International Papers

Human Cargo 

The discovery Sunday of 60 “asylum-seekers,” 58 of them dead, sealed in a truck in the British port of Dover, erased even Prince William’s 18th birthday from the front pages of most British newspapers. The Sydney Morning Herald claimed that traffic in immigrants is now bigger business than the international drug trade, with profits estimated at $7 billion in 1996. The International Herald Tribune estimated the number of people entering the European Union illegally at 500,000 per year, half the global traffic in immigrants. According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, “European intelligence sources estimated in the mid-1990s that as many as 800,000 mainland Chinese were waiting in ‘staging posts’ in the former Soviet Union” for a chance to move into western Europe or North America.

A story in the Independent recounted the cycle of exploitation where illegal Chinese immigrants who make it to Britain find themselves deep in debt to the “snakehead” smugglers who brought them there, are unable to find promised jobs as waiters and cooks because employers are afraid of the $7,500 fines for employing undocumented workers, and resort to the people-smuggling racket themselves. When captured by authorities, the immigrants claim political asylum, knowing that Britain, like most countries, has a backlog of applications that can delay deportation and, in many cases, provide an opportunity for flight. (How does asylum work? See this SlateExplainer.”) Recently, Chinese asylum-seekers have based their applications on China’s one-child policy and its persecution of Christians and Falun Gong adherents. Nevertheless, asylum is rarely granted to Chinese nationals—for example, of the 590 immigrants intercepted in Vancouver, British Columbia, last summer, all of whom sought asylum, only 12 claimants have won refugee status.

The conservative Daily Telegraph of London said, “a looser [asylum] policy would only encourage even larger numbers [of Chinese illegal immigrants] to trek across two continents. Even the gullible or the desperate would be much less inclined to take such risks if they did not have a well-founded expectation that, provided they arrive here alive, they are unlikely to be repatriated.”

“Given the ruthlessness of the people-smuggling racketeers,” said the Sydney Morning Herald, “the huge stakes for which they play and the growing numbers of people prepared to go to perilous lengths to start again elsewhere … tragedies are inevitable. … The ugly paradox is that this criminal traffic in human lives is partly the result of the increasingly tough measures to stem the flood taken by governments in North America, Europe and Australia. Call it the prohibition effect: when a great many people urgently desire something—be it booze, drugs or escape to another country—and are denied legal access to it, organised crime will seize the opportunity to prey on the gullible or desperate, at terrible cost in human suffering.”

An editorial in the Hong Kong iMail (a Webby relaunch of the Hong Kong Standard) said the truck tragedy was especially poignant for Hong Kongers, because the “vast proportion of Hong Kong’s population are Chinese migrants or their immediate offspring.” It claimed, “Dramatic improvements in communications have had two profound effects on the poor in mainland China. First, they have become aware of how much better their lives could be. Second, many are increasingly believing that they can escape to better places by paying human-smugglers to transport them across the world.”

The Guardian and Independent blamed British policy for the disaster. The Guardian suggested the “cruellest paradox” of the Dover tragedy was in the reaction to it. “[H]ad the 58 immigrants survived and been exposed in the back of the truck,” it claimed, “there would have been nothing but condemnation for the ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and calls from both left and right for their deportation as quickly as possible.” The editorial claimed that nations such as Britain have undermined the asylum process by “erecting every conceivable barrier to prevent genuine refugees from ever reaching their safe shores. … [R]efugees applying for asylum in Britain are forced to break the law in order to seek it. … They must be offered a legitimate route.” The Independent agreed, saying, “An attitude of rejection toward asylum-seekers laid the foundations for the tragedy. Historically, refugees have repeatedly enriched British society, culturally and economically. … A recent UN report calculated that, on current birth and death rates, the European Union needs an influx of 1.6 million new migrants a year merely to keep its working-age population stable. In other words: the more new arrivals, the better.”

The Indian Express also blamed the tragedy on Europe’s demand for labor. “Thanks to improvement in the standards of living, unemployment doles available and negative population growth, there are not enough people to provide certain services and do certain jobs. … Similarly, the younger generation in the developed countries are not attracted to certain jobs, which they consider tedious or less-paying. But for the immigrants, who are prepared to work harder in an alien country than they would have done in their own native land, such jobs are a godsend to improve their lot. Unfortunately, the governments of these countries do not realise the need for such labourers and political parties are not comfortable, either, in demanding legalised immigration.” An op-ed in the London Times concurred, “Asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants are to the European economy what Hispanics are to the American. They are in demand. Only governments vulnerable to xenophobic electorates pretend otherwise.”

Kano, northern Nigeria’s most populous province, introduced sharia, Islamic law, Wednesday. The criminal code of sharia includes the use of physical punishment—including amputation, flogging, and stoning— requires women to be veiled, and outlaws alcohol. The Post Express claimed that members of the area’s Christian minority were afraid, “especially ladies who appeared in skirts and trousers,” and that journalists had been harassed for stories critical of the code. The Guardian of Lagos reported that the day before the introduction, commercial sex workers fled to neighboring states, “beer sellers and hoteliers … were thrown into a panic,” and “some house-wives were seen disposing of their dresses.”