The deaths of 58 illegal Chinese immigrants, who suffocated in a truck bound for Britain last weekend, are reigniting debate over immigration in Europe like no other recent event.
The tragedy is exposing the gaping holes in border security and asylum policies, as well as shedding light on the dark practices of an estimated 50 international crime groups now trafficking 400,000 people into Western Europe annually.
That is roughly 100,000 more than the number of illegal immigrants who arrive in the United States each year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM).
This latest incident is also indicative of another trend, say IOM officials: Europe is taking over from the US as the destination of preference for most illegal Chinese migrants.
"You cannot stop human mobility," especially as work-hungry third-world populations boom and rich countries see their numbers declining," says Catherine Dewenden, a French immigration expert. "It would be better perhaps to think about opening our borders."
Agents of Britain's internal and external security services - MI5 and MI6 - are expected to try to infiltrate criminal gangs responsible for human smuggling into Britain, the National Crime Squad said June 19. Opposition Conservatives called on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to tighten immigration laws and to take urgent action against gangs involved in the trafficking of people.
"The knee-jerk reaction" to tragedies like the incident in Dover, on Britain's south coast, "is to close the doors, to impose stricter policies," says Jyothi Kanics, an expert in human trafficking. "But that is wrong. People will go on travelling, and you just make the migrants more dependent on criminal networks."
They come from China, the former Soviet Union, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
According to the IOM, most of the Chinese migrants are from southern Fujian province, where in some villages as much as 10 percent of the population has left. British officials in Dover said checks on half the bodies in the container indicate that all of those examined came from Fujian.
Would-be immigrants to Britain from China are known to pay as much as $25,000 for the trip, which most often takes them through Russia and Eastern Europe before journeying to an English Channel port and the last leg concealed in a truck on a ferry to England, sometimes without the truckdriver's knowledge.
Such smuggling has become big business. "The profit these criminals can make by smuggling humans in, rather than drugs, is now very, very substantial," Jack Straw, the British Home Secretary (Interior Minister), told Parliament on June 19.
Some of the immigrants are fully aware of the risks and pay smugglers to help them slip across borders. Others, however, find themselves sucked into networks that enslave them.
As many as 200,000 Eastern Europeans every year "are deceived, coerced, or forced" into emigrating to Western Europe, where they are "stripped of their documents, don't speak the language, and are usually held in captivity or under psychological coercion," according to Ms. Kanics. Working as prostitutes, in sweatshops, on farms, or on building sites, they are forced to give their earnings to smuggling rings to repay them for the trip.
European Union leaders, meeting at a two-day summit in Portugal, said their governments would coordinate with Europol, the EU law-enforcement arm, in "detecting and dismantling the criminal networks involved in this trafficking and by adopting severe sanctions against those involved."
Though "tougher penalties on traffickers are needed," agrees IOM head of research Frank Laczko, "there is a danger that governments will go down a very expensive law-enforcement route with the best equipment and lots of men on the border, which doesn't always produce great results."
There are an estimated 150 million migrants in the world today, up from 120 million 10 years ago, according to the IOM. Thirty million of them are illegal immigrants, but only a small fraction were smuggled into their destinations, Mr. Laczko points out. Most of Western Europe's illegal aliens enter legally, and then simply overstay their authorization.
Others ask for asylum. But as European public opinion has turned against asylum seekers, seeing them simply as poor foreigners trying to scrounge off richer systems, European governments have hardened policies against them as well. That appears to have discouraged many: The number of asylum seekers in EU countries fell from 700,000 in 1993 to 400,000 last year.
And the large majority were turned down. "As refugees' chances of successfully claiming asylum and finding protection and help in Western Europe fall ... the more likely a refugee is to try to enter illegally," wrote political commentator Wolfgang Roth in Germany's Suddeutsche Zeitung.
In Britain, officials say, two-thirds of those turned down simply vanish before they can be deported. At the same time, illegal immigrants in Europe are not as invisible in real life as they are on the immigration records.
The Nigerian girls working as prostitutes on the streets of Milan, in northern Italy hardly blend into their surroundings. And the mix of Eastern European languages spoken on any building site in Berlin makes it clear that contractors are not hiring only locals.
"The authorities are perfectly aware that there are large numbers of clandestine workers" in their countries, says Laczko. "But there is a certain degree of tolerance" because Europe's economies need immigrant labor."
"Britain and the rest of Europe need economic migrants," says Nick Hardwick, head of the British refugee council. "As long as our labor shortages in the EU and terrible poverty elsewhere [continue] the traffickers will always find customers."
Destinations of choice
*Europe receives as many as 400,000 illegal immigrants each year, compared with an estimated 300,000 for the US.
*Germany has an estimated 800,000 unauthorized foreigners. Some 100,000 more arrive annually.
*Greece has nearly 650,000 illegal immigrants, mostly Albanians.
*Belgium is host to 70,000 illegal foreigners.
*Britain detected 16,470 illegal immigrants in 1998 and Austria apprehended 43,000 in 1999, double its 1998 figure.
Source: International Organization for Migration
Alexander MacLeod in London contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society