There is a saying in China that, ‘when one person goes abroad, the whole family makes money’.
Might this hold the key to the pitiful discovery inside a refrigerated lorry on an industrial park in Essex? It would seem so.
The 39 stowaways who died, it has now been confirmed, were not from Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, as was initially suspected, but China.
China has undergone rapid economic growth since the 1980s, making it the second richest nation on earth after the U.S. — prosperity symbolised by the skyscrapers of Shanghai and the gleaming Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, images we have all seen countless times on TV.
The terrible events of the past few days are but the latest example of the trade in ‘human cargo’ between China and Britain, a 5,000-mile route through Asia and mainland Europe that can take a month
But, outside the big cities, many Chinese (more than 30 million, according to Forbes magazines) live in abject poverty.
The majority of the disadvantaged and dispossessed live in the country on farmland which is sometimes little more than semi-desert and in homes which can often be found carved into the mountainside.
Others are crammed into suburban slums. And the gap between rich and poor is widening, fuelled, in part, by the continuing trade war with the U.S. which has forced many factories to close, disproportionately punishing some of the least well-off in society.
Surveys have repeatedly found that even those from China’s upper and middle class are eager to leave the mainland, citing concerns about the lack of high-quality schooling and health care, and lingering pollution and food safety problems.
The truth is that a growing number of Chinese dream of leaving their homeland in search of a better life in the West, especially Britain where there is already a large Chinese community.
The 39 stowaways who died, it has now been confirmed, were not from Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, as was initially suspected, but China
Officially, there are 207,000 Chinese-born UK citizens, the tenth biggest group of overseas-born residents.
Chinese nationals made 1,139 asylum applications in the year ending June 2019 — up 16 per cent from the 2018 total, the highest number of asylum applications over the past decade. The unofficial total, though, could be significantly higher.
They disappear into the black market, working in restaurant kitchens, as agricultural labour or even cannabis farms. Women are often set up in nail salons or forced to work in brothels.
The terrible events of the past few days are but the latest example of the trade in ‘human cargo’ between China and Britain, a 5,000-mile route through Asia and mainland Europe that can take a month.
Two previous tragedies provide clues into the harrowing story which may yet lay behind the deaths of the latest victims.
In 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a sealed, airless container at Dover port. Post-mortems confirmed their deaths were due to asphyxiation.
Perry Wacker, a Dutch lorry driver, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter of the immigrants who had paid a criminal gang thousands of pounds to be smuggled into the UK.
The inquest heard Wacker had closed a vent at the side of the container as the lorry went onto a ferry, fearing they’d be heard.
Four years later, 23 Chinese cocklepickers drowned after their ruthless gangmaster abandoned them on treacherous sands in Morecambe Bay.
Their recruiter, Lin Liang Ren, who was based here, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter at Preston Crown Court.
In 2000, the bodies of 58 Chinese people were found in a sealed, airless container at Dover port. Post-mortems confirmed their deaths were due to asphyxiation. Perry Wacker, a Dutch lorry driver, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter of the immigrants who had paid a criminal gang thousands of pounds to be smuggled into the UK
Both Dover and Morecambe Bay have at least one other thing in common: Fujian province. All those who died came from this region of south-eastern China, situated opposite the island of Taiwan.
Fujian is also the ‘home’ of the notorious Snakeheads, an off-shoot of the Triads.
The Snakeheads, who specialise in people smuggling, are so-called because those who wish to get out of China illegally need guidance as they ‘twist and turn’ to find ways around border controls — ‘a sophisticated travel service in human misery,’ they have been labelled.
Back in the 1990s, their activities were focused on Hong Kong, providing black market labour mostly to the kitchens of restaurants run by Hong Kong’s long-established Chinese community.
In the intervening years, the Snakeheads have branched out supplying young women, who are often kidnapped and forced into the sex trade in Britain.
Some, as young as 11, have arrived in this country without passports or visas and claim asylum. Once here, they vanish from hostels or foster care to which they have been assigned by the immigration authorities.
Home Office statistics show 3,641 women entered immigration detention in 2018 — with 420 of these being Chinese.
The latest annual statistics from the National Crime Agency (NCA) show the number of Chinese people reported to the National Referral Mechanism, which assesses instances of modern slavery, has increased by more than 50 per cent from 293 in 2017 to 451 in 2018.
