Human Smuggling

The glare of a lightbulb dangling from the ceiling of his decrepit basement room casts a harsh light on the young illegal's life. A beetle scurries from under a mattress on the floor beneath a grimy window.
The glare of a lightbulb dangling from the ceiling of his decrepit basement room casts a harsh light on the young illegal's life. A beetle scurries from under a mattress on the floor beneath a grimy window.

Human Smuggling

The glare of a lightbulb dangling from the ceiling of his decrepit basement room casts a harsh light on the young illegal's life. A beetle scurries from under a mattress on the floor beneath a grimy window. Three shirts lie by a battered suitcase; a few Chinese-language magazines are piled in the corner. "Here they are," says Yong, a tall 21-year-old from the Chinese province of Fujian, pulling a small photo album from under the mattress. The pictures take him back to a happier time. In one, his mother straddles a motor scooter; in another, his father stands smiling in the sunshine. Yong longs to be with them, but it is an impossible dream. Last year, he paid $65,000 to be smuggled into Canada, via a route that took him to Burma and finally to Toronto, where he expected life to be much easier. Instead, to pay off the debt, he now works 12 gruelling hours a day butchering chickens in a Chinese-owned slaughterhouse. "I miss them so much," he sighs, gazing at the pictures of his family. "It is very hard."

Not far from Yong's, in a garment factory on the second floor of a century-old warehouse in Toronto's Chinatown, Ah-Zhen, 23, slumps at her sewing machine and breaks into tears. Like Yong, she works hard - night and day trying to raise enough money to pay back the smugglers who brought her to the promised land. They are not alone: over the past 10 years, almost 15,000 Chinese have entered Canada illegally and, after launching refugee claims, are now working for less than minimum wage on farms or in restaurants and factories. Lacking identification to open a bank account, they stuff their meagre earnings under their mattresses, only to hand a large part over to often-shady immigration consultants and lawyers working on their refugee claims - a process that can take years to complete. "I just wish I could make some money and go home," says Ah-Zhen, as she pulls another piece of black cloth from a bin beside her and tries again to feed the fabric under the needle. "My family got into deep debt because of me. Now we owe a lot of money to the smugglers and others. I dare not go back."

Those who have - sent back by the Canadian government for entering Canada illegally - face stiff fines and prison sentences. But despite the risks, and the hard life that usually awaits them here, the migrants keep coming, undaunted by the smugglers who will control their existence for years under threat of violence - making them, for all intents and purposes, little more than slaves. Since January, 1996, alone, nearly 7,000 Chinese have declared refugee status in Canada - most of them from Fujian province, which is on the east coast of China just north of Hong Kong, and whose people, desperate to escape poverty in an area where the average yearly income is about $2,000, have historically tended to go abroad to seek their fortune.

The great majority of them, like Yong and Ah-Zhen, entered the country illegally, arriving by plane in Vancouver or Toronto with fake documents. But others have come by more dangerous means. In 1999, nearly 600 people from Fujian arrived off the coast of British Columbia in four rusting ships. Hoping to slow the illegal flood, Canadian immigration officials clamped down; of the 600, 67 remain in custody pending refugee hearings, 272 were imprisoned and sent back to China after their refugee claims were dismissed, and 191 were released pending refugee hearings (of those, 149 have disappeared into the Fujianese community and warrants have been issued for their arrest). But the tough response has had little effect. According to Immigration Canada estimates, almost 2,000 Chinese will still enter the country this year as refugees - most of them illegally.

Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan visited Fujian last year to encourage the Chinese to clamp down on the smugglers. But according to a report published last week by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada can expect even more illegals to enter the country over the next five years. The report says that as the Chinese economy slows during that period, a growing number of unemployed people will try to buy their way into Canada. While Caplan did not comment on the CSIS report, she said the government hopes to introduce changes to the Immigration Act next year that could slow the flow of bogus refugees by allowing immigration officials to more easily detain people they believe are hiding their true identities. "It will contain important clarifications for the grounds for detention," said Caplan. "It also streamlines the process to be faster while remaining fair."

According to Det. Jim Fisher, Asian crime co-ordinator with the Vancouver police, snakeheads - as the smugglers are called - now charge as much as $100,000 to supply fake passports and visas and to arrange the passage to Canada. The demand is great. Wu, a lanky 31-year-old Fujianese who entered Canada illegally in 1999 at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, remembers the overwhelming response a smuggler received when he visited the city of Tianjin in southern Fujian. "They stormed the snakehead's home," says Wu, who currently works as a minimum-wage labourer on a Chinese construction gang in Toronto and asked that his full name not be used. " 'Let me go - put me in a group,' they asked. No one put a gun to their heads."

