The past two tragedies involving illegal Chinese immigrants in the UK trace back to Southern China. And so we travelled to Fujian province which is home to the notorious snakehead gangs. They run human trafficking networks, using customs contacts on several continents to traffic Chinese citizens around the world, mostly to the United Kingdom, America, Canada and Australia.
As we arrived in a village on the outskirts of Fuqing town, we saw some rather incongruous ornate looking apartments which our local contact told us were the luxury homes of those receiving money from the family members abroad.
We quickly learned that most families in this area have at least one, if not several, family members living abroad, many in the UK. It’s not because this is a poor area or because there are no jobs, it’s simply because they can earn more, and live what I was told would be a “better life”. The average salary for someone staying in Fuqing area would be £400-500 a month but in the UK they can earn £1,000 or more.
There are villages in this region which have all but emptied as family member after family member has followed the other to a foreign country. But that doesn’t come cheap. It costs 200,000 renminbi (around £22,000) per person to get yourself smuggled into the UK. Usually they pay a 30% deposit and then the rest upon confirmed arrival at the destination.
Unlike other trafficking syndicates we were told the snakehead gangs don’t care what you do once in the country, it’s just their job to get you there. They are not directly involved in supplying workers to the sex or slave labour industries.
Local Government officials were not happy with us filming in the area and asking questions about the immigration problem in Fujian. But we managed to meet with one family for whom the news this week has come as a real shock.
Mr and Mrs Lin lost their 21-year-old son Tong Yong in 2000. He was one of 58 people found dead inside a container in Dover. Unlike his older brother he didn’t have the qualifications to get into the UK to study, so he chose the smuggling route instead.
His parents were told he’d be flying the whole way there, but instead he was taken via Beijing, then Eastern Europe, Spain, Holland and then ultimately into the back of a container full of tomatoes in which he was found dead in Dover.
His mother still appears to be racked with grief, his father more stoic but deeply affected by the news of another similar incident.
They know that human trafficking continues to be a lucrative industry in their area but they told me they try to tell friends and neighbours that it would be better to be a beggar than to take the risk of going abroad by that means.
On Chinese social media and forums others have been expressing shock and dismay that their fellow citizens have been involved in another such a tragedy in 2019 and the majority appear surprised that such large-scale people smuggling is still going on.
China has risen far and fast but these dreadful deaths have once again exposed a sadly still thriving dark trade in the country.