Fri, 23 Jun 2000

Promised land death ride to Britain

NEW DELHI: Britain's worst tragedy involving illegal immigrants occurred a couple of days ago when 58 bodies of men and women were found crammed into a vegetable truck at Dover. The Chinese stowaways died of suffocation.

This is not the first time that the British authorities have spotted illegal immigrants. Individual asylum-seekers have also been known to die on their journey or while trying to escape detection.

Britain and the United States are the most popular destinations for people from China, the Indian sub-continent and more recently eastern Europe. While one cannot condone their methods, it is possible to sympathize with asylum-seekers who are fleeing persecution, ethnic strife, war or miserable living conditions. The West symbolizes freedom and wealth, and the promise of a better life for which they are willing to go to any lengths, even courting death.

Unfortunately illegal immigration and the trafficking of people across international borders has become a lucrative business with huge sums changing hands. Potential immigrants are more often than not poor and uneducated, unable to get visas legally but with a desperate wish to extricate themselves from their present situation.

Agents, middlemen prey upon these dreams, promising easy entry into the country of their choice in exchange for huge sums of money. Some sell all they own to pay the agents, and there have been many cases when agents dupe clients and run away with the money without so much as the sniff of a visa. Hopefuls are left high and dry. Having lost everything, they cannot even take recourse to the law as the whole deal is illegal.

In the host countries, illegal immigrants equal cheap labour. Immigrant businessmen pay agents to bring in others from their home countries, who pay off the agent's fees by working for free in their host's factories and restaurants.

Apart from statutory deportation of illegal immigrants caught during raids, the British government has introduced fines for people caught trying to smuggle in asylum-seekers in a bid to stamp out the lucrative practice.

This may be a step in the right direction but what is required is a concerted effort to catch the agents and middlemen who deal in illegal trade of human lives. They are the real culprits who benefit the most and have nothing to lose.

-- The Statesman/Asia News Network