Perished Migrants' Families Want Payment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Relatives of Chinese immigrants who died in the back of a freight truck as they tried to enter Britain illegally last year will seek compensation from a government fund for victims of crime, their lawyers said Monday.

A year after the bodies of 54 men and four women were discovered behind crates of tomatoes in the Dutch-registered truck, all but one have been identified and returned to the victims' families. The 58th has been tentatively identified, but no family has been located.

Attorneys Mark Ryan and Amie Tsang said they would file the claims with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority today on behalf of 93 parents, 34 spouses and 68 children left behind by the deceased.

Ryan argues that the fact that the men and women died while apparently committing a crime--trying to enter the country illegally--should not make their families ineligible for compensation for funeral expenses and support of dependents.

"Our position is that whatever reasons these people had for getting on that lorry now will never be known. But whatever they agreed to, they most certainly did not agree to be suffocated to death," Ryan told a news conference.

The immigrants were smuggled by one of the so-called snakehead gangs from China to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge and across the English Channel via ferry to Dover. They died on a sweltering weekend in the airless hold of a freight truck after the driver closed a vent to prevent customs agents from discovering them.

Instead, officials found 58 corpses and two gasping survivors.

Earlier this year, the Dutch truck driver, Perry Wacker, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

British Chinese activists held a 58-minute vigil outside the Home Office on Monday to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy. They held up photographs of the dead and banners reading, "Never Again," to protest what they said is the British and Dutch governments' failure to protect the lives of desperate immigrants.

Jabez Lam, chairman of the Chinese Civil Rights Action Group, which organized the event, said Britain's restrictive immigration laws have forced immigrants and refugees to turn to criminal smugglers and increasingly perilous routes into the country.

"This tragedy could have been avoided," Lam said. "Government policy is creating a market for criminal elements."

In a letter to Home Secretary David Blunkett, Lam called for an investigation into trial evidence that he said indicated that British and Dutch authorities were aware of the gang that organized the illegal trip, and may even have had the truck under surveillance at the time of the deaths.

"There are strong indications that they allowed it to go ahead as a way to track down the snakehead gang and, in doing so, were negligent," Lam said.

But the cases to be put before the criminal injuries authority are "no fault" claims that do not allege government liability. The fund is intended to provide aid to victims of violent crimes committed in Britain, regardless of who was responsible.

"The case does pose interesting questions," said Ron Armour, spokesman for the criminal injuries authority. "Is it a claim of violence? Did the guy set out to kill them? I suspect not. Did the crime happen in Britain, aboard the ferry, in the middle of the channel, on the French side or the British side? It is all debatable."

Armour said the victims' illegal entry into the country "is a factor we would have to weigh, along with all of the others."

The office receives about 80,000 compensation applications a year, and other lawbreakers, such as prostitutes, have made successful claims, Armour said.

Illegal immigration and the number of people seeking legal asylum throughout Western Europe have risen sharply in recent years, prompting calls for even tighter restrictions from Britain's opposition Conservative Party and other Britons who fear that newcomers will take jobs and draw on public resources.

Armour said his "gut reaction" is that in this political environment, Britons will not support the compensation claims. But he added: "At the end of the day, what matters is not my gut reaction about what people will accept. All that matters is who is eligible under the strict criteria of the compensation scheme."

Attorneys for the families would not say how much money they are seeking. Civil rights attorney Louise Christian said claims in such cases are "extremely modest" by U.S. standards.

"We are not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars," she said.

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