The tragedy of real-life ‘dunki’ immigrants

Ashraf Engineer

December 30, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Around the time the Shah Rukh Khan-Rajkumar Hirani collaboration ‘Dunki’ released in theatres, an Airbus A340 carrying 276 passengers, mostly Indians, was detained for four days in France over suspicions of illegal immigration. The flight was bound for Nicaragua, which is what raised the suspicions because the central American nation is one of the points from which illegal immigrants make their  way to the US. Eventually, the flight was sent to Mumbai. Of the 276 passengers, 27, including five minors, remained on French soil seeking asylum. All of those on the flight were suspected to be ‘dunki’ passengers. The word, of Punjabi origin, is a reference to ‘donkey route’ – an immigration technique used to illegally enter western countries. Coincidentally, again, news of the flight came close on the heels of the Pew Research Centre saying there are approximately 725,000 illegal Indian immigrants in the US — the third largest population of unauthorised immigrants after Mexico and El Salvador.


According to US Customs and Border Protection data, an unprecedented number of undocumented Indian immigrants are crossing into the US on foot. This is making for a dramatic spike in migration over the years.

Between October 2022 and September 2023, 96,917 Indians were arrested, deported or denied entry for having gone to the US without papers. This is a five-fold increase from the same period between 2019 to 2020. Of these, 30,010 were held at the border with Canada and 41,770 at the southern border.

So, what is the ‘donkey route’ or ‘dunki’? ‘Dunki’ is a Punjabi word that means to ‘hop from place to place’. It is used to refer to the illegal crossing of borders to reach the destination country.

A common technique is to apply for a tourist visa to the European Union, which allows them to travel between 26 bordering nations. Once there, ‘agents’ help them gain illegal entry into the UK or onwards to the US.

The immigrants could also go from India to the Middle East. From there to Africa and then onwards to South America. From there to Mexico and then across the border to the US.

The agents charge huge amounts to smuggle people in, often through dangerous routes – in ship containers, for example. They also offer to forge travel documents. The migrants are passed on from smuggler to smuggler and manage some legs on their own.

Often, the smugglers simply take their money and abandon them somewhere in a foreign land. When the immigrants come up against the authorities, they have no knowledge of how to manage their cases and are arrested and deported.

The risks of the journey range from imprisonment to even death. For example, a few months ago, 32-year-old Malkit from Haryana’s Kaithal district died on his way to the US, attempting a ‘dunki’. His brother said the family had paid the agent Rs 25 lakh, which they had borrowed. Malkit was taken through Kazakhstan to Turkiye, and his family lost touch with him after his phone was disconnected in Guatemala. They got to know of his death through social media.

In 2022, a lower-income family of four, including two young children, was found dead near the US border with Canada. From a village in Gujarat, they had tried a ‘dunki’ but were separated from the rest of their group during a storm. The bodies were recovered just 13 yards from the border – that’s less than the length of a cricket pitch.

The spike in illegal entry attempts has been attributed to a variety of reasons, including massive visa processing backlogs. Many experts also blame it on the worsening condition of minorities like Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India. There could also be legal reasons like the farm laws that were eventually repealed after massive protests.

The success of those who have migrated and the prospect of a stable, new life lure many to opt for the ‘donkey route’. Often, these immigrants know of others in their village or of relatives who have succeeded in settling abroad. This, too, makes them yearn for a life elsewhere.

Experts say that the economic devastation wreaked by COVID-19 also sparked a wave of migration through illegal routes. This continues today because those leaving now are doing so after trying to make ends meet for a couple of years in India and finally giving up hope.

The families of many of those who die or go missing don’t know how to look for them or are unwilling to pursue the case because the travel was unauthorised.

Even if they manage to enter the destination country, the illegal immigrants’ ordeal does not end. The immigration systems are often hostile or not designed to deal with such cases or the fast-rising numbers. The infrastructure to house asylum seekers, for instance, is inadequate – there aren’t enough beds or staff.

If asylum is denied, sending the seekers back is an uphill diplomatic climb. In many cases, there aren’t the requisite agreements between the two countries involved. For instance, there isn’t one between the US and India. So, usually, the immigrants are asked to appear in court but the designated courts have huge backlogs. If the immigrants don’t have lawyers, the hearings could be postponed inordinately. It has also long been known that smuggling cartels coach the migrants how to game the asylum process.

We must ask ourselves why people feel compelled to put their lives at risk, take on crippling debt and great hardship to migrate undocumented. You can’t ignore the underlying social, economic and political pressures that drive such actions. Unemployment, conflict, persecution… there are many reasons why people leave their homes to take their chances in an alien land. Those are ‘push’ factors. There are ‘pull’ factors too, such as the demand for cheap labour in the West.

Countries of immigrants’ origin and the destination nations must better understand these dynamics and comprehensively address the causes in order to stop smugglers from exploiting these highly vulnerable people. And to ensure that the potential immigrants find enough reason to stay home.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.