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1999-2000 Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 16:07 GMT
More 29/11/2000
The People Smugglers

Just across the channel, in the outskirts of Calais at Sangatte, is the now-notorious shelter for prospective illegal immigrants into Britain. Most nights, there are nearly a thousand there. And most of them will make it. They're from Iran, Iraq, China, Sri Lanka, Kosovo and wherever either economic conditions, or war and repression, induce people to leave. But for the migrants, being hidden in a lorry crossing to Dover is the last leg of much longer transcontinental journeys. Organised crime stepped in to meet the demand for smuggling people, and it already had all the necessary skills.

"Mr Sunni" - people smuggler, negotiating with Tamils about being smuggled into the EU

Bob Packham, deputy D-G of the National Crime Squad has no doubt why. "We're seeing people that have run drug networks," he says. "They're diversifying, and move from one commodity to another. Organised crime is quick on its feet. Something low-risk high-profit - it will be in there quickly."

The people-smuggling racket relies on international networks. They start back in the migrants' countries of origin, where huge sums are extracted for their tortuous journeys. The richest smuggling bosses are based in those third world countries - for example, the so-called snakehead gangs that smuggle people out of China. On the borders of the EU, such as in the chaos of former Yugoslavia, there are key couriers - local smugglers who transport migrants around, and guide them across borders or put them into boats. And in Europe itself there are the final fixers and contacts - as we saw when smugglers based in Rotterdam loaded 60 Chinese into a truck bound for Dover in June.

People smuggler's crashed car on the Croatia Bosnia border.
People smuggler's crashed car on the Croatia Bosnia border.

David Wilson, head of intelligence for the Immigration Service, fills in the picture: "They will use recruitment techniques in the places of origin. They will use minders to accompany migrants en route. They will have established safe houses en route."

What's the scale of this business? Worldwide, the UN estimates the profits of people-smuggling at over 8 billion, more than those of drug-trafficking. About half-a-million a year are thought to be smuggled into the EU, and about a quarter of those fetch up in Britain. These days airlines check passports. Most migrants are driven in - by mercenery drivers, or hidden in vehicles by the smugglers. About a hundred a week are caught stowed away in lorries at Dover without passports. But they don't really mind being discovered. The smugglers have briefed them to ask for asylum, and once they're into our backlogged system of claims and appeals, their chances of staying in Britain for years are good. The smugglers will have delivered.

Iranian & Turkish immigrants at Slunj Police station Croatia
Iranian & Turkish immigrants at Slunj Police station Croatia

It's a crime that's hard to fight because it's extraterritorial. The biggest criminals are in frankly corrupt countries which, if anything, benefit from illegal immigrants' remittances from Europe. People-smuggling relies on corruption, and petty officials like border-guards are usually badly-paid and susceptible. "Organised crime wouldn't be any good if it didn't look to corrupt officials," says David Wilson of the Immigration Service. In places like the Balkans, British officials think that kickbacks from people-smugglers, who transit migrants through their territory, go higher than just to petty officials.

Some try to justify people-smuggling, pointing out the gross disparity of living standards in the third world and the first, and the minority of genuine refugees fleeing persecution who cannot travel legally. But illegal immigration signals a country's impotence to exercise its sovereign right to control who enters it. And the smugglers are unsentimental. What they charge migrants is exorbitant - often many times the first-class air fare. And they go on extorting money once migrants are here. The smugglers care little for their clients' safety. Thousands have been arrested, injured or killed in the course of their squalid journeys. Jack Straw called it an "evil trade". Painfully slowly, law-enforcement structures are being put in place across Europe to disrupt and contain it. Meanwhile, as you read this, more lorryloads of smuggled migrants are being ferried into Dover harbour.

Kumar's Story

Kumar is a Sri Lankan Tamil living in the capital, Colombo. For eighteen years there's been a civil war between Tamil separatists and the majority Sinhalese. There have been dislocation and atrocities; thousands have left the island. Sri Lankans are one of the largest national groups being smuggled into Britain.


Kumar had a management job in an electrical firm, but claims that because he was a Tamil he was discriminated against. Tamil Tiger suicide-bombings in Colombo made him the target of threats from his colleagues. A cousin in London wrote that he could find a much better job in Britain. So he decided to emigrate.

But as there is no legal primary immigration into the UK, Kumar had to resort to a people-smuggler. Western intelligence estimates that there are a thousand so-called agents in Colombo able to fix such a journey. Through Tamil friends Kumar found one easily, known as Mr Sunni, who ran an electronics shop as a front business.

The Money Programme filmed Kumar's meetings with the smuggler and also interviewed him. Kumar was told he would travel to Moscow via Singapore, then on to Sarajevo in Bosnia - not needing a visa for any of those places. After that he would be escorted overland into Austria, or taken by boat at night from Albania to Italy. Once inside the EU, the Schengen treaty applied: there were no passport checks till Dover. The smugglers would have taken Kumar's passport by then anyway, so if caught at the port or inside the UK he could not be deported.

