Illegal Aliens' Ship Intercepted

Across China, North America is known as the Golden Mountain, where hard work can bring great wealth. Early in June, 123 men and women crammed into a rusting fishing boat off China's southeast coast and set out to find their fortune.

Illegal Aliens' Ship Intercepted

Across China, North America is known as the Golden Mountain, where hard work can bring great wealth. Early in June, 123 men and women crammed into a rusting fishing boat off China's southeast coast and set out to find their fortune. For 39 days, their decrepit ship churned across the Pacific, where it became little more than a floating cattle car, which one RCMP officer said smelled like a "dead body" when it was finally intercepted last week off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Most of the people onboard paid $57,000 to Chinese gangs, and despite the expense and danger, more Chinese are expected to attempt the crossing. "They come to the Golden Mountain to support their families," said Mason Loh, past chairman of Success, a group in Vancouver that aids Chinese immigrants. "It's expected of them."

The Chinese migrants had been swept up in what the United Nations says is a $13.6-billion industry trafficking in humans. Immigration Minister Lucienne ROBILLARD is expected to introduce changes to the Immigration Act this fall to help slow the illegal trade both in Canada and abroad. But the new laws will have to tackle more than just Asian gangs. Last week, police in Ontario charged 59 people who had brought dozens of women to the province with offers of legal work. Instead, in this case and others, women from Hungary, Mexico, Thailand and China, who all claimed refugee status on arrival, were forced into prostitution. "This has become a global issue," said Sgt. Ian MacDonald of the RCMP's immigration branch in Ottawa. "People are sometimes held against their will."

The unmarked Chinese ship, with its cargo of 123 people, was spotted by a plane about 300 km north of Victoria. When the coast guard intercepted it, they discovered one of the largest smuggling operations in recent years. (In 1987, 173 Sikhs from India arrived in Nova Scotia by freighter, and in 1986, 152 Sri Lankans were rescued from two lifeboats off the Newfoundland coast.) As in the previous incidents, conditions on the ship were appalling. The vessel was towed to port and the 106 men and 17 women aboard were taken by bus to CFB Esquimalt near Victoria. Police are investigating 11 of the passengers, whom they believe may have been working for the smugglers. It is not known how many will apply to stay in Canada. But of those who do, says Jim Fisher, a Vancouver police officer specializing in Asian crime, many will likely drop out of sight and find their way into the United States.

In fact, nearly half of the 1,494 refugee claims made by Chinese nationals were abandoned last year after they disappeared, likely to the United States. Like those on the ship, said Fisher, most of the illegal immigrants come from the Fujian province on China's southeast coast. Fisher, who is currently working with Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, an information-gathering organization made up of police experts from across Canada, believes that as many as 8,000 Fujianese who were smuggled into Canada are living illegally in Toronto, with smaller numbers in Vancouver and Calgary. But the trail usually leads to New York City, where it is estimated that as many as 500,000 Fujianese are now living.

To slow the trade in humans, the IMMIGRATION department plans to join with other countries to create an international computer bank to help trace smugglers. And under Robillard's pending changes to the Immigration Act, police could seize the assets of smugglers, such as the strip clubs where the women brought to Ontario were working. Even so, experts believe the Golden Mountain will continue to prove irresistible to desperate people around the world.

Maclean's August 2, 1999