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The people trade

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The people trade


Special report.

Europe needs workers: immigrants want a better life. Inside the shadowy – and dangerous – world of human smuggling.

Indide the customs office in Dover, England, a fax machine chirruped.

Out came a message from the European Pathway, a P&O Stena Line ferry that was churning across the channel from Zeebrugge, Belgium. The crew was dutifully alerting British authorities to a suspicious truck, a big white Mercedes-Benz tractor hauling a refrigerator unit supposedly filled with tomatoes. One of tthe last to board the ferry, the truck bore the name Van Der Spek TRANSPORT. The name of the firm (it would later emerge that the company was only four days old ) triggered misgivings – perhaps because it was close, but not identical, to that of an established Dutch trucking company. The track, said a British customs spokesman, „fit the profile of one that could be used to smuggle cigarettes, drugs or contraband. It was a hunch.“

It was just bbefore midnight, Sunday, June 18, the hottest day of the year, when the European Pathway pulled into Doverunder the city’s landmark chalk cliffs. Customs officials were waiting for the Mercedes truck as it trundled off the ferry. They told the ddriver to back into Bay 9 of the inspection shed. Opening the big doors to the airtight refrigeration container. they first came across pallets of crated tomatoes. Muscling the tomatoes aside, the officers found one body. Then they found another body, and then another and another. In all, they found 54 dead men, four dead women and two traumatized men clinging to life – all of them young Chinese, probably from Fujian province, who had been headed to Britain in search of jobs. „I will never forget the sight that greeted us when we opened the back doors,“ one of the customs inspectors said, „There were just piles and piles of bodies.“

The calamity in Dover shook not only Britain, wwhere nothing on such a scale, had ever happened before, but all of Europe. From the boot of Italy to the bords of Norway, immigrants are entering Europe in record numbers. Pushed out of their own countries by economic hardship or political turmoil, they are drawn to Europe’s robust prosperity, especially within the 15 countries of the European Union. „There is a strategic equetion that produces a massive push to immigrate,“ says Jean-Claude Chesnais at the national institute for Demographic SStudies in Paris. Europe is relativelly small and very rich, with a population that barely reproduces itself. „And all around – in the former Soviet bloc, in Asia, in South Asia and Africa – you have massive poverty, an absence of human rights and enermous population pressure, „says Chesnais.

European business desperately needs foreign labor – at the high and low ends of the skills scale. But the people of Europe are often uncomfortable with foreign workers. In the eyes of the electorate, the line between undocumented immigrants looking for jobs and asylum-seekers looking for political protection can become blurred. This is especially true if the man who slips into Britain to work illegally in a Soho kitchen is likely to apply for asylum if he’s caught; most Europe countries that feel prosperous. So last week in Dover grief over the fate of the Chinese immigrants mixed with anger about the number of people on the outside who seem to want in. „The hospitals are always full of them and their children,“ says Jonn Keith, a taxi driver. „They are cloggin up the system. They just want everything for free.“

Politicans are caught between the demands of the bottom line and the bballot box. „We are not in a position to be a lifeboat for the whole world,“ says Gwyn Prosser, Labour member of Parliament for Dover. In Britain, the pressures on the Labour government to do somethinggare mounting. Last year, the number of asylum seekers was up 55 percent over 1998, reflecting a steep rise in the number of people trying to enter the country illegally. The government is responding by making the lifeboat a little less comfortable – climinating, for instance, such perks as cash benefits to anybody applying for asylum. In the particular case of Chinese migrants, their numbers are also rising right now for reasons that have nothing to do with Europe: the United States has cracked down on illegal Chinese immigration, and Europe is taking up the slack. The French experience is a case in point: the number of Chinese seeking asylum in France in 1999 was double that of the year before.

People-smuggling networks are the travel agents of illegal immigration. Their business is big and growing. The networks trafficking in Chinese migrants alone are said to take in three billion dollars a year. As the stakes and numbers rise, so do the risks. Last year 3300000 undocumented immigrants made it do Italy. Many died trying. So far this year 180 people are known to have died in Italian waters – often pushed into the sea and left to drown by smugglers trying to lighten their boats to get away from Italian coast-guard patrols. Four days before the deaths at Dover, a Dutch organization, United for Intercultural Action, announced that more than 2000 refugees and migrants have died trying to get to Europe. Perhaps an incident like the death truck in Dover was inevitable. „It is True you would treat your tomatoes better then [ the smugglies ] treated these people,“ says Wim De-Bruin, a spokesman for the National Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rotterdam. „But the difference is that with tomatoes and other goods, you get paid when you deliver them in good condition.“

At the end of last week, the bodies found in Dover remained unidentified. But British authorities believe the Chinese began their journey in Fujian 30000 Dollars a head clients of an extensive smuggling network that move them from home to the English Channel lush coastal province in southeast China, Fujian is the main starting point on China’s emigrant traik ( box). Fujian is

by no means China’s poorest province, but it sends an estimated 100000 emigrants abroad each year. People call one town „widows’ village“ because so many men have left their women behind. The Pressure to leave Fujian is social as well as economic. „It’s like if you are not a lazy person, then you shouldn’t be in mainland China,“ says Ko-Lin Chin , a professor at Rutgers University in the United States. „People will say, „You’re not in your early 20s: wwhy are you still here?“

As news of what happened in Dover reached the province, grieving spread quickly. Fujian has sent so many of its sons and daughters abroad that nobody was sure who had perished or not in the death truck. He Xiaohong was terrified that her 24 – year old husband, and odd job painter named Cao Xianxin, was among the dead in Dover. On May 10 he left home for Britain, comforted by a promise that on hhis long journey he would be „as safe as a tourist.“ He Xiaohong was in tears last week as she vowed: „If my husband returns safely, he’ll have to beat me to death before I ever let him travel abroad llike this again.“

The journey to the West is called „sneaking across the water.“ It’s made possible by Fujainese ...

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