Kumar seemed delighted with the prospect. The bad news was the cost: 6,000 - ten times his former annual salary. To raise the money, Kumar would sell some land his family owned and borrow the rest from relatives - hoping to pay it back once he was in a well-paid job in Britain. He seemed unperturbed by the likelihood that he might never make it, or get arrested and deported along the way.

The Money Programme left him still waiting to leave - having given the smuggler a huge deposit. Mr Sunni claimed he'd sent around two hundred migrants to Europe, but admitted he was the front-office for a large, highly-organised operation with high-level people involved. He stenuously denied he was a criminal, saying that, because of the horrors of the civil war, he was doing migrants a favour getting them out of Sri Lanka. But the immigration counsellors at western embassies in Colombo are in no doubt about what really drives people-smuggling in this, and all other, third world countries: profits, big profits.

Mojgan's Story

Mojgan is 27 and from Teheran, Iran. Her husband was a shopkeeper, but found Iran increasingly politically uncomfortable. He paid a smuggler 10,000 to get him, Mojgan and their two children, into the European Union. They were flown to Istanbul and from there to Sarajevo, entering each place pretending to be on holiday. From Sarajevo they were driven through Bosnia's devastated countryside to the border with Croatia. But Croatia is the first line of defence against illegal immigration into the EU: it requires visas. So the Iranian migrants had to be slipped into Croatia clandestinely. The Money Programme filmed Mojgan just two weeks after her tragedy.


The Bosnia-Croatia border is the Sava river, fast-flowing and nearly half a mile wide. Local smugglers were subcontracted to get the immigrants, now a party of twenty, across. They commandeered a leaky old boat, and forced the migrants to board at gunpoint; two of the smugglers also boarded. It was a dark, stormy, autumn night. Half way across the boat gave out and sank.

"I couldn't see anyone else," Mojgan narrates, "only my husband and his friend. They were holding each other. I was in the middle of the river too. He kept on calling out, saying: Mojgan, save yourself and go. He didn't know how to swim nor did his friend. They were just holding each other. I didn't see them again."

Mojgan somehow struggled to the Croatian bank. But her husband, her two children, and eleven other migrants all died - adding to the thousands who have been drowned, suffocated or frozen to death while in the hands of the people-smugglers.

With heartbreaking composure, she says: "I don't know how I survived in the river that night. I don't know. I think it was God's will that some would die and some, like me, would survive. But I really wish, at least, I also had died with my husband and my kids. So I wouldn't have to go through these days."

After a few weeks stuck in Zagreb, the widowed Mojgan was successfully smuggled into the European Union, where she now, illegally, is.

Ah Chen's Story

Ah Chen is not his real name. And he hides his face from cameras. That's because he lives in fear of Britain's Immigration Service, as an illegal immigrant working illegally in a restaurant in a provincial town. And he's afraid of the Chinese snakehead gang that brought him from China, and demanded money before, during and after his journey.

Ah Chen
Ah Chen

Ah Chen comes from Fujian, the Chinese province that faces Taiwan. Fujian has always exported its young people to make their fortunes in rich Asian cities like Singapore, or in America, or increasingly in Britain. The 58 found dead in a lorry at Dover in June were Fujianese. 20 of the dead had relatives already here. So many have now turned up in Britain's chinatowns looking for work that they are depressing wages.

They didn't tell that to Ah Chen back in Fujian. There the snakehead gangs propagandize young people with rosy images of life in the west. Chinese illegals here, actually working for derisory pay in sweated conditions, are photographed looking happy and wealthy, in a borrowed suit. That's then showed to youngsters back home to coax them to take the snakeheads' trail and follow them to the west.

The snakeheads are probably the most ruthless and businesslike of the people-smugglers. Ah Chen was charged 17,000 for his journey, and the deposit for this enormous sum was raised by his family from a money-lender. But during the journey, in former Yugoslavia and in Germany, more and more money was demanded for bribes or expenses. These demands were accompanied by threats made to Ah Chen's family back home. And the extortion didn't stop once Ah Chen reached Britain hidden in the back of a lorry, in the same month as the Dover 58.

"When we arrived in this country," describes Ah Chen, " the snakeheads came to fetch us, and they forced us to pay them. Some people could not pay up in time. They would increase the money and torture them. They demanded full payment within three days of their arrival in Britain. If you couldn't pay, they would charge you extra and would beat you up."

Bob Packham of the National Crime Squad agrees: "There is extreme violence potentially around the organisations that control the networks. They are there to look after their profit, and make sure that people don't step out of line, and we see regular examples of violence, kidnapping, extortion - and indeed holding people kidnapped in this country, and demanding people back home in the originating country, come up with more money."

There may be hundreds of Ah Chens, men and girls, scattered around Britain. An illegal immigrant has hardly anyone to turn to; he's ripe for criminal exploitation.

John Penycate

Links to more 1999-2000 stories are at the foot of the page.

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