Ottawa's crackdown has had one effect - it has forced smugglers to be far more cautious moving the Fujianese into Canada. Many illegals are now stranded in safe houses in Europe and South America, waiting to be moved to Canada. Ah-Zeng, 25, a waiter in a seafood restaurant sandwiched between two bars in Toronto's Chinatown, was fortunate: he arrived in 1998, with fake documents indicating he was the nephew of a Chinese man already living in Canada, and experienced few delays in his passage from Beijing. His brother has not been as lucky - Ah-Zeng, who is now a landed immigrant, says he has been detained in a safe house in Mexico City for almost a year. "He called me collect in October to say he hopes to be here soon," says Ah-Zeng, finally able to take an early-morning break after nearly 14 hours on his feet. Pulling a cigarette package from the pocket of his wrinkled white shirt, he adds: "I told him to go back to China, but he is desperate to come to Canada."

Desperation has its limits. Both smugglers and potential migrants now consider an ocean crossing too risky - and with good reason. Enforcers working for the snakeheads often accompany their human cargo and fear being caught at sea by authorities. But there are greater dangers. A number of Chinese illegals currently in Canada told Maclean's that, in 1999, a fifth boat crammed with people was also on its way towards British Columbia and sank, killing hundreds. Within the close-knit Fujianese community, some are now grieving for lost relatives and friends. "People saw 600 arrive in Canada," says Wu. "No one could see the others - who would never arrive."

The fading sunshine is pale, the shadows thin and hungry on a late afternoon in November. Long Quong, 31, clutches her 15-month-old baby boy, Jian, against her chest as she stands at the door of her rickety house trailer in the fertile Holland Marsh area 60 km north of Toronto. She is listening for the throaty growl of farm tractors that will bring exhausted Fujianese workers back from the fields - her signal to begin cooking a meal of pigs' feet and rice for more than a dozen men.

A sudden gust of wind whips across the vast stretches of damp black soil and lifts up a protective orange tarp draped across the trailer. Quong retreats into the cluttered tin home she shares with her husband, Zhou, and her mother - a white mesh curtain hung around the couple's mattress on the floor providing their only privacy. The camp, which includes five other trailers and two reeking outhouses, has been Quong's home for months. It is not the harshness of life on the marsh that bothers her but the sense of being in limbo. "It is very boring," she complains. "But I had to come to Canada to be with my husband."

Dozens of Fujianese work the fields of Holland Marsh in an effort to pay off their debt to snakeheads. Most of the miserly $500 the field workers get for working six days a week, sun-up to sundown, goes to pay off the smugglers - who also charge 18 per cent interest. As darkness finally sets in, lights from two giant tractors carrying Quong's husband and his co-workers appear on the edge of the farm, pulling wagons piled high with freshly harvested carrots - the last crop to come off before winter. Within minutes, the camp is teeming with more than a dozen Fujianese workers. Exhausted, dirty and hungry, they disappear down muddy pathways between the trailers, only to emerge seconds later with large white pails. Grabbing hoses, they take turns filling the buckets with hot water to wash with, then carry them off into the darkness. Soon they will reassemble in the kitchen, which is pungent with the smell of garlic and ginger as Quong prepares their meal.

Other headlights also appear, this time those of a luxury four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying two Canadian women - the daughters of the land's owner. Dressed in designer jeans, they are angry and refuse to discuss the small workforce of Fujianese milling about in the darkness. But a growing number of the area's farms are now owned by Chinese-Canadians, who over the past few years have started buying property in the marsh (50 acres of Holland Marsh farmland, among the most fertile in Canada, can easily sell for more than $1 million). Where the rich loam once produced tomatoes and sweet peppers, many farmers now grow acres of leafy bok choy for the Chinese market in New York City and Toronto. But the owner's daughters are not interested in discussing how so many Fujianese have ended up there. "They come from Toronto," is all they will say before ordering Maclean's off the property.

Upon his arrival in Canada, Wu went to work in the marsh - after a dangerous journey that, he says, "still makes my heart flutter" when he thinks of it. In Fujian, the smugglers put him on a train to southern China, from where he was moved by car and on foot through jungle to the coast of Vietnam. "The Vietnamese soldiers would simply shoot us if they caught sight of us," says Wu. "If you survived the soldiers and police, there were the wild animals that could attack you in the jungle."

