Relatives and neighbors of the Indian family who froze to death near the US-Canada border last week said the father repeatedly failed to secure better paid jobs in recent years, prompting them to take a risky trip aided by an illegal migrant network.
The deaths amid sub-zero temperatures, described as a “mind blowing” tragedy by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have cast a spotlight on the economic pressures and human smuggling operations in Indian premier Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat.
Jagdish Patel, 39, his wife Vaishali and their two children aged 11 and 3, were trying to enter the US illegally when they got caught in a blizzard and froze to death in the Manitoba province of Canada on January 19, Canadian and Indian authorities said in a statement.
The victims, residents of Dingucha village in Gujarat, had left their ancestral home this month after they incurred severe financial losses while operating a small retail shop and were unable to make ends meet from their farm income.
“The couple felt they were struggling to run their home and the kids needed better education...they decided to leave India because they failed to find a good job here,” said Sanjay Patel, a cousin of the victim who lives in Dingucha, home to more than 1,200 families.
Despite being a highly industrialized state, thousands of locals from Gujarat leave for the United States and Canada looking for better opportunities.
More than 2,000 residents of the village have migrated to the United States in the last 10 years, mainly working at gas stations, malls and restaurants, said Patel who is also a member of the village’s self-governing council.
“People from our village and neighboring areas believe prosperous lives can become a reality when we go abroad,” said Patel, adding that three temples, two bank buildings, two schools and a medical center were funded by villagers living overseas.
“We are in state of shock after the incident but the government has not built our village, its only our people living in America who send money to establish better services here,” he said.
Posters of travel and immigration agents advertising what they described as easy US, UK and Canadian visa facilities are pasted on several walls of the village square, where locals on Friday gathered to mourn the loss.
The US authorities charged a Florida man, Steve Shand, with human trafficking after the four -- a man, a woman, a baby and a teenager - were found dead in Manitoba, a few yards north of the frontier with Minnesota.
The Indian police said they had detained 13 travel agents and were investigating the case to unearth illegal immigration networks running across Gujarat, a highly industrialized state with an influential diaspora based overseas.
An Indian police official investigating the case said the deceased Patel was one among tens of thousands of locals who immigrate to the West as they are reluctant to take up menial jobs which they consider beneath their social standing.
“The Patel community has historically chosen to settle abroad but now we are seeing increased number of cases where people are willing to sell their land, gold just to find a way to live in Canada or America,” said the official, Ajay Parmar.
“Everyone wants better jobs and those are not easily available in India,” he said.