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Illegal Migration in the 21st Century

Globalization is often described in terms of increased 'flows' or 'movements' of money, ideas, or goods. But the movement of people across national borders remains highly regulated and a point of major contention between many countries. Governments of rich industrialized nations spend billions of dollars each year to control inflows of poorer people seeking greater economic opportunities. Despite efforts to legally regulate immigration, however, millions of people continue to seek passage to richer countries. The push and pull of economic need has given rise to a new class of criminals - people smugglers who charge high fees and promise to deliver their charges to a new land and a new life. Using clever 21st-century techniques to evade outdated 20th-century detection mechanisms, these 'coyotes' and 'snakeheads' are increasingly successful at helping clients reach their goals - but not infrequently they also place their clients' lives in grave danger on the open seas, cargo transports, and in deserts. - YaleGlobal

Illegal Migration in the 21st Century

Despite efforts to legally regulate immigration, millions of people continue to seek passage to richer countries
Bertil Lintner
YaleGlobal, 10 January 2003
Interdicted Chinese illegal immigrants (Courtesy of: U.S. Coast Guard)

In mid-November, the French authorities announced that their refugee camp at Sangatte is no longer accepting new refugees in preparation for its definitive closure by April next year. The camp, through which more than 60,000 asylum seekers have passed and which is currently holding around 1,800 people, mostly from China, India, Pakistan and Iraq, has long been a sore point in relations between France and Britain. It is located near the French side of the Channel Tunnel and has for years served as a stepping stone for illegal immigrants on their way to the British Isles. The British Home Secretary, David Blunkett, hailed the decision as "excellent progress and [it] demonstrates the commitment of both governments to tackling the problem of illegal immigration." The French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, said he was equally satisfied with the closure. He added that the French police had arrested the main traffickers involved in four of the six known "mafia gangs" that have traded people through Sangatte in recent weeks.

 

But seen in the broader context of global illegal and "informal" migration, the closure of Sangatte and the crackdown in human smugglers in France is not likely to have much impact, nor will it curb the activities of the syndicates that transport asylum seekers and other migrants from the developing world into the developed. All businesses find new solutions to new challenges, and as long as there is money to be made from people who are seeking greener pastures outside their own countries, people smugglers will continue to sell their services throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. According to a European intelligence report, people smuggling is "probably the most serious development in transnational crime within the last 10 years."

 

The same report says the smuggling gangs earn a conservatively estimated US$7 billion per year from their trade, and a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe held in June 2002 in Bangkok, Thailand, concluded that many international smugglers are turning to trafficking in human beings rather than drugs. Richard Danzier, the head of the International Organisation for Migration's (IOM) office in Jakarta, Indonesia argues that the reason is that it is much less risky than smuggling drugs or guns: "If you get caught, you don't risk capital punishment. But in terms of money, it's right up there with drug smuggling and other illegal activities."

 

Data collected by the IOM, an intergovernmental outfit with 93 member states that often coordinates its efforts with the United Nations, also show where the most lucrative routes are located. A person who wants to go from, for instance, Fujian province in southern China to New York - the favorite destination for most Chinese - would have to pay at least $35,000 for a passage. An "informal ticket" from China to Europe - a less popular destination - is much cheaper, only $10,000-$15,000. A person from India or Pakistan who wants to make it to anywhere in the United States would have to pay $25,000 to the smugglers. Iraqis, who are leaving their country in increasing numbers as the threat of war is growing, are paying at least $5,000 to get to Europe. The cheapest "ticket" on the IOM's list is from Mexico to Los Angeles: a mere $200-$400. But given the number of Mexicans who travel that route, it is still a million-dollar business.