Spirited safely onto a ship, Wu then travelled to Bangkok, flying from there to Mexico City, an important transit stop for human smuggling, before continuing north on foot and by truck. "It was like gambling with your life every hour," he recalls. "You never know when you were going to be killed." In Mexico, he says, he came face-to-face with death when his group stumbled upon an army patrol. "Ten of us were walking as a group," said Wu. "The Mexicans caught three and they just killed them all there. I am lucky to be alive." Life in Canada proved to be less dangerous - but equally onerous. Wu worked for more than a month on the marsh - the hardest job, he says, of his life. Nearly every part of his body was swollen from toiling on his hands and knees as he harvested vegetables. When the workers returned from the fields, exhausted from as much as 15 hours in the sun, the farm owner provided them with a meal Wu described as little more than vegetables and "bones with a bit of meat on them." At night, as he lay on his cot in a trailer, his legs too stiff to bend, he could hear other men crying. "The only way to survive on the farm is to work with friends," he says. "They keep telling you to go on - not to stop."

One reason for perseverance is the snakeheads - as dangerous as anything the migrants face on their long journeys. As soon as she departed from China, Ah-Zhen recalls, she was warned to obey their every command or she would be severely punished. "The organizers are very strict with you since they are afraid of leaking information," she says. "One of my former neighbours was the only child in his family. Just because he sneaked out for sightseeing in the streets, he was beaten to death by the gang leader."

The snakeheads and their enforcers are never far away from the burgeoning Fujianese communities across Canada. Fearing retribution, most of the newcomers Maclean's contacted refused to discuss their relationship with the smugglers. But the few who did talk said they were brought to Canada by members of the Fu Qing Bang (Fujianese Youth) gang - a criminal organization well-known to Canadian authorities. "The Fu Qing are notorious," says Wu. "They control the entire stowaway network into Canada and have members here."

If payments are missed, the illegals are not the only ones to fear retribution. Ah-Zeng says snakeheads often target family members back in Fujian with threats or, worse, physical violence. Their presence suddenly becomes real when, during one interview with Maclean's, Ah-Zeng pushes his way through the late afternoon crowds on the streets of Chinatown and then stops. "There is a snakehead," he says, turning to indicate three men in casual jackets. "The one with the bald spot," he adds, touching the side of his own head and nervously staring after the men as they disappear down an alley. "He is the snakehead."

Yong started to work almost immediately after arriving in Canada. Most of the jobs he found were through advertisements in Chinese-language newspapers, placed by prospective employers aware of the desperate pool of cheap labour from Fujian. "Restaurants, clothing factories, food-processing stores, I have worked in seven or eight places," he says. He spent a year and a half on the road before getting to Canada - but nothing could prepare him for the homesickness he still endures. "After working hard for the whole day, I would fall asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow," Yong says. "Otherwise, I don't know how can I survive it here. There are no tears anymore, but I really miss home."

The illegals have little choice but to keep working. Yong, who is paying 18 per cent interest or $11,000 annually on the $65,000 he owes, expects it will take years to pay off the debt. "We will just pay back little by little," he says. "We simply have no other way out." Yong's refugee claim was accepted earlier this year and he is now a landed immigrant. But many who do not achieve refugee status will still remain in Canada, working in the underground economy to pay off their debts. Of the nearly 7,000 Fujianese who entered with false papers since 1996 and who sought refugee status, more than 2,500 never showed up for their hearings. Most of those are working for abysmally low wages in restaurants and factories. But Caplan ruled out any sort of amnesty for the illegals. "Amnesty would send the wrong signal," said Caplan. "Particularly when you are dealing with trafficking [in humans]."

The Fujianese also complain bitterly about immigration consultants and lawyers who, they say, prey on them - not to mention a refugee process that many newcomers say takes too long to complete. Wong, 29, who arrived in Canada in 1999 and asked that his full name not be used, has waited for over a year to receive a letter from Immigration Canada advising him on when his refugee hearing will take place. Wong barely makes $300 a week, but he says he often pays as much as $1,000 to consultants or lawyers just to fill out a routine government form - because he cannot speak English. "This is wrong," he says, pulling on two spring jackets to keep out the cold autumn wind sweeping through Chinatown. "It is too much money."

