Beijing (AFP) – The discovery of 39 bodies believed to be Chinese nationals in a truck in Britain is a stark reminder that many in the world’s second biggest economy will still take perilous journeys to build a life elsewhere.
Chinese people expressed shock at the news that the victims found in a refrigerated container near London on Wednesday could be their compatriots.
A decades-long economic boom pulled millions of people out of poverty and turned hundreds into billionaires, but the wealth has yet to reach all corners of China and thousands still seek opportunities abroad.
While little is yet known about the case, it has echoes of another tragedy in 2000, when 58 Chinese immigrants were discovered dead in a Dutch truck in the English port of Dover.
“On a daily basis, people from China are being smuggled and trafficked all over the world,” said Matt Friedman, a human trafficking expert at The Mekong Club, an NGO which battles against modern slavery.
According to a 2018 British government report, China is the fourth most common country of origin for potential victims, up from fifth the previous year.
Friedman said those targeted by people traffickers in China are often “not the poorest of poor people” but those struggling to find the work they need at home, while the agent — often from the same community — convinces them they can earn more overseas.
“‘Maybe I can get more if I buy into what this person… is telling me’,” he said. “And as a result of that, you have people who get tricked and deceived into taking these trips, only to come to realise that maybe they made a mistake.
“But once they’re on the journey, there’s not much you can do about it.”
– Widening income gap –
With precise details still unfolding, there is also a possibility the victims might be political refugees fleeing persecution.
The 2018 UN Global Trends report said there were 212,100 Chinese refugees and 94,400 Chinese people seeking asylum internationally.
This is up from 7,742 Chinese asylum seekers in its 2010 report.
Hua Po, a Beijing-based political analyst, said the flow of Chinese workers to Europe has gone up as “China’s own policy has become more and more conservative and closed” under President Xi Jinping.
“The survival of private enterprises is becoming more and more difficult, resulting in an increase in the number of unemployed people,” Hua told AFP.
“This group of unemployed people may choose to seek opportunities in other countries.”
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said illegal immigration from China was “commonplace”.
“China’s economy has developed rapidly in recent years, but there are more and more income differences,” Shi told AFP.
“Some people always think that there will be better employment opportunities abroad — and they don’t know anything about the status of illegal immigrants.”
– Exploitation –
Illegal migration puts its victims at the mercy of organised crime networks.
A report from British charity Women for Refugee Women said it had seen increasing number of women from China detained in the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, many brought to Britain and forced into sexual exploitation or forced labour to “pay off” family debts.
One woman told the refugee charity that her husband owed money to a gang in China.
“One day they captured me and said I would have to go and work overseas to pay back his debt,” she said.
There is speculation that an organised “snakehead” gang — which helps smuggle migrants out of China to Europe — could be behind this week’s tragedy.
European police agency Europol warned in 2015 after an investigation that “organised crime groups from China” were trafficking victims to Europe on forged documents to work in brothels, massage parlours, nail studios or restaurants.
“Smuggled migrants from China often fly as close as possible to their destinations, landing in countries without visa requirements or where entry controls are weak,” said Rebecca Miller, from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok.
Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and Russia are often transits and Spain is a main entry point for smuggled Chinese nationals into the Schengen area, from where they are smuggled by car or truck to Britain.
The price can be hefty.
A report last year in the European-based The Chinese Weekly interviewed Chinese immigrants who said snakehead gangs had brought them into Britain via Spain for a cost of around 160,000 yuan ($22,600).
The migrants said the trafficker helped them prepare answers to basic questions in English and gave them false passports complete with fake British visas.
In 2013, Spanish and French police dismantled a human trafficking ring that smuggled Chinese migrants into Europe and the United States, charging up to 50,000 euros ($55,000) per person.
There was shock and sadness in China as the news emerged, with more than 870 million views on the social media platform Weibo by Friday morning.
“If you’re not giving people a better life, then how can you have the right to blame others for struggling to survive,” wrote one.