Starved & Jailed: Men Recount Failed Attempt at 'Dunki-ing' to Europe Via Russia

We speak to men from Punjab who attempted 'dunki-ing' into Europe via Russia, and endured acute cold and jail time.

7 min read

"To enter Europe, we walked for 10 days through a jungle with freezing temperatures. We even slept out in the open on the snow at night, with temperatures as low as minus 14 degrees Celsius. We had very little food and almost no water," bemoaned 24-year-old Lakhbir Singh. 

That was in November 2023. About 50 days later, on 24 December, Lakhbir, along with five others, landed at the New Delhi airport after they were deported from Russia.

They had managed to traverse at least eight countries through several channels – legal as well as illegal or 'dunki' – over three months, and their ultimate dream was to reach Europe and find work there.

Lakhbir Singh has a diploma in repairing electrical appliances from Punjab's Jalandhar district. A 22-year-old, who hails from Jalalabad and had finished his BA from a local college, was also among the six men.

'Dunki', a colloquial Punjabi word for donkey, means taking long, donkey-like walks with bags and baggage to illegally immigrate into a country – a term now immortalised through the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer by the same name. A 'dunker' is a local travel agent who aids this movement of immigrants and facilitates their crossing borders, albeit at a very high cost.

As incidents of Indians 'dunki-ing' their way into the US, Europe, and the UK see an uptick (96,917 Indians tried to illegally enter the US in 2023 alone), The Quint spoke to two men from Punjab who took a little known and rather elaborate route to enter Europe by permeating its 2,250-kilometre-long border with Russia.

Along this border, the men made attempts to 'dunki' through Belarus to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and from St Petersburg in Russia to Finland with the help of a seemingly well-connected network of agents. Though they were aware of the illegitimacy of their journey, they were admittedly ignorant and ill-prepared for the perils they had encountered on their way – which included being apprehended by a foreign army and being jailed in Russia.

Even when they were deported and returned home after enduring dire circumstances, they did not lodge a formal complaint with the police for fear of losing the Rs 15 lakh they had paid a local travel agent (presumably unauthorised) to get them to Europe.

The Elaborate Route

Lakhbir set out on the journey a week after his 24th birthday.

"The planning for this had begun about six months before I left in October 2023. The agent was referred to me by one of my friends. He told us that he had successfully sent a few people from Gurdaspur to Europe through Russia in the summer this year. So, my family agreed," Lakhbir told The Quint.

He added that the agent promised to fly them to Moscow via Oman, and take them to Europe through Belarus in a taxi. The agent had arranged for Lakhbir's e-visa in about a week. "Humein kya pata tha ki barf aur jungle paar paidal paar karna padega (We didn't know we'll have to cross the jungle and snow on foot)."

The first stop, after taking off from Delhi on 12 October 2023, was Oman, where he spent about two weeks. 

He was inadvertently part of the group of six men – five from Punjab and one from Haryana. Although he had not met any of them before, the men underwent the shared ordeal of traversing eight countries, albeit during nearly identical yet seldom overlapping timelines spread across September, October, November, and December.

Meanwhile, the 22-year-old from Jalalabad, who had flown from Delhi to Oman in mid-September, requesting anonymity, told The Quint: 

"From Oman, we were taken to Egypt, where we stayed for a couple of days. Then, we were flown to Morocco, where we were made to put up for a month. Wherever we went, we met more Indians waiting to go to Europe."

Both the men recalled that wherever they went, they were received by local travel agents who arranged their stay in that particular country and planned their next step of travel.

Even as they kept waiting in Morocco, the local travel agent promised to fly them to Russia "when the time was right."

Finally, in late October, they were flown, via Egypt, to Moscow, where they met other Indians – one from Haryana, a few others from Punjab's Moga district – who were all waiting to go to Europe.

"Till Moscow, we had all valid documents and visa papers. From here began the 'dunki'," Lakbhir claimed.

'Walked Through Jungle in Freezing Temperatures'

After spending a couple of days in Moscow, the men were received by a local travel agent, who allegedly took their passports and sent them to neighbouring Belarus through a local taxi on 1 November.

It was in here that he met at least 20 Indian men waiting to 'dunki' to Europe, Lakhbir alleged. The local agent drove the men to a jungle close to the Belarus-Poland border and handed them over to a 'dunker'.

