Mon, 26 Jun 2000

Beating the smugglers

The discovery of the corpses of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants in the back of a tomato truck at a British port has prompted calls for a crackdown on the growing trade in people smuggling. French President Jacques Chirac vowed the European Union would toughen its actions against the merchants of misery when Paris assumed the rotating presidency next month. It is tragic that such an accident is needed to heighten awareness of the scale of this evil trade. Nevertheless, promises of increased, and more coordinated, enforcement action are to be welcomed.

Especially worrying is the revelation that Belgian authorities detained a group of mainland illegal immigrants fitting the victims' descriptions two months ago, ordered them to leave, but then placed them unescorted on a train. Any nation that seriously wants to deter human smuggling across its borders should have taken the group into custody, followed due legal process and, if found to have no right to asylum, deported the people to their homeland.

The problem, of course, needs to be tackled at the source. Beijing has expressed its shock at the gruesome discovery and called for international co-operation to stem the trade. While the recent campaign has netted some officials and criminals involved in the illegal movement of people, mainland authorities need to strengthen their efforts to smash the networks that continue to operate. Allegations persist of bribes being paid to airline staff, government officers, security personnel and ground crew.

The U.S. has long been the favored destination -- 1,241 mainlanders were reportedly arrested at Los Angeles airport last year and three Chinese men perished inside a cargo container on a ship docked at Seattle in January. Washington might like to expand its attempts to engage Beijing and build on the legal agreement signed on Monday to combat illicit drugs with another treaty to fight people smuggling.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong