Monday 18 November 2019

On the migrant trail: How €20,000 can buy illegal passage from China into Europe

"This is an incredibly sensitive and high-profile investigation, and we are working swiftly to gather as full a picture as possible as to how these people lost their lives," said Deputy Chief Constable Pippa Mills. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Clifford Coonan

In Fujian province in southern China, it's said that when the news comes through that a father or son has succeeded in getting into Ireland to work, the family celebrates by lighting fireworks.

Over the years we've become accustomed to stories of China's financial rise into the world's second largest economy. So it comes as a shock to hear that the 39 people found dead in a lorry trailer in Essex were Chinese nationals.

In the past decade, it has become easy for Chinese people to get a passport and Chinese tourists have become a sought-after commodity around the world.

But China's dazzling new wealth is often not evenly distributed, with a growing gap between the wealthy cities of the eastern seaboard and the poorer cities in the north-east and provinces like Fujian.

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People leave China through underground networks of traffickers known as "snakeheads", who charge hefty fees for forged passports and passage abroad. They operate in many countries, including bringing illegal migrants from North Korea into South Korea.

The snakeheads deal in turn with international crime syndicates, believed to be operating out of Spain, Belgium, Italy and Britain as well as perhaps Ireland, paying fees of up to €20,000 for discreet, illegal transportation

The representatives of the snakehead gangs are often relatives or family friends of those leaving, and the relationship with the snakeheads can be complicated. Since 2005, the majority have come from Fujian and the north-east.

The swelling Chinese economy and a crackdown on illegal emigration means fewer illegals heading overseas. The building sites and restaurants of the booming cities have replaced overseas as the destination of choice for the farm labourers of the provinces. But the economy is starting to slow down again because of the US-China trade war.

Freight: Shipping containers at the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium. Photo: PA
Freight: Shipping containers at the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium. Photo: PA

This means many people are keen to get out. Those trying to leave are promised a life of wealth abroad, and crucially, the promise of buying and owning their own properties which can then be handed on to their children. In China, property rights are restricted.

We have seen this in Ireland too. The discovery of a smuggling ring in 2017 in Dublin Airport channelling illegal immigrants from China shows there are still many people only too eager to leave.

In 2004, 23 cockle-pickers died in the rising waters on a cold and dark night in Morecambe Bay, in the north-west of England. It's possible the people in the Essex container were heading for a similar destiny.

Most Chinese migrants into Ireland were traditionally from Hong Kong, followed by ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. Many worked in restaurants, which is why the dominant Chinese cuisines in Ireland remain Cantonese and Malaysian.

Held: Police detain a group of men thought to be migrants near Zeebrugge yesterday. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Held: Police detain a group of men thought to be migrants near Zeebrugge yesterday. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Migrants are housed in European centres until their fake documents are ready - mostly manufactured in China. Their tickets are bought through travel agencies in places like Italy or Spain, after which they are able to move on to Ireland and Britain. There are direct flights from major Chinese cities to Madrid and to Rome.

Sometimes they stop in second cities in Belgium or the Netherlands. Generally the men go first, then try to get the families over later.

Grim find: UK police at the scene of the discovery. Photo: REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Grim find: UK police at the scene of the discovery. Photo: REUTERS/Simon Dawson

This can take years. Of the bodies found in a refrigerated trailer in Grays, eight were women and 31 were men, Essex police said.

In small villages in coastal Fujian province, there are signs on the wall with mobile phone numbers and offers to help with "working and labouring in Europe".

Many of the most successful Chinese migrants come from Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province. Around half-a-million Wenzhou people live overseas, many of them in Europe, and when that city recently saw an economic downturn, the migrants upped their remittances back home to help give the local economy a lift.

Irish Independent

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