wikileaks releases cables on bhutan:american embassy uncovers smuggling of bhutanese citizens to the us
Of the several cables released by Wikileaks on Bhutan, three cables show how large numbers of Bhutanese citizens are illegally being smuggled to the United States of America under the guise of cultural troupes and tourist visas. It says Bhutanese people are organizing human smuggling.
A 2010 cable says that a group of so called Bhutanese cultural performers was the front for human smuggling to the US. The trip was organized by Sonam Phuntsho (proprietor of Sonam Kuenphen School in Bumthang) and his son Gyembo Dorji.
The group initially told the US Embassy that their purpose of travel was to perform as members of a Buddhist folk music and dance troupe at several US venues.
After the interview, the Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU), as per the normal procedure, reviewed the information provided by the members but found several anomalies.
One issue was that the organizer of the trip, Sonam Phuntsho, was still in the USA though records showed his departure. On the US Embassy calling him in USA, they found that the information given by him about his spouse did not match the visa application details.
It was also found that none of the members of the group were aware about the venues where they would be performing. Five members of the group had no travel history while all the others had similar travel history. This was seen suspiciously as the embassy had experiences of Indian applicants make short trips to South-East Asian countries to improve their chances of getting a visa to the US.
The matter was then fully transferred to the fraud prevention unit of the embassy which individually interviewed six of the applicants.
The first interview was with the group leader, Gyembo Dorji. When questioned about the several inconsistencies in the documents and information provided, the cable says that Gyembo Dorji confessed to the fraud.
He informed the FPU team that the travel arranger, Sonam Phuntsho, was actually his father and admitted that none of the members was a performer, but their intention was to travel to the US to work or settle illegally.
Gyembo Dorji also informed FPU that his mother, Dema Phuntsho, was currently in his village in Bhutan and the lady, alleged to be Dema Phuntsho, who had already travelled with his father to the US and posed as his wife during the visa interview, was unknown to him.
While Gyembo Dorji initially stated that there was no money exchanged between the group members and his father for the visa scheme, two members (Kuenzang Lhaden and Kingley Zangmo) later confirmed that they had been told to pay Sonam Phuntsho US$ 3,000-4,000 after receiving the visa and arriving in the United States.
The other five group members interviewed by FPU admitted their participation in the scheme through prepared written and affirmed statements that they were actually intending to travel to the US to work illegally.
They said that they had been coached by Gyembo Dorji and Sonam Phuntso to maintain silence to their motives as well as the father-son family relationship. They admitted that none of the other members of the group were performers and that all were acting in concert to get to the United States.
The US Embassy denied visas for the entire group. The cable says that the true location of Sonam Phuntsho and the woman posing as his wife are uncertain at the time. Business Bhutan learnt that Sonam Phuntsho is in Bhutan. The cable said that there was a need for continuing careful scrutiny of Bhutanese group travelers.
In an earlier instance in 2008, a US Embassy cable titled “Bhutanese official turns smuggler” identified Tshering Dorji, a former BCCI secretary general and current travel agent, as a human smuggler.
The cable sent by the then US Ambassador, David Mulford, says that eight of the nine associated applicants confessed to paying up to US$10,000 to their fixer to allow them to work and/or immigrate to the US.
The cable says that the embassy brought this case to the attention of Bhutan Embassy officials in New Delhi.
Like in the above case, the US Embassy officials became suspicious when they noted striking similarities in the travel history as all of them had travelled only to India except for Tshering Dorji. Each of the applicants also had some connection to the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, either as members or having been employed there at some time.
The cases were referred to the Fraud Prevention Unit.
During the interview, Tshering Dorji stated that he had decided to arrange travel for Bhutanese citizens who wanted to go to the United States. According to him, he charged each of his Bhutanese clients US$ 10,000 for a one-month trip to New York City, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Each of the remaining nine applicants was then interviewed separately. Eight admitted they were charged US$10,000 for a tourist visa to the US and confessed having discussed with the travel agent plans of staying in the US for one or two years. However, all of the applicants’ DS156 forms noted only one-month intended stays. The visas were all refused by the embassy.
A review of Tshering Dorji’s previous applications for visas revealed that he attempted to secure visas for at least eight individuals in 2005 and 2006. Of the eight, five had overstayed.
In response to concerns raised on smuggling of Bhutanese applicants, the US Embassy in New Delhi in 2009 completed a three-part study of Bhutanese non-immigrant visa (NIV) applicants.
The study reviewed: one, Bhutanese students issued visas between FY 2006 and FY 2008; two, all other NIV cases for FY 2007; and three, all other NIV cases for a portion of FY 2008.
The Embassy’s study on student visas show broad compliance with the law and overstays rates of less than one half of one percent which is very good. However, validation of the other visa applicant categories reveals apparent non-compliance rates of over 16% and 9% in FY 2007 and FY 2008 respectively by staying back beyond the visa time.
The study showed that of the 174 Bhutanese students issued visas in FY 2006, FY 2007, and FY 2008, only one applicant was in a “deactivated” status whose departure from the United States could not be confirmed.
The cable says that “nonetheless, these results speak well for Bhutanese student visa recipients’ appropriate use of their visas.”
In 2007, there were 334 non-student visa applications. Of this, it was found that 22 had overstayed and 33 had not given the correct contact information. This, the embassy assumed was because they had intended to overstay. It was also found that 14 applied to become permanent residents while another 20 applied to prolong their visas.
In 2008, 25 recipients were confirmed to have overstayed. Calls attempted for 27 applicants revealed that the contact information provided on the form was incorrect and it was assumed that these applicants had done so with the intention of overstaying. One filed to become a permanent resident while five others wanted to extend their visas.
The cable says that the relatively large number of Bhutanese travelers who remain in the US gives cause for greater scrutiny of their visa applications. It says that the embassy will take greater care to verify contact information before issuing visas to these applicants.
When Business Bhutan contacted the Police Chief, Brigadier Kipchu Namgyal, he said, “Someone has to file a complaint on the issue for a case to be registered. We can investigate but we cannot file a case based on a website.”
He also said that the issue of territorial jurisdiction was also controversial when one Bhutanese commits an offence against another in a foreign territory. He said, “If the offence is committed outside the country where our laws cannot operate, we don’t have territorial jurisdiction. However, this is a controversial and legalistic issue and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) would know better.”
The attorney general, Phuntsho Wangdi, said, “We will have to examine the details of the case once it is forwarded to us by the police. We can comment only after that.”