Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Huddling in Hull a Step Up

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Huddling in Hull a Step Up

Article excerpt

SAVANNAH -- It's hard to imagine for Americans, but in some ways, the Prince Nicolas was considered a palace by the 132 Chinese immigrants who wound up in Savannah this week.

They were huddled deep inside its hull, which had a hole in the floor for a toilet, poor food and hard wooden bunks. But for most of the thousands who leave China in vessels every year to come to the United States or Canada or Australia, conditions are often far worse.

Disease is rampant, rape common. People are hidden in cargo holds, forced to keep quiet and often treated no different, or worse, from the goods the ship is carrying. They are so desperate to come here they will put up with almost anything to make it.

"I can't begin to tell you how horrendous these trips can be," said Carolina Colin-Antolini, an Atlanta immigration attorney. "You're in a ship not designed to carry people, hidden for weeks at a time. It's a miracle they survive at all."

The immigrants on the Prince Nicolas were found hiding inside an area of the ship called the forepeak, which usually is a void space in the ship's infrastructure, said Chief Petty Officer Scott Taylor, an investigator with the Marine Safety Office. Sometimes, ships store fresh water in the area or use it as a ballast tank that holds seawater to keep the ship's nose from bouncing on the high seas, he said.

Traveling inside a forepeak is a dangerous ride, said Lt. Cmdr. James Hanzalik, a spokesman for the Marine Safety Office. If the ship sank or caught fire, there would be little chance for survival.

Once Chinese immigrants agree to climb into the bilge of a ship for a journey, they have effectively signed their lives away, authorities say. Some leave their country because they could no longer subsist on the average Chinese income of $2,800 per year. Others go to end persecution for political or religious beliefs.

On the ship, all is equal. Survive, get to America and begin working. Anything else could spell disaster for the immigrant and the family back home. For once they reach the States, the journey has only just begun.

"It's obvious they weren't coming here as tourists. …

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