nicaragua that halted at Vatry airport, 150km from Paris, for refuelling.
Explaining Reddy’s modus operandi, the source said that once the flight reached Nicaragua, the illegal immigrants would either undertake a 3,100-km road journey to Mexico or a boat journey to Miami via Cancun and Havana.
Sources in the central agencies and the Gujarat police said that though many Indians are caught in the US yearly, very few are deported as some obtain shelter there on humanitarian grounds.


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