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STUDY ABROAD

Take off for a better life

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THE GREAT ESCAPE: The parents of the missing kids are absolutely unperturbed. Photo of the group of students that went to the US in April

Foreign educational trips are hugely popular among students in Punjab. But after seven schoolchildren went ‘missing’ in the US last month, authorities are asking if they are just a ruse for illegal immigration.

Karanjot Singh, 16, was among the 50 teenagers on an 11-day trip to the NASA Kennedy Space Centre, as part of a student tour package organised by Delhibased Academic Aims International, April 11 onwards. The class 10 student of Emm Aar International School, Adampur, Hoshiarpur district, Karanjot was an enthusiastic participant in the challenges the NASA programme presented them with, including launching a weather balloon attached with a camera, building a remote control car and the various steps for launching rockets.

But on April 17, in Orlando, the trip organisers realised that Karanjot had gone missing. And he was just the first student to "disappear" on this trip. Sundeep Singh of Academic Aims International says, "While in Orlando, another student Ranjit Singh, 18, vanished and then two days after, four students disappeared after a trip to Niagara Falls. Then on April 20, when we reached the hotel in New York, we realised that another student was missing. " In all, seven students between ages 16 to 18, including Jakaranbir Singh and Lovedeep Singh from State Public School in Shahkot and Harpreet Singh, Sahil and Manveer from State Public School in Nakodar, all in Jalandhar district, and one from Emm Aar International School, are currently missing in the US.

Reports of students vanishing on school trips date back to 2008, when 12 teenagers went missing on three separate study tours to the US, leading school authorities and tour organisers to believe their disappearances are part of a planned agenda to immigrate illegally abroad. In March 2012, the Department of Homeland Security estimated over 2. 4 lakh Indians were living illegally in the US, the number having doubled from 2000 to 2011. Many of these illegal aliens are from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, states where shady immigration agents abound.

However, the trend of teenagers using student tours to cross over is relatively recent. A travel operator, on condition of anonymity, says these trips were first introduced in Chandigarh in 2001, and have spread to other cities of Punjab and Haryana since. "Over 1, 000 students go on these annual education trips, mainly to the US to visit NASA, from Punjab, Haryana and the northern parts of UP, " he says. Today, apart from a few Punjab-based companies, Delhibased tour operators have begun to tap the market for student tours in Ludhiana and Jalandhar, indicative of the demand. These students, who mostly come from agricultural or business families, pay Rs 2. 10 lakh for the tour, a small amount compared to the Rs 10 lakh that is reportedly paid by those seeking to travel illegally (according to a USA Today 2011 report).

Sundeep Singh says they informed the US police authorities about the disappearance. "We were told the students have three-month visas so no action can be taken against them for overstaying as of now, " he says. H S Benipal, deputy superintendent of police, Shahkot, says they have been informed of the disappearance but the matter falls outside their jurisdiction. "They went to the US on legal visas and if they stay on illegally, then the US law authorities will act against them, not us, " he says.

Narotam Singh, chairman of the State Public Schools which sent 43 students on the trip among whom six went missing, believes these school trips don't just serve an educational purpose, but are designed to attract students who want to immigrate at a later stage. "Though nobody will admit to it publicly, some students and their parents believe that once their passports have been stamped, in the future it will be easier for them to go abroad, " he says.

However, parents of students who went on the trip but returned say they believe the educational experience is invaluable for their children. Manjinder Singh, a businessman whose daughter Sukhmani Kaur went on the same trip as the missing boys, says, "My daughter is doing well in studies, and I thought sending her to learn more about NASA would further motivate her. " Anil Verma, businessman and father of Rajinder, another student who took the trip, says that most members of his family have already gone abroad. "I wanted my son to have an idea of life out there so that if he goes for further studies, he is mentally prepared. " Both parents are angered at the thought that these trips are being used as fronts for families that want to enter the
US illegally, and say the trip's expense was well within what they can afford.

Incidentally, the boys who disappeared all came from relatively well-to-do families as well. Their parents are unperturbed by their missing status, even refusing to attend a school management meeting on April 26, three days after the other students returned, to discuss a course of action to locate them. Narotam Singh says all the students had been interviewed by tour company representatives and had signed affidavits stating they would return. R S Panwar, principal, State Public School, Nakodar, says, "We explained to students that life would not be easy if they decided to stay back illegally. " Legal action cannot be taken against the parents on the basis of the affidavits because the "offence" of staying illegally has taken place in the US, says a police official. "It's more a protective measure for the school and company to ensure they are not held liable, " says the official.

KIDS GONE ROGUE


Most cases reported of students disappearing in Punjab have been from the Doaba region In the last week of July 2008, two students of Dayanand Model School, Jalandhar, went missing on an educational tour to NASA In the first week of August 2008, four students and a teacher from Doaba School Mahilpur in Hoshiarpur district disappeared, again while on a NASA tour In November 2008, six students of DIPS, three from the college and three from two schools, vanished while on an educational tour in Germany In July 2009, two International MBA students of Lovely Professional University that were part of a 62 member trip to the US disappeared. These students were from UP and Haryana.

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