There is optimism among the hardship. Nearly all the newcomers from Fujian have a single burning ambition: to open their own business. That is something Ah-Xiu has achieved. A single mother of two girls aged 10 and 2, she entered Canada illegally 10 years ago and has since become a Canadian citizen. Working as a seamstress, it took her years to pay off the $50,000 she owed smugglers; she now owns the tiny clothing factory where Ah-Zhen has found work. Standing amid the clutter of fabric on the factory floor, wearing a long green skirt and matching sweater, Ah-Xiu says she has never regretted her decision to come to Canada. "I prefer the lifestyle here," she says, bending over Ah-Zhen as the younger woman struggles with the sewing machine. "It might be that I knew how to sew clothes, so it never seemed that hard to land a job here."

Ah-Xiu makes $40,000 to $50,000 a year. She wants to do better, but her achievements have come at a high personal cost. She works so many hours that, in November, she returned to China with her younger daughter and left her in the care of her mother. "I had about two or three workers at first," says Ah-Xiu, taking a picture of her daughter from her wallet. "Now I have eight to 10 workers. No one can make a fortune in a short time here. Everyone is starting from scratch."

And in the process, changing the face of Canada's Chinese communities. As evening falls and the neon lights blink on in Toronto's Chinese business district, Steve Ang walks through Chinatown, shaking hands and chatting with people rushing home to dinner. In the past, says the prominent Fujian-born member of the city's Chinese community, most of the businesses in Chinatown were owned by Cantonese Chinese. Now, he says, Fujianese are taking over. "It has been sold to a Fujianese," says Ang, pointing to a busy grocery store crowded with shoppers buying fish and produce for dinner. "Hong Kong immigrants, then the Vietnamese, originally owned these businesses. Now the Vietnamese are selling to the Fujianese." For those dreaming of being their own masters even as they toil to pay off their debts, it is reason for hope.


The number of refugee claimants, primarily from Fujian province, has steadily risen:


Endless hours of work and repeated bids for refugee status leave Fujianese migrants in Canada with virtually no time or money for any kind of social life. And vast distances and long separations also make it nearly impossible for those who leave spouses behind in China's Fujian province to maintain their marriages. Such strains split up Ah Hong, 37, and her husband after she came to Toronto in 1993. She now works 12-hour days in a fabricating factory, returning home to her $300-a-month room in downtown Toronto for even more work. After eating a light supper, Ah spends her remaining waking hours at her sewing machine, working freelance. The extra money from the piecework comes in handy - she has paid nearly $15,000 to lawyers working on her refugee claim.

But the lawyers have failed her, and in August, Immigration Canada ordered her deported. Ah, who made a last-ditch appeal to stay on humanitarian grounds, is awaiting a final ruling. If that, too, goes against her, she vows she will not return to China and instead will disappear into the Fujianese underground. "I have had bad luck," sighs Ah, sipping a bowl of chicken-foot soup in a small Chinatown restaurant. "I divorced my husband in China and now I will never see my son. I just want to stay and have a good life."


In the Fujianese underground, the growing numbers of illegals without any form of Canadian identification quickly fall prey to unscrupulous employers. Knowing the workers are under threat of discovery and deportation, employers take advantage of their situation, paying them less than minimum wage for gruelling work that anyone with options would refuse. Lina, 26, who asked that her full name not be used, is one of many Fujianese migrants who has drifted from one such low-paying job to another. She arrived in Toronto in 1999 with a forged passport and visitor's visa, but was too frightened to declare refugee status. Now living in legal limbo, she faces deportation if she turns herself in to authorities and jail if she returns to China. For now, she shares a $300-a-month room with five other Chinese people in a house in the Portuguese area of downtown Toronto. Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans she looks like a teenager, but like others from Fujian, she knows she must work constantly and spends most of her time toiling in restaurants for as little as $4 an hour.

The hardest part of her life as an illegal is never knowing when she might be discovered. "When I'm walking and see police I am nervous and frightened," Lina says. "To avoid being deported, I will go into a store or cross the street." But she has little to worry about. Most of Canada's immigration authorities are busy attempting to find hardened criminals who have come to Canada illegally - usually leaving people like Lina undetected. Although she does not know how she will achieve legal status in Canada, she is determined to do so. "I want to stay and go to school," says Lina. "I don't ever want to go back."

Maclean's December 11, 2000


Total Claims: 925

Accepted: 154

Denied: 211

Abandoned/Withdrawn: 396


Total Claims: 897

Accepted: 201

Denied: 259

Abandoned/Withdrawn: 420


Total Claims: 1,417

Accepted: 288

Denied: 382

Abandoned/Withdrawn: 728


Total Claims: 2,447

Accepted: 594

Denied: 423

Abandoned/Withdrawn: 743


Total Claims: 1,312

Accepted: 733

Denied: 737

Abandoned/Withdrawn: 274

Source: Immigration and Refugee Board