The New People Trade: After 58 Desperate Chinese Died Trying to Sneak into Britain, You'd Think That Other Hopeful Illegal Migrants Would Reconsider. Think Again. Inside the Shadowy World of Human Smuggling

Newsweek, July 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

The New People Trade: After 58 Desperate Chinese Died Trying to Sneak into Britain, You'd Think That Other Hopeful Illegal Migrants Would Reconsider. Think Again. Inside the Shadowy World of Human Smuggling


Yeah, that's England," says Reza, a 22-year-old political-science student from Afghanistan. He has no passport, no "papers," as they say in Europe, and though he's willing to provide a reporter with his family name and e-mail address, he asks that they not be published. Reza paid smugglers $6,000 to escort him on a four-month journey from Kabul, by foot across the border into Pakistan, and from there to Iran. While crossing from Iran to Turkey, a friend lost a leg to a land mine, he says. Reza pressed on to Greece, then Italy. Now he's near the French village of Sangatte, on the edge of the English Channel. In front of him, huge ferries glide across the gray water, and the white cliffs of Dover, clearly visible in the morning light, rise on the edge of the horizon.

There lies the land where Reza plans to begin a new life. Yes, he knows that 58 Chinese died in the airless oven of a tomato truck that was smuggling them to Dover a few days earlier. But still, he plans to make a similar journey. Coming from a country where countless people have been slaughtered for so long and for so little reason--where his mother and brother were killed by Taliban militiamen--Reza finds a kind of consolation in headlines about the Death Truck. "I think this dying is better than that dying," he says. "In Afghanistan when you die, nobody knows, nobody cares, nobody hears."

Last week's tragedy in Dover ought to be a cautionary tale for others planning to make their way to democratic lands of plenty. But to hopeful migrants, the possibility of a gruesome death often is a risk worth taking. The Dover incident was unusual, in fact, mainly in the amount of attention it attracted: illegal immigrants, who often pay smugglers to take them across frontiers, die with grim regularity the world over. Chasing their dreams or fleeing persecution, they suffocate, or collapse of heat stroke, or freeze, or drown--in the Mediterranean, or the Rio Grande, or in the straits dividing Cuba from America. On New Year's Eve, a rickety boat carrying Iranians and Turkish Kurds sank in the strip of water that separates Albania and Italy. Over the course of a few days, 59 bodies washed ashore, none with identity papers.

Illegal migration is one of the most complex and controversial issues that wealthy countries face. Sometimes it's hard to sort out the good guys from the bad. Who, after all, can fault desperate or ambitious people seeking a better life? Yet the demand for visas far outstrips the supply, and the people who help migrants evade immigration and police officials often are criminal gangs. The International Organization for Migration reports that people-trafficking around the globe is a growing business, worth $7 billion to $12 billion annually, that transports up to 7 million illegal immigrants a year. Debate is growing in the United States and Europe over how best to counter the trade, but with little result. "The consensus is that the entrepreneurial-criminal syndicates are far ahead of law enforcement," says Arthur C. Helton, a refugee expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

China might have the most organized network. Underworld thugs called "snakeheads" charge up to $60,000 to smuggle one person to the United States, and roughly half that for the journey to Britain. …

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