 

These "packages" include false or real passports, air and bus tickets, and often also escorts who make sure the migrants reach their destinations. On the final leg of the journey, all travel documents and tickets are usually destroyed to make it difficult to re-trace their journeys and thus hamper repatriation. The migrants are also instructed what to say when applying for asylum in the countries of their choice, which has made it much more difficult to determine who is a genuine refugee and who is just taking advantage of international laws such as the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention to get asylum. The Convention protects victims of political and religious persecution, and refugees know it. An American immigration official recalls interviewing an asylum seeker from China who claimed to be a Christian, and feared for his life if he was sent back. When the officer asked him how Jesus died, the asylum seeker replied: "The communists shot him with a machine-gun." Because of the way in which many immigrants have abused and taken advantage of the 'asylum card', those who are legitimately seeking asylum abroad are now finding it harder and harder to escape the oppressive regimes of their native country.

 

The main problem is that it was a lot clearer who was a refugee and who was not when the Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War Two. The situation today, Western immigration officials say, is far more complex, and some have begun to argue that the time has come to revise the Convention and bring it up to date. Revisions could include stricter screening, a tighter system and no automatic granting of asylum just because a refugee has left an oppressive country. These issues were discussed in June this year at a European Union summit in Seville, where illegal migration was at the top of the agenda. Several European countries have introduced new legislation to curb the flow of asylum seekers, in part as a response to growing xenophobia that has led to the emergence of maverick populist parties even in traditionally liberal countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark. Resistance to illegal migration is no doubt much stronger in the nation states of Europe than in countries that are built on immigration: the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But even - or especially - Australia has seen the emergence of both anti-immigration parties and harsh treatment of asylum seekers. A recent survey in New Zealand showed that a strong opinion there believes that there are "too many Asians" in the country.

 

The profile of many of these migrants can also be very different from the millions of people who were displaced during and after WWII. While illegal immigrants from Latin America can make it to the United States on a shoe-string budget, the high prices that the smugglers are charging to bring a Chinese or a Pakistani to the West mean that only people from there with money can afford to buy their services. An ocean away, however, immigrants from Latin America, especially Central America and Mexico, do not face the same financial obstacles, as they are spared the high costs of transport over oceans and seas.

 

Fujian, traditionally the main source of Chinese migrants to New York, is actually one of the wealthiest in China. A coastal province with a long history of migration, it has also sent millions of young people to Southeast Asia, Europe and even Latin America. Once there, the migrants can send money back to relatives who are waiting to follow in their footsteps. Fujian is also the home of several well-organised smuggling gangs and Chinese Triad societies which supply ruthless enforcers who bribe officials and make sure the migrants pay all their debts to the syndicates.

 

Until only a few years ago, most Chinese arrived in the United States in barely sea-worthy boats, which sailed across the Pacific Ocean and sometimes even around Africa and up through the Atlantic to North America. But much of that traffic came to a halt when in 1993 a small freighter called the Golden Venture ran ashore at Rockaway Point in Queen's, New York, with several hundred asylum seekers onboard. At least ten of them drowned when the enforcers, or so-called "snakeheads," forced their human cargo to jump into the water and swim ashore. Drawn-out court proceedings revealed a sophisticated smuggling network, which had taken the asylum seekers overland through China's interior and down through Burma's sector of the Golden Triangle to Thailand, where they boarded the ship. It had sailed across the Indian Ocean to Mombasa in Kenya, where more illegal migrants were waiting. The voyage continued around the Cape of Good Hope, up past Antigua in the West Indies, and then to the United States.

 

Smuggler's Voyage: Clients of one illegal smuggling network traveled from China to the United States, stopping off to pick up others in Kenya as they passed by Africa. Enlarged image

The disclosures, and the publicity, forced the smugglers to look for new ways to bring people to North America. These days, most arrive along round-about routes by air. They may travel to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore on genuine Chinese passports, and then buy new ones from, for instance, one of the smaller island countries in the West Indies, which are members of the Commonwealth. That would guarantee visa free travel to another Commonwealth country - Canada - and, once there, it is easy to slip across the border to the United States. Others make it to outlying US territories such as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands or Guam, and then to the US mainland. A few years ago, a group of Chinese carrying false Cambodian passports were apprehended in Greenland, an island dependency of Denmark. They were on their way to North America, but the Danish police in Greenland recognized the language they spoke as Chinese, not Khmer. After being interrogated, they were escorted back to Denmark proper - where they applied for political asylum.

