Europe needs workers: immigrants want a better life. Inside the shadowy - and dangerous - world of human smuggling.
Inside 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 the 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 before 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 driver 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 traumatised 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, where nothing on such a scale, had ever happened before, but all of Europe. From the boot of Italy to the boards 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 equation that produces a massive push to immigrate, " says Jean-Claude Chesnais at the national institute for Demographic Studies in Paris. Europe is relatively 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 enormous population pressure, "says Chesnais.
European business desperately needs foreign labour - 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. " Politicians are caught between the demands of the bottom line and the ballot 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 something gare 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 300000 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 organisation, 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 smuggles ] 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 south-east 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: why 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 his 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 like this again. " The journey to the West is called "sneaking across the water. " It's made possible by Fujainese guides known as "snakeheads. " They are important figures in their homeland. "Everybody knows who the snakeheads are, " says Chen Mei Xing, a Fijianese who slipped into England a few weeks ago. "He's a businessman with a very hihg status. " According to USA authorities, snakeheads are also part of Chinese gangs known as Triads or Tongs. They Charge as much as 60000 dollars for a trip to the United States; half as much for Britain. Typically, a down payment of 5 to 19 percent is made up front. A migrant who uses the snakehead's services can spend years repaying the debt. The Fijianese who emigrate see the fee as a smart investment. In the end Fujian benefits too. Fujianese migrants pump large sums of money into the economy they left behind. City officials in Changle (population: 600000) estimate that locals who have gone abroad put 100 million dollars back into the city's economy each year in remittances to their families and property investments back home.
Not that long ago the destination more often than not was America ("The beautiful country") . But in 1993 a freighter called the Golden Venture ran aground off Long Island, and 10 Chinese immigrants drowned trying to swim to shore. The incident prompted a series of crackdowns by the U. S. government. Thousands of Chinese still migrate to America - earlier this year, three Fujiance were found dead in a shipping container in Seattle - but some of the traffic had shifted to other countries.
Increasingly, Britain seems to be the alternative country of choice. The largest Chinese community in Europe is there. Language is an important draw. Even though the government is cutting back benefits, they are still relatively generous: food vouchers (instead of cash) and housing (though asylum seekers can no longer choose where to live) . Another reason for the rise in asylum seekers to Britain is that Germany has tightened up it is border controls. Anyone can claim asylum in Germany and stay for years while the case goes through the courts. But under a 1994 law German authorities can turn away refugees along it is border before they set foot on German soil and have a chance to apply for asylum. This has caused the annual number of refugees coming into Germany to plunge from 513000 in 1993 to fewer than 100000 last year.
People - smuggling networks adjust quickly to such changes. In Fujian, one family's 18 years old son left home in April. Jin Xicai (not his real name) wanted something more then this job repairing mobile phones in Fujian. The family couldn't afford to send him to the Unites States, so it settled for the less costly trip to Britain. On April 3, Jin hopped a train to Beijing, joining other would-be emigrants in the capital. Snaakeheads had promised him a plane ride to Europe, but instead Jin was hustled onto a train for the week - long trans - Siberian trek to Moscow. He crossed the China - Russia border using a genuine Chinese passport. It had been procured on the black market; the original photograph had been carefully razored off and replaced by a photo of Jin.
When Jin phoned home from Moscow; he said he was being held under armed guard. Snakeheads had confiscated his documents, luggage and spare clothes to prevent him from escaping. His next phone call came from somewhere in the Czech Republic. To get there he had apparently travelled by train, truck, even a horse - drawn cart. Then came a few more phone calls - from Germany and, finally, Holland.
Jin's phone calls point to a well - traveled route from Fujian to Europe (map) . Moscow is a forever transit point because of relaxed visa requirements for Chinese citizens. At any given time there are said to be more than 200000 Chinese in Moscow en route to other countries. Belgrade is another favourite, for the same reason. Serbian press reports say that 40000 Chinese have settled in Yugoslavia since 1995. From Belgrade it's easy to slip into Western Europe via Bosnia's porous frontiers.