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Wednesday, 5 July, 2000, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Hong Kong: Gateway to the West
Hong Kong skyline
Thousands try to emmigrate via Hong Kong
By BBC's Jeremy Hillman

At Hong Kong's international airport, passengers pass through the immigration control area. More than 30 million people use this airport every year. It is one of the most modern and technically advanced in the world.

These are people who have mortgaged their future

Ying Chang
But over the last few months immigration officials have been noticing a new and worrying trend.

British National Overseas (BNO) passports are fast becoming the document of choice for illegal migrants from the Chinese mainland.

They use them to smuggle themselves through Hong Kong's international hub and on to destinations across Europe and North America. The passports are easy to alter and offer visa-free access to about 80 countries.

Blending in

Security consultant Jean Paul Delisle briefs his security team to be on the lookout for BNO passports. He says 90% of all illegal migration in the world originates in the People's Republic of China.

But sometimes it is the language that gives them away - they do not speak the Hong Kong Cantonese

"It is essentially a Chinese phenomenon today," says Mr Delisle. "We estimate that nine out of every 10 illegal migrants that is out there somewhere are PRC nationals.

"And Hong Kong is very, very much a gateway to the rest of the world. There are hundreds of flights in and out of this place every day."

Mr Delisle's targets are Chinese mainlanders trying to act like Hong Kong residents. That is what the illegal immigrants have been trained to do by Chinese "snakeheads" - gang members who supply the fake documents, then dress them in designer clothing to help the immigrants blend in with other passengers.

But sometimes it is the language that gives them away - they do not speak the Hong Kong Cantonese that genuine BNO passport holders would.
Mainland Chinese demanded residency rights in Hong Kong
Mainland Chinese demanded residency rights in Hong Kong
Ying Chang of Hong Kong University has closely studied the gangs' methods and says that forged passports is an easy, but expensive way to get out.

"Prices for going to the US now cost as much as US $50,000 to $60,000. To the UK - $30,000 or $40,000.

"Basically these are people who have mortgaged their future. When they land they will have to pay back the snakehead, but they still have to repay the heavy debt."

Passport trade

In the run-up to the handover in 1997, the UK government issued more than three million BNO passports to its colonial subjects - Hong Kong residents worried about their future.

But Chinese rule has been largely benevolent and many Hong Kong people no longer feel they need them, especially since they are also entitled to Hong Kong travel documents.

We estimate that nine out of every 10 illegal migrants that is out there somewhere are PRC nationals

Jean Paul Delisle, security consultant
Many of the BNO passports end up being sold or extorted from their rightful holders to settle gambling or other debts.

The UK government says it is acting to tackle the problem. A new model of the BNO passport with improved security features is due to be released in October.

But the British Consul General in Hong Kong, Andrew Burns, admits it is a battle.

"We have an obligation by law to renew British National Overseas passports for those who are entitled to them, and an awful lot of people here are, and we do that when they come in and pay the money to get those replaced," says Mr Burns.

"But certainly we want to keep ahead of the forgers. I mean we will keep up our guard against that."

But at Hong Kong airport the truth is that vigilance is not enough to hold back the tide of Chinese mainlanders desperate enough to escape to the West, whatever the cost.

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