Illegal immigrants traveling from China to the US can fly to Southeast Asia, get a new, false passport, then fly on to Canada and eventually cross into the US. Enlarged image

 

Migrants from Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent use other syndicates from their own ethnic communities. Until the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan late last year, thousands of Afghans paid fortunes to human smugglers in Karachi in neighboring Pakistan, who helped them reach Australia and Europe. But not all these migrants were people fleeing the repressive Taliban regime. According to reports in the Australian press in October 2001, some members of Australia's naturalized Afghan community claimed that 80% of the asylum seekers purporting to be Afghans were actually illegal immigrants from Pakistan. Immigration officials were told some who claimed to be illiterate peasants driven from Afghanistan by its Taliban rulers managed in a short time later to pass complicated written tests for driving licenses in English. Others who claimed they were illiterate were found soon after their release from Australian detention centers for asylum seekers to be using computers that required sophisticated skills.

 

A typical journey from Afghanistan to Australia used to cost $5,000, which was paid to smugglers in Karachi. The price included a genuine, blank Afghan passport to which photographs and stamps were added in Karachi. The would-be asylum seeker could then board a plane to Kuala Lumpur. Until last year, Malaysia allowed visa-free entry to citizens of all fellow Muslim countries, including Afghanistan. From Malaysia the migrants, often traveling in groups of 10s or 20s and escorted by at least one member of the syndicate, would continue legally or illegally to Indonesia, where boats were produced to carry them across the sea to Australia. Thousands of asylum seekers entered Australia in that way until last year, when that country adopted a new hard-line refugee policy. In August 2001 the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa rescued 438 refugees, most of them Afghans and Iraqis, from a sinking boat in the sea between Indonesia and Australia. When the Tampa tried to deliver the refugees to Australia's Christmas Island, the authorities barred the ship from docking and sent the asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific island republic of Nauru. Since then, warships patrol the sea north of Australia to deter smugglers and repel refugee boats.

 

Since the fall of the Taliban, claiming to be an Afghan also does not qualify a migrant for asylum in any country, so new conditions require other solutions. According to recent reports from Indonesia - where many asylum seekers from West and Central Asia are still waiting for onward journeys - the smugglers are now trying to get bigger boats which will take the migrants further afield to New Zealand. According to sources in Jakarta, a journey to Europe can be arranged for $7,000, including air tickets and a vast array of documentation. US immigration officials have detected a similar pipeline operating from Indonesia to North America, via either Tokyo in Japan or several cities in Mexico.

 

Central and Southeast Asians, mainly from Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, can also go to South Korea by purchasing $2,000 packages, which include a plane ticket, housing, and a job. South Korea's economic growth has created many jobs, some of which Koreans do not want, and given rise to a strong demand for cheap foreign labor. Some sources have estimated there to be between 500,000 and 1 million undocumented workers in South Korea. Even though the government does have a foreign-workers program, the wages it sets are not high enough for participants to remain in the job (slightly under 50% of the 'industrial trainees' get other, better-paying jobs).

 

