Their prison was a 40-foot-long metal box, stuffed deep into the cargo hold of a ship. In darkness lit only by flashlights, 18 men sat on old blankets and cardboard boxes. First, they spent five days at the Chinese docks, waiting to be loaded. Then, a two-week journey across the Pacific.
When they got hungry, they had crackers, rice and water. When the seas turned rough, they had buckets for toilets. The flashlights gave out after a few days.
When immigration officers peeled back the container top this week, 15 blinking, sick men crawled out, barefooted and barely able to stand. Three others lay dead in the mess inside. The holes in the canvas top, through which the men inside were able to get air, showed where some had tried to punch their way out, only to find themselves buried beneath four other massive containers in the hold of the ship.
“They were virtually entombed there,” said Sharon Gavin, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “You had 18 people in total darkness, stuck in this container with their own human waste, exposed to extremely cold temperatures. The people who died may have been dead anywhere from three to seven days, and you’re still stuck in the container with them. It’s disgusting.” Officials had the stowaways wear masks in case they were infected with communicable diseases.
But in what is becoming a wave of illegal Chinese immigration on board container ships bound for the West Coast, authorities Tuesday found 19 more stowaways at the Port of Seattle. The arrests, coming just one day after the shipment that left three men dead, brought to 203 the number of people smuggled in containers over the past year into the U.S. and Canada.
Officials say the bulk of the illegal migrants are from the southern Chinese province of Fujian, where thousands of young workers have agreed to years of indentured servitude for the chance to work at low-paying jobs in America, mostly in the Northeast.
It is an epidemic that has brought embarrassment to the Chinese government in Beijing and is rooted, in part, in decades of illicit economic interdependence between Fujian and Taiwan--its neighbor 100 miles across the sea--and that island nation’s connections to jobs in America, political analysts said.
The number of migrants from the Fujian region arriving in the New York area has reached 200,000 over the last two decades, said Graham Johnson, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia who is an expert on Chinese immigration. Many of them, he said, must work at wages of $200 a month or less to pay off fees to smugglers that now average $50,000.
“We’re looking at something very like indentured labor,” Johnson said. “They’re working in the restaurant trade; women may well be forced into prostitution, sweat shops, of which there are large numbers--they will do anything.”
Over the last several years, American and Canadian authorities have intercepted large numbers of illegal Chinese migrants stuffed into old cargo ships and fishing vessels--their human cargo often dumped near shore to complete the journey on their own.
As recently as last summer, Canadian officials intercepted four boatloads of nearly 600 Chinese migrants, all from Fujian, many of whom quickly claimed refugee status and subsequently disappeared. Most of them, Johnson said, were bound for the porous border between Canada and the U.S.
Not all of them have been near death; several arrested in Seattle earlier this month walked out of their container, equipped with fans and mattresses, sporting new clothes and a cell phone.
Officials say the use of container ships for smuggling humans is a relatively new phenomenon, presenting substantial difficulties for law enforcement.
“This is a new tactic, being able to bring them in smaller groups,” Gavin said. “These ships carry upward of a thousand containers or more. So in this case, it’s almost like the needle-in-a-haystack type of situation. . . . There’s such a large number of containers on so many container ships, coming into a number of different ports along the coast.”
In October, the Pu Progress, a freighter registered in Singapore, entered the Port of Long Beach carrying 54 illegal immigrants from China. A total of 143 illegal immigrants have been detained on ships arriving in Los Angeles and Long Beach over the last year.
Seattle and the Canadian port of Vancouver have intercepted several more. Seattle was able to make one of the first criminal cases against migrant smugglers earlier this month, filing federal charges against three men who were arrested after apparently trying to meet a container ship carrying 12 stowaways.
The men, identified as Sheng Ding, Ju Shu Huang and Yu Zheng, are scheduled for a hearing Friday in U.S. District Court. They were detained after being seen driving uncertainly in the area around the ship. When asked where they were headed, the driver of the car pointed to a map and replied, “Chinatown.”
There had been no recorded fatalities before Monday’s discovery of the desperate stowaways aboard the NYK Cape May at Seattle’s Harbor Island. It left Hong Kong on Dec. 27.
Acting on a tip from authorities in Hong Kong, INS officials met the ship and had to remove 35 other containers before reaching the one with the sick and dead men inside.
Although autopsies have not yet been completed, authorities suspect dehydration as a cause of death.
Fourteen of the men found Monday were admitted to the hospital, and seven remained hospitalized Tuesday in satisfactory condition, suffering from malnutrition and dehydration.
“I talked to one of the mates [on the ship], and he said they had run into some rough seas. People were getting woozy, and if you’ve ever been seasick, you get dehydrated very bad,” said Scott Guntle, a longshoreman who helped unload the container. “It’s just a sad situation, to see people die to get into this country.”
Said Bob Coleman, the acting INS director in Seattle who was down at the docks: “I’ve never seen a group of people so disoriented and so distraught as they were when we found them. . . . This is a human tragedy.”
During a visit to Seattle on Tuesday, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said that “anybody that traffics in human beings is, I think, the worst kind of criminal.” Federal authorities, she said, would work to identify the smugglers and bring charges against them.
INS officials said they have no reason to believe that shipping company officials were aware of the stowaways. Port authorities in Hong Kong repeatedly have provided tips that have enabled authorities here to make arrests, they said.
But there is no way of knowing how many stowaways made it ashore without INS interception.
Fujian and the neighboring province of Guandong historically have been the source of the bulk of the Chinese, with young workers for about 300 years departing a marginal agricultural economy for higher-paying jobs abroad.
However, it was Taiwan’s strengthening links to the United States over the last several decades that increasingly lured them toward American shores--particularly migrants from the regions of Chang Le and Lian Jiang, nearest Taiwan, Johnson said.
“I think myself that the so-called snakeheads, or the bosses who orchestrate this movement, are a combination of Taiwanese and American Chinese who together see that there is a great deal of profit to be made from moving people illegally into the U.S.,” he said.
“So what is happening at the moment is that notices are going up in the villages saying there’s industrial work in the United States. They’ll quote a sum of money which by local standards seems astronomical but by American standards is of course virtually slave labor. And the catch is you have to come up with $30,000 to $50,000 to get there, and you have to put some of that down, and then you are guaranteed passage to the United States.”
David Bachman, chairman of the China studies program at the University of Washington, said Beijing has been embarrassed by the illegal immigration. But local officials in Fujian, he said, have everything to gain.
“It’s taking some people out of the population pool, which makes it easier for them to fulfill the population quota. And down the road there will be remittances back to Fujian that will help to bring prosperity,” he said. “So even if they’re not directly benefiting from bribes or kickbacks, Fujian is going to come out beneficially from this process.”