News/US: Human Cargo Big Business

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Subject: News/US: Human Cargo Big Business
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Thu Oct 07 1999 - 15:21:48 EDT


Human Cargo Big Business
China's Fujian Province feeds much of the demand for people who board boats
to flee their homeland -- some of them ending up in Canada.
BY Linda Slobodian
Sun Media Newspapers (Canada), September 20, 1999

FUJIAN PROVINCE, China -- China may be home to one-fifth of the world's
poorest, but the people getting on boats to flee their homeland -- some
hoping to do so only long enough to get rich and return -- aren't
necessarily among them.

The business of smuggling illegal immigrants is a lucrative one for the
organized criminals known as She Tou -- snakeheads -- whose fee, thanks to
demand, has escalated from $10,000 US to $40,000 US a person over the past
decade. This province, one of China's economic bright lights, feverishly
feeds most of that demand.

There are no free rides for the human cargo the snakeheads, members of
Triads (Chinese mafia), ruthlessly jam into decrepit drift net vessels. Not
even at the start. Wealth that the wretchedly poor could only ever hope to
dream of -- a hefty down payment, backed by sufficient collateral at home
-- is required.

"They must have a lot of money to get on the boat," says Yi Fong Lin, a
likable, well-to-do hotel, restaurant and property owner in Lanjiang, a
city of 40,000 about 70 kilometres northeast of the province's capital Fuzhou.

Between the two cities sits Mawei, the province's largest harbour on the
Ming River, and a long, rugged coastline where small boats transport
migrants from various points to vessels waiting in the Straits of Taiwan.

Like many cities and villages in the area, Lanjiang, population 40,000,
loses about one in 10 residents every year, mostly to the U.S., Japan,
Singapore and Canada. It's common knowledge some of them leave here via
boat, but to authorities and outsiders, it is "private," a heavily guarded
secret.

"Some go out of China in different ways, sometimes illegally," says Yi,
insisting he knows no one who has chosen the difficult, dangerous route by
boat or anyone involved in the business.

"You may ask families how they send relatives. They may tell you something.
They won't tell you the truth."

Yi, from his wealthy perch, resents the claim that poverty drives people
away. Fujian, one of 23 provinces in China, is prosperous, particularly in
its coastal villages, compared with inland provinces. It was a pioneer in
China to take the road to private industry -- textiles, chemicals,
machinery, shoes -- and is rich in agriculture.

"To say China is very poor? No! Poor here? I don't think so. I make 7,000
yuan (almost $800 US) a day at my restaurant. I have several friends who
have more than one million yuan."

When asked if they make their money legally in light of the fact that an
excessively good monthly salary is 2,000 yuan, he laughs and simply says
"of course."

He insists on showing how people live in the immaculate Lanjiang, where
brightly dressed, cherub-faced children attend two impressive primary
schools. First, a tour through his brother-in-law Li Hai Qi's
well-furnished, three-bedroom apartment complete with two large colour TVs.

Brother-in-law Li desperately wants his 19-year-old son, Bin, to go to
university in Canada. "Can you help? I'll pay," he says. His wife, Lin Xiun
Qin, sits and smiles warmly as he fusses to serve expensive (18 yuan for a
precious few leaves) Jin Long Zhu tea.

Next, it's on to a private, four-storey house with spacious rooms and three
TVs. "This cost 30,000 yuan to build," says businessperson Li. "Many people
live like this. People who go on the boat become slaves -- it is better to
live here. China has changed."

So why the exodus? Any why to Canada?

"Some people leave to open their minds. Others, to earn money then return,"
he says.

Meanwhile, in another city, one source familiar with the intricate workings
of the human cargo business, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

He said the illegal Chinese boat people caught in three vessels off the
B.C. coast -- 190 on Sept. 1; 131 on Aug. 11; and 123 on July 20 -- likely
were hoping to pursue the American dream. But Canadian officials -- RCMP,
the Coast Guard and the Defence Department -- intercepted.

"Usually, they don't catch half the boats," says the source.

In some cases, a person will go as a representative of 10 or 20 families.
They are sweet-talked and made lavish promises of the good life by a
trusted local acting as a paid agent for the snakeheads. It is never a
spur-of-the moment or an individual decision.

"It's a family or clan decision. 'We'll invest in you, you'll help us get
there.' It's a big business," he says.

And a competitive one, for both the snakeheads and the many desperately
vying to get a seat on the boat.

"If you have thousands of dollars to pay to get on the boat, you are a
leader. Millions want to be in your shoes. But there are 200 or fewer slots
in the boat. How do I get a seat? It is the process of elimination."

He says smuggling illegal immigrants by boat is hardly new. In fact, the
past decade has been exceedingly kind to the snakeheads' bottom line.
Demand for seats has enabled them to virtually quadruple the fee.