Between January to March this year, another 131 Chinese slaves were referred for help, half of whom had been found by UK Border Force or immigration enforcement teams, and other victims were reported to police in the West Midlands, Gloucestershire, Cambridgeshire and London.
When the NCA launched a Europe-wide operation targeting slavery and human trafficking in June, there were more Chinese victims found in the UK than almost any other nationality, representing more than a fifth of the 35 victims identified at that time.
Four years later, 23 Chinese cocklepickers drowned after their ruthless gangmaster abandoned them on treacherous sands in Morecambe Bay. Their recruiter, Lin Liang Ren, who was based here, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter at Preston Crown Court
The Snakeheads, of course, also target economic migrants. They were linked to the Dover tragedy, the worst such incident of its kind in Britain which has chilling parallels with the latest discovery at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex. The lorries in both cases entered the country from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
London lawyer Tan Wah Piow has acted for around 6,000 asylum seekers from China since the 1990s,
The majority came from Fujian province. It is where, he said, the saying — ‘when one person goes abroad, the whole family make money’ — originates.
‘For there to be a group of 39 in a container, they are most likely from Fujian, maybe even from the same place in Fujian,’ he told the Mail. ‘Fujian is prosperous nowadays and part of that prosperity is down to the remittances from relatives abroad.
‘In Fujian there is a history of getting on in life by going abroad and sending money back. The majority of Chinese arriving since the Nineties, discounting students, are from Fujian. The UK still attracts people from the province.’
Poor people, he said, have the same concerns, but less opportunity to emigrate. The Chinese government controls who can get a passport and who qualifies for an exit permit.
‘The people in containers will be the poor who are unable to get visas to come to work and live in the UK, and so they have resorted to paying people smugglers,’ said Tan.
Bernie Gravett, a former police superintendent and an international expert in human trafficking crime says it is unlikely the victims asked to be trafficked.
He said: ‘They will have been approached originally by the criminals in south China, where millions live in the direst poverty.
‘The salesmen for the gangs will have promised that lucrative jobs were waiting in the West, and that migrants would be able to send money home to their families, and return to China when they wanted.
‘A high price is usually stipulated in advance: the migrants would face charges of, on average, £50,000. But they would be promised a chance to pay this off in instalments, out of their wages. The victims are being cheated and deceived, but it is rare to talk to any who were kidnapped or sold into slavery from the outset.
‘Once the journey begins, so does the brutality. When victims start to complain at their conditions, perhaps asking for food, they will be beaten. Sometimes one will be maimed or killed, to frighten the others into submission.’
The brutality and desperation of the victims chimes with the findings of the Chinese In Britain Forum charity.
China has undergone rapid economic growth since the 1980s, making it the second richest nation on earth after the U.S. — prosperity symbolised by the skyscrapers of Shanghai and the gleaming Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing
In 2009, it interviewed 177 Chinese migrants living in London, many of them undocumented, about why they came to Britain.
Those who took part revealed heart-breaking stories of being smuggled into the UK to escape persecution or because of aspirations to the ‘good life’ imagined within these shores.
‘In China, it is hard to find work and wages are low,’ said one. ‘If you had a family you can’t support them. It may not even be enough for your own spending. The cost of living is particularly high. The money you earn may not even be enough for food and drink.’
Descriptions of corrupt officials and enforcement of the one-child policy were commonplace.
‘We were subjected to persecution,’ said another who was interviewed. ‘When my wife was thinking of having a second baby she was sent to prison and was fined.
‘I came here because I wanted to be able to feed my family and have a reasonable standard of living. But when I arrived here what I saw was totally different to what I had imagined. Life was hard for me.’
A third Chinese resident, called Wang Wei, smuggled into the UK via Dover, gave the following harrowing account of his journey.
‘They [the criminal gang] put me inside a container and said we will take you to a safe place. Well, it took more than a month, more than 40 days. All inside the container. I didn’t know where I was. I guess I was on the sea. I only noticed the container was loaded and unloaded.
‘They got food for me. You pee inside as well . . . inside the container for more than 40 days. I paid them more than £15,000.’
It is hard not to believe that the reason for the latest tragedy lies somewhere in these pitiful testimonies.
Additional reporting Tim Stewart