For Latin American immigrants, the journey north is a gamble on their lives that, if all goes well, takes them to their promised land. But if the journey goes awry, death may be their fate. In mid-October 2002, the bodies of 11 illegal immigrants - mostly Mexicans - were found in a railcar in Iowa that had left Matamoros, Mexico, in June. In the same month that the 11 immigrants boarded the train in Matamoros, 26 others were rescued from another railcar after two smugglers, or 'coyotes', left them locked inside, leaving four hospitalized due to heat exposure. Even though the number of deaths of illegal immigrants coming from Latin America has been slowly declining, the figure recorded for the fiscal year of 2002 stood at 320. The routes that immigrants take to bypass border patrols range from hiding in railcars and trucks for days, to traversing the deserts of America's Southwest. The tightening of America's borders has led those who wish to cross them to pay 'coyotes' to take them through circuitous passageways, more often than not endangering the immigrants' lives. Guatemalans or Salvadorans hire smugglers for about $5,000 to sneak them into Mexico, hidden in the back of a truck, and then take them to a city or town close to the border with the US, where they then embark on the most precarious part of the crossing. People traffickers are notorious for abandoning immigrants in deserts or locked in railcars in the middle of the journey once they have received their payment. Such is the popularity of hiring smugglers that border patrols are now arresting nearly as many people smugglers as drug traffickers.

 

Despite efforts to control illegal immigration along the 2,000 mile-long border with Mexico, Latin American immigrants are still finding their way into the US. In October 1994, Operation Gatekeeper - with an annual budget of $2 billion - was launched to strengthen America's border control. According to a recent study done by the Public Policy Institute of California, the total number of immigrants, instead of diminishing, has actually increased since the start of Operation Gatekeeper. The study also revealed that the economic performance, in either country, has a stronger influence on illegal immigration than does border control buildup. And of the approximately 3.9 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States in 2000, only a modest 15% overstayed their visas; the remaining 85% crossed the border illegally. More are entering the country at a rate of about 150,000 per year. Despite initial indications of goodwill and cooperation, discussions between President Fox and President Bush over the possibility of legalizing an estimated 3.5 million unauthorized Mexican workers in the US were indefinitely postponed after September 11, keeping the risks high for those who seek better lives in America.

 

In today's increasingly globalized world, it is virtually impossible to stop illegal migration and people smuggling. Smuggler networks have contacts everywhere, and the income they earn from the trade makes it worthwhile. In Asia the number of people who want to migrate to the West - and have enough money to pay for the passage - is probably in the millions. In China alone, there is a floating population of 30-80 million people - some say as many as 100 million - who are drifting from the countryside to the cities to look for jobs, which despite China's impressive economic progress are in short supply. Many of them would choose to emigrate, if they could afford it. Unrest and underdevelopment in Afghanistan, political uncertainty in Pakistan and the possibility of war in Iraq ensure that migration from those countries will continue. People smuggling is here to stay in the new world disorder, and the closure of one camp in France, no matter how notorious it had become as a center for the trade in human beings, will make little or no difference to those trying to seek a better life.

 

But it does indeed reflect the political shift of governments to the right who, whether out of personal conviction or desire to satisfy voters' demands, are enacting and implementing policies that will make border controls even stricter. As the Australian case demonstrates, the industrialized world is making it harder for migrants to seek better lives there. At the same time, there are more and more immigrants who are taking great risks to enter one of these countries.

 

The immigration question is not a criminal issue per se, but the well-organized traffic in human beings certainly is. It is also important to remember that the migrants are often also victims. In July this year I interviewed an Afghan who had paid $5,000 to be smuggled to Australia, but then got stuck in Jakarta. In Surabaya, he and 140 other Afghans were put on a barely seaworthy fishing boat meant to carry only 40 people. The boat almost sank before they had to return to an Indonesian port. They never made it to Australia. Other boats have sunk, and hundreds of people have died. In October 2001, 353 people from the Middle East drowned when their ship sank in the sea between Indonesia and Australia. The Afghan I met said "those people smugglers are vicious people. I hate them. They cheated me and put my life in danger." Still, his future depends on those smugglers if he does not wish to return to Afghanistan.

 

Instead of concluding that illegal immigration in the 21 century is a crime that knows no borders, it might be more accurate to say that it is a crime that has had to resort to extremely roundabout and even creative ways to bypass a strict and dangerous border system.

Bertil Lintner is Senior Writer for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of six books. The most recent is "Blood Brothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia." Mario Peñados contributed to this article.

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