NEW DELHI: Indian police said Thursday they have arrested two Air India employees after uncovering a people smuggling operation at New Delhi airport that apparently targeted Nepalese quake victims.
A senior police officer at the airport said staff at the national carrier were suspected of helping Nepalese women promised jobs in wealthy Gulf countries to evade immigration procedures.
So far 28 women have been identified, most of whom police said were from areas of Nepal badly affected by a major earthquake in April, which killed thousands and left many more homeless.
M.I Haider, deputy commissioner of police at the airport, said the scam was exposed on July 21 when a group of seven Nepalese women transiting Delhi airport en route to Dubai were found with their travel documents stamped even though they had not yet cleared immigration control.
Police briefly detained the women and arrested two Air India ground staff, who admitted under questioning that they had been paid $90 per person to arrange the forged documents.
A police statement named the two as Manish Gupta and Kapil Kumar. The airline did not return calls for comment.
"Security personnel caught a group of seven Nepalese women who had been issued their international boarding passes and travel documents without following the proper procedure," Haider told AFP.
"The questioning of the detained women and the arrested duo also revealed that there were at least 21 other Nepalese women in Delhi waiting their turn to fly out of the country via the same route."
Police found the 21 women when they raided a hotel in Delhi and they will be returned to Nepal along with the other seven, Haider said.
Two suspected traffickers were also arrested, both Nepalese nationals.
"The open border between Nepal and India makes it easy for people to travel across, and agents exploit this route to traffic people," a spokesman for Nepal's home ministry Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told AFP.
"We have an agreement with India to not allow Nepali nationals without our stamp in their passport to travel from their airport."
The women had travelled to India from Nepal by bus after being promised work in Gulf countries.
They flew from Delhi to the western city of Ahmedabad before boarding a flight to Dubai via Delhi -- a convoluted route apparently aimed at evading immigration procedures.
Haider said it was unclear what their fate would have been had they made it to their destination.
Thousands of Nepalese leave the impoverished country every year to seek work abroad, where rights groups say many face abuse or even torture at the hands of their employers.
Many have their passports taken on arrival, meaning they are unable to leave.
There have also been concerns about increased levels of people trafficking in the chaos that followed the devastating earthquake.
"These rescued women, aged between 20 and 35 years, don't really know what really awaited them there," Haider said.