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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February 2004, 14:24 GMT
South China's fortune seekers
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News Online

The story of how Chinese workers died cockle picking in the sands of the UK's Morecambe Bay begins 6,000 miles away with their dreams of a better future.

It is thought that at least some of the 19 cockle pickers who drowned were from Fujian province in south-east China, a relatively affluent province conveniently situated for shipping routes to South East Asia and Taiwan.

Buildings in Xiamen, Fujian province
Fujian in south-east China is now one of the country's richer provinces
Its position means it has historically been a seafaring province, but analysts say mass human migration from the province began in the late 1980s and early 90s.

While China's economy has boomed in the last 20 years, some parts of Fujian were left behind.

One consequence of this was that Fujian built up a successful smuggling operation in goods in the late 1970s, which soon expanded to include human trafficking, said Frank Pieke, a lecturer in Chinese politics and society at Oxford University.

A sophisticated infrastructure of smugglers in the province was soon established.

Dr Pieke, who conducted research into migration from Fujian between 1999 and 2001, said that as a result, the tradition of migration has become a normal way of life.

"It has nothing to do with desperation and poverty... it has to do with opportunity," he said, pointing out that in the same way that middle class families in the UK aspire to send their children to university, Fujianese aspire to working abroad.

"Fujian is so specialised in migration... that is the normal thing to do," he said.

Robert Munroe, research director at the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, agreed.

"There are whole communities in parts of Fujian... which used to be fishing villages and are now full of three-storey tiled buildings paid for by overseas remittances," he said.

"It's the lure of self-betterment", he said, which dates back to the 19th century when the Chinese of nearby Guangzhou went to California to build railways.

We have to go beyond the easy stereotypes of the criminality of snakeheads to why people are doing this
Frank Pieke, Oxford University

But the route to relative riches is complicated and sometimes dangerous.

Would-be migrant workers pay around $30,000 a head to human smugglers - so-called "Snakeheads" - for transportation to Europe, which buys them a plane or train ticket and false passports and other documentation.

Mr Munroe said this was made easier by the fact that many local security bureaux appear to work alongside the snakeheads.

The payments land the migrant in debt. But Mr Pieke stressed that this was usually to family or friends back home or already settled in the UK, who had already paid the snakeheads.

If the lenders then defaulted on the loan, the migrant may be tortured or ill-treated until their family paid up, although Mr Pieke said this was the exception rather than the rule.

Once in the UK, migrants usually work in restaurants or factories. Cockle picking is a lure because much of it is ad hoc, seasonal work and difficult to regulate.

After about two to five years, the workers will usually have paid off their debts and will begin to make money.

The interior of the lorry where the immigrants died
Fifty-eight Chinese migrants died in a lorry coming to the UK in 2000

Mr Pieke said that the root of the problem was the UK's immigration policy which denied Chinese migrants the opportunity to a work permit, and the fact that while Fujian is one of China's richer provinces, there is little work there that indigenous Fujianese want to do.

In fact, many of the jobs in the province are now taken by migrants from other parts of China, he said.

While the snakeheads and gangmasters undoubtedly profit from their charges, and encourage them to work in conditions which can be dangerous and unsavoury, they are simply providing a service - the only employment opportunities available.

"We have to go beyond the easy stereotypes of the criminality of snakeheads to why people are doing this," Mr Pieke said.

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