The snakeheads appear to be aptly named.

"The snakeheads look at these people and say 'You are just a tool for me to
make money.' They don't care if they live or die. Better if they live, then
they can make more money. They are ruthlessly cunning when they have the
migrants who slip in undetected in their clutches.

"The debt grows for whatever reasons. You are always at their mercy.
They'll cheat you and mistreat you. You are handicapped. You don't know the
language. You have no place to live. You have no choices. You arrive in
Vancouver or Nova Scotia and are charged hidden costs. You are a slave," he
says.

He says the agents "often have a contract" with a textile factory or some
industry in Canada looking for cheap labour. The migrants readily work
12-hour days planning to either go home rich or save enough to bring
relatives over.

"It is getting increasingly more difficult to go home or bring family.
That's because the debt accumulates, never to be paid. That's because they
work illegally and they end up not getting paid by their bosses."

Or they pay off their debts by committing crimes for the snakeheads, the
largest group said to be the big Circle Boys, Dai Huen Jai -- heavily
involved in illegal drug trafficking in Canada and the kings of human
smuggling from Asia.

Do the illegal boat people know they will be forced to become connected
with crime? "So they know? What do they care? Everybody is in it for
themselves," he says.

But the hopes and promises of milk and honey and fat bank accounts seldom
materialize.

Some time ago, he visited illegal boat immigrants from Fujian who made it
to New York where there's a large population from this province.

"The living conditions there were in squalour. The cockroaches and rats
were worse than what they had at home."

The government is understandably concerned that the human smuggling "feeds
into the black society -- the Triads," he says.

"It'll have to come to a head eventually because they'll overdo it. The
Triads are fighting (for these lucrative profits).

"They'll self-destruct and move on. Meanwhile, people are not benefiting --
only the snakeheads. Guaranteed more boats will arrive."

In China, laws are not as harsh with snakeheads as with drug traffickers
and others criminals.

That's only because the law is not keeping up with reality," he says.

Meanwhile, he says, people tempted by the lure of the snakeheads must be
told not to be trapped -- "even if it's not what they want to believe."

+++

In Mawei, population 20,000, like everywhere, a crowd presses in on the
foreigners chatting through an interpreter with a couple of locals.

Lian Fu Qian, 50, a local fisher, has not heard a thing about people
fleeing illegally on the boats. And he's lived here 30 years.

"It's secret business," he says.

"Life here is better than ever. I've never heard of people going hungry,"
he says, pointing to all the harbour jobs, the Taiwanese shoe factory, BOC
computer plant, Fujian Ting Yi Food Company, and the Japanese electronics
factory.

A few doors down, in his restaurant, Huang Ming Xian, flashing a big smile,
peels vegetables.

"People who go on the boats all come from far-reaching areas outside Mawei."

+++

On the edge of Fujing are small farms. On one sits a dilapidated,
impoverished house -- with a colour TV.

Zhou Hua Zhen, who has the brightest, kindest eyes ever seen, invites us
in, not even knowing why we came to visit.

Tea is immediately poured. Her sister, Zhou Bin Xiong, puts a bowl of
peanuts on the table.

Wee Zhou Bin Xiong peers shyly, like so many children here do, from behind
the safety of his mother's legs.

"Can you help someone get to Canada?" is Zhou's first anxious question.
"What kind of work could be done? How much money do you make?"

Her husband, Lin qing Fu, says the flower farm, worked by three families,
none of whom live in this shack, generates 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month.

Some time ago, he tried to work in Japan and was told a passport and
necessary documents "through the proper channels" would cost 10,000 yuan.

Like many, they are disillusioned by the "complex, long" legal process.

No, they would not consider fleeing on a boat.

"Some people who have been sent back arrive very sick," he says.

And those who borrowed the down payment, at the time $6,000, returned
heartbroken and indebted.

"If you are caught by a country and sent back you still have a lot of money
to pay. If you have a house, they take it away. You must sell your
possessions to pay."

+++

In Fuzhou, a businessperson who asked not to be identified, tries to shed
some understanding on who is getting on the boats -- and why.

"This area has a history, a tradition of people leaving on a boat to earn
money then come back," he says.

"The poor move to the cities. These people who get on the boats cannot be
called poor. In the country in south Fujian, dowries are obscenely lavish
-- up to one million yuan.

"But people cannot go other ways. They have no education, so they are easy
to manipulate when told: 'Come to paradise.' They're richer than us."

"There are firms who help with the immigration process -- they are paid up
to $150,000 US by people."

Meanwhile, his eyes widen at the news 444 have been caught trying to sneak
onto Canadian shores.

The number 4 is considered unlucky -- there is no fourth floor in hotels.

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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