Chandigarh/Jalandhar: Promised a good life in rich havens like Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Kuwait and Jordan, hordes of gullible youth from Punjab and Haryana are allowing themselves to be trapped by travel agents in the state and their links in these countries and to work in miserable conditions in conflict-torn Iraq.
With the number of people from Punjab and Haryana stuck in Iraq after the recent sectarian flare-up going up to nearly 700, the old story of failed "phoren (foreign) dreams" and lost big bucks is being retold.
"Many youth are promised jobs in Dubai, Kuwait and Jordan but they are taken by the travel agents to Iraq instead. Once the youth reach there, they do not have the option of returning. It is a miserable trap. The youth spend lakhs of rupees of hard earned money or sell land to go abroad, and end up in a life of hell," Paramjit Singh, who returned from Iraq after working there for over two years, told IANS.
Bhagwant Mann, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Lok Sabha member from Sangrur, has taken to the social media and set up a helpline to reach out to youths stranded inside Iraq and also connect to their families in Punjab.
He said the actual number of people from Punjab stuck in Iraq could be much higher.
"Though I don't have the actual figure, I am told that up to 4,000 Indians, mostly Punjabis, are stuck in Iraq," Mann said.
"Majority of the youth are taken to Dubai, Jordan and Kuwait and then sold off to companies in Iraq," he added.
The Punjab government has already submitted a list of 514 people (till Saturday evening) from Punjab who are stranded in Iraq.
Going abroad is a common fad among youths from Punjab, especially in the Doaba region (the area between Sutlej and Beas rivers) comprising the districts of Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawan Shahr and Kapurthala.
"Rural youths and also those from smaller towns just want to go abroad by any means. They see no future and employment for themselves in Punjab. Despite big promises, the Punjab government does little for them. The levels of frustration are high," Satnam Singh, a Jalandhar-based travel agent, told IANS.
"The unscrupulous travel agents take advantage of this situation and exploit such youth. They swindle them of lakhs of rupees and dump them in countries like Iraq," he said.
According to reports, 40 Indians, mostly Punjabis, have been taken hostage in Iraq's Mosul town by militants. Their fate is unknown since they were abducted June 11.
The families of the men stuck in Iraq, who are mostly poor or lower middle class, say they can only hope for the return of their loved ones.
"We don't have the resources or money to get them back. We want our boys back," said Baldev Singh, a relative of one of the youths held hostage in Iraq.
The story of Antaryami and two others, who were taken hostage in Iraq nearly a decade back, is still fresh in the minds of people but that has hardly deterred youths from risking everything to go to Middle East countries, particularly Iraq.
The family of Antaryami, which lives in a village in Himachal Pradesh's Una district, adjoining Punjab's Hoshiarpur district, wants to keep away from the media glare this time when the hostage crisis is being repeated with other youths from Punjab.
Antaryami himself drives a truck and has not ventured to go back for a job in foreign shores.