Immigrants risk their lives to reach Europe

Smuggling rings grow as human trafficking brings lucrative profits

July 23, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON - The 58 Chinese immigrants found suffocated in the back of a refrigerated truck in Dover last month have exposed a horrifyingly truth: Men, women and children are dying to get into Europe.

While the Dover tragedy was extreme, it was hardly isolated. More than 2,000 people have died crossing the seas and borders of Western Europe in the past seven years, and the mortal tide continues with regularity.

They drown in the Adriatic Sea on the way to Italy or in the Strait of Gibraltar headed for Spain. They step on mines along the Iranian-Turkish border and freeze to death on an icy mountain pass between Bulgaria and Greece. They die in the landing gear of a commercial airplane.

This grim toll is the underbelly of Europe's economic success and, to some degree, of its efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration. Pulled by a demand for unskilled laborers and pushed by desperation in their own countries, more and more Asians, Africans, Indians and Eastern Europeans are making their way to Western Europe's dynamic cities.

Visa requirements, sanctions against airlines transporting illegal immigrants and new enforcement measures have forced these desperate migrants to seek ever more clandestine and dangerous routes into Western Europe. Whether they are refugees fleeing persecution or laborers looking for a job, for the majority of migrants the only way into Europe is illegally and often perilously.

Professional traffickers are happy to ply their trade to the 250,000 refugees who ask for asylum in European Union countries each year and to the hundreds of thousands of economic migrants looking for a better life. Law enforcement officials and refugee workers say that the business of human trafficking has become as lucrative as drug smuggling in Europe.

"There has always been illegal immigration, but there is a massive growth in organized, illegal immigration. Instead of coming in ones and twos, they are coming in fifties and hundreds," said Fleur Strong, a spokeswoman for Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service.

"In most European countries, the penalties for human trafficking are lower than for drugs, and the money is just as good," Strong said.

The price of an illegal journey from China's Fujian province to London ranges from $18,000 to $30,000.

The penalty for people smuggling in Britain is $3,000 a head for drivers and up to 10 years in prison for trafficking masterminds. Drug smuggling is punishable by prison terms of up to life.

"Human smuggling is a growth industry for organized crime, and [the smugglers] adapt well to changing circumstances," said Mark Pugash, a spokesman for the Kent County police in Dover.

When routes from China to London through Russia come under scrutiny, traffickers transfer their "cargo" through Thailand or Cambodia. Law enforcement pressure on one European border might shift immigrants and would-be refugees to another.

Immigration attorney Wah-Piow Tan believes the 58 Chinese who died on the way to Dover might have been the victims of one smuggler's efforts to outwit British law enforcement techniques. Typically, immigrants have been ferried across the channel inside canvas-topped trucks that let in air but also make it easy for police dogs to sniff out human scent.

"The syndicates have responded with more expensive transportation. At one point the air vent was closed on this truck," Tan said. "Was it because something went wrong, or was it because of a fear of being detected by the dogs?"

As for how many people die trying to get into EU countries, figures are anecdotal. The International Organization for Migration in Geneva states on its Web site that "numbers collated from just two news sources show that at least 467 smuggled/trafficked migrants died in 1999 and the first half of 2000."

The Dutch organization United for Intercultural Action has compiled a list of more than 2,060 people who have died trying to reach Europe since 1993.

But they say this is far from complete because it represents only cases that have come to the attention of authorities. Other victims might have been lost at sea or died in airtight trucks that officials didn't detect. Still others might have died under the yoke of traffickers who forced them into prostitution or other coerced labor to pay off their debts.

And the toll continues:

Two weeks ago, a 10-month-old Kosovo Albanian died of dehydration on the southern Italian coast town of Porto Badisco, where she was reportedly ditched by a smuggler fleeing police.

More than 30 immigrants died trying to enter Greece illegally from November through January, including two Eastern European women who froze to death on an icy mountain pass from Bulgaria after being stranded when smugglers failed to meet them in a snowstorm.

Spain's Guardia Civil pulled 29 bodies from Spanish waters last year, and immigrant associations estimate that, with the increased traffic, three times that many have drowned this year trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in rickety boats.

Illegal immigrants normally travel without documents, and many victims are never identified. Many have no family in Europe to make the identification, and, in other cases, relatives are too afraid to come forward.

This has complicated the job of naming the 58 Chinese immigrants from Fujian province who were discovered in Dover last month behind a load of tomatoes in an airtight truck.

Many Chinese immigrants who believe they had family on the truck were afraid to present themselves to authorities in Britain either because they are here illegally or because they fear it would prejudice their pending asylum cases, according to immigration lawyers.

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