The bodies of a family of four found frozen in a Manitoba field near the Canada-U.S. border last week will not be flown back to their home in India, a relative says.
On Thursday, officials confirmed the identities of husband and wife, Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, 39, and Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel, 37, and their children, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel, 11, and three-year-old Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, following autopsies that showed the family died of exposure to extreme weather conditions.
“This sad incident has happened in our house and the entire family is mourning,” Jagdish’s cousin, Jashwant Patel, told reporters outside the family home.
“No one is ready to speak [about] anything or they are also not in a condition to speak,” Patel said in the video provided by Reuters. “The bodies will not be brought here and the last rites will be performed in Canada.”
It’s believed the family was part of a group trying to walk across the international border into the U.S., but got separated from the rest during a blizzard and froze to death near the Manitoba town of Emerson on Jan. 19.
Shortly before the family’s bodies were discovered, U.S. officials had detained seven other Indian nationals on the U.S. side of the border.
The update from the family came at a funeral held Thursday, said Vaibhav Jha, a local journalist who was outside their house in the village of Dingucha during the service.
All day, men wearing white and women in black saris — formal funeral attire in India — flocked in from nearby villages to pay their respects to the grandfather who has now lost his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Jha told CBC News in an interview.
“He will not speak with the press. He did not even speak to the families and relatives. He has confined himself to the house,” said Jha, a senior correspondent with the Indian Express newspaper in Gujarat.
“The news was devastating for them.”
WATCH | Bodies of family found near border won’t be sent back to India:
The victims 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,” Sanjay Patel, a cousin of the victim who lives in Dingucha, home to more than 1,200 families, told Reuters.
Jha said both Jagdish and Vaishaliben used to be teachers, and more recently the father worked in the garment industry.
Despite being a highly industrialized state, thousands of locals from Gujarat leave for the United States and Canada looking for better opportunities.
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.– Sanjay Patel, relative
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 Sanjay Patel, who is also a member of the village’s self-governing council.
During his time in Dingucha, Jha said, about half of the houses in the village appeared to be empty.
“It’s an urban, affluent village, where people have mansions and bungalows. Yet they’re locked up because these people have migrated already to overseas countries or to metropolitan cities in India,” he said, describing a trend he says has been going on for decades.
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 that 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,” the official, Ajay Parmar, told Reuters.
“Everyone wants better jobs and those are not easily available in India.”
Posters of travel and immigration agents advertising what they describe as easy U.S., U.K. and Canadian visa facilities are pasted on several walls of the village square — including some believed to be for illegal smuggling operations.
“I did not see any other advertisement — even of a soap or a shampoo brand — but I saw advertisements of travel agencies, operators who promised student visas to just about anybody,” Jha said.
He said the Patel family likely paid a large sum of money to smugglers to get to North America. But so far, people in the village are staying quiet about what they might know about the operations.
“They’re feeling sad toward the four-member family who have died, yet they’re very apprehensive of speaking more about the other seven members who have been detained,” Jha said.
Last week, U.S. authorities charged Steve Shand, 47, of Florida with transporting or attempting to transport undocumented migrants in connection with the case. Shand was later released from custody on a number of conditions.
Indian police said they’ve detained 13 travel agents as part of an international smuggling investigation to unearth illegal immigration networks running across Gujarat.
From 2016 to the end of 2021, the Canada Border Services Agency has opened 355 criminal investigations involving human smuggling, a spokesperson said. Of those cases, 162 saw charges laid.
And while authorities are staying tight-lipped so far on what they know about the journey the family made to a frozen field in Manitoba from their home village in India, Jha said he hopes more people involved will be caught soon.
“At the end of the day, this man just wanted to do good for his family, and his desperation was taken advantage of by some nefarious illegal human traffickers,” he said.