"We walked through the jungle in freezing temperatures. The 'dunker' was showing us the way. We had food only for two days and little water. A few of us had sleeping bags. It was minus 14 degrees, and we slept out in the open," the 22-year-old told The Quint.

The men, with modest education and humble households, wanted to leave Punjab in search of work in Europe. "Acche paise kamaane the (wanted to earn good money)," the 22-year-old said.

He claimed that as the men were about to cross the border from a trench under barbed wire, they were allegedly apprehended by the Polish Army, which later dropped them off along the border in Belarus.

On being asked why the men were sent back to Belarus and not arrested, the 22-year-old claimed, "When one is caught crossing the border during a 'game' (another street name for illegally entering a country on foot) by the army, they are just dropped back. If they have a valid passport, they are often offered asylum. But we didn't have our passport."

He said that he learned this during the past three months, when he tried crossing borders on many counts but was caught almost each time.

Having no resources at this point – no food, no water, no passport, no battery in their phones – the men meandered through the jungle for 10 days, trying to find a way out, before the local agent in Belarus found them and took them to a hotel. 

'They Tried Again, They Failed Again'

Even after enduring acute winter and a near-death experience, the men did not give up, even when they wanted to.

"We had paid nearly Rs 15 lakh to our agent back in India. My family had to pawn off every last bit of jewellery to arrange this money. It would have all gone to waste had I not tried again," Lakhbir reasoned.

All of November, the men made more attempts to enter Europe. First, they tried through Latvia and Lithuania but were apprehended by the army stationed at the border and allegedly thrashed, before being sent back to Belarus.

"It is for this reason that the local agents take away our passports. In case, we are caught, we are just sent back," Lakhbir explained.

Having made several failed attempts from Belarus for nearly 30 days, and spending nearly Rs 1-1.5 lakh on sustaining, food, and hotels, the men were sent to St Petersburg via road on 1 December. Their visa for Russia had allegedly expired by then.

From St Petersburg, they covered nearly 1,500 kilometres in a taxi to Murmansk, a town about 100 km away from the Russia-Finland border. The temperature in the town was as low as minus 23 degrees Celsius, they claimed.

Meanwhile, in November last year, Finland closed the last of its eight border crossings with Russia on its 1,340-kilometre-long border, following a surge in arrivals of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.  

The governor of Murmansk region had told Associated Press in November 2023 that at least 400 people were waiting to enter Finland on the Russian side of the border. 

The men that The Quint spoke to also tried to cross the border on foot and enter Finland on many counts. During one such attempt on 6 December, the six of them were arrested by the Russian Police. They were sent to jail the next day.


A Christmas Miracle?

"Our visa for staying in Russia had expired. That is why we were arrested. Besides, our passports were with the local travel agent. The language barrier made it difficult for us to present our case," the 22-year-old lamented.  

Lakhbir alleged to The Quint that they were all kept in isolated chambers by the Russian Police, where it was dark. He said that he could eat only one meal a day, which was daliya or oats and make a call home once every three days. 

Making use of the bi-weekly call, the 22-year-old rang his family back in Punjab on 17 December and informed them of what he had to endure in the last two and a half months.

His family then reached out to Rajya Sabha MP Balbir Singh Seechewal, who promptly contacted the Ministry of External Affairs and arranged for their rescue.  

After flying to four countries and multiple failed attempts to 'dunki' their way to Europe, the six men who were jailed in Russia came back to Delhi on Christmas Eve, 24 December. It has not been easy still.

Around the same time, a Nicaragua-bound plane, carrying over 300 Indians, was grounded in France, where it had landed for a technical stopover. All the passengers were detained after an anonymous tip claimed that they were "likely to be victims of human trafficking." They had paid Rs 80 lakh to go to the US, according to Sanjay Karat, SP, Gujarat Police.

"Those 18 days in jail were longer than 18 years. The extreme cold had its toll on our mind and body. I had fever and was bedridden for 10 days," Lakhbir said.  

Shreds of the 'western dream' have their hold on the men still, although they are certain not to take the '2 numbar' or illegal channel now.

The men that The Quint spoke to said that though they are worried about their money, nearly Rs 15 lakh, the local travel agent has reassured them with the promise of a work visa.

"We are hopeful that the agent will deliver this time. If not, we will take action. My family has had to borrow so much money to make this dream come true for me. I feel pathetic for letting them down," the 22-year-old said.

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