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Smuggling Chinese emigrants into the West is a most lucrative business

PETER THOMPSON: Now, to a very big business indeed - the massive human smuggling racket which is seeing hundreds of thousands of Chinese smuggled into the West each year. The profits for these Chinese smuggling rings runs into billions of dollars each year to the extent that human smuggling, in some places, has replaced drug trafficking as the most lucrative enterprise. That, anyhow, is according to Paul Smith from Hawaii's Pacific Forum Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who wrote the report on Chinese smuggling for the United Nations International Migration Bulletin, and Paul Smith now joins me.

What's the extent of the smuggling of Chinese people?

PAUL SMITH: Peter, basically, to the US, we're talking about a hundred thousand per year, that's according to the US Government.

PETER THOMPSON: To the United States?

PAUL SMITH: That's just to the United States, yes.

PETER THOMPSON: How does the smuggling take place?

PAUL SMITH: Well, basically, it's facilitated by either Chinese gangs or Chinese gangs working with counterparts from, say, Russia or Iraq. For example, in November 1993, we had a report that Chinese and Iranian gangs were co-operating to smuggle large numbers of migrants from East Asia to Austria, so that's basically how it works and continues from there.

PETER THOMPSON: Where do most of the people come from - what parts of China?

PAUL SMITH: Well, originally, it's been highly reported that most of the immigrants come from Fujian Province and Guangdong Province, but increasingly they're coming from the inner provinces as internal migration continues in China - that being the migration from the countryside to the cities.

PETER THOMPSON: Paul, what's the deal offered to those who are interested in being smuggled?

PAUL SMITH: I'm sorry?

PETER THOMPSON: What is the deal offered to those people interested in being smuggled?

PAUL SMITH: Oh, what is the price?

PETER THOMPSON: Or the incentives, yes. What do people pay?

PAUL SMITH: Okay. Roughly, it depends on where they're going. We understand that to be smuggled to the US, it runs from 25,000 to 40,000 - that's US dollars. To Taiwan, it can be as low as $500 to $3,000. Basically, it depends on where you're going and how you're going to be smuggled there. And that leads to another point about how the smuggling takes place. Generally, we're finding that the time-lag between the actual exit from China and the entry into the final destination can be as long as two years, with a lot of holdover stops, so maybe the emigrants will be held over in certain capitals throughout the world for, say a few months time until the documents can be arranged for them to get to the next place.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, it may be that people can get their hands on a few hundred dollars to go to Taiwan, but how do people get hold of $25,000 or $40,000 to go to the United States?

PAUL SMITH: Well, that requires pooling resources in your village, or it requires simply paying a down-payment and working off the balance in the country of destination. That's what we're finding in New York City where there's a lot of indentured - basically, indentured servitude of smuggled emigrants being forced to work for very low wages in order to pay off the balance. In some cases, they are actually held for ransom. We had a recent case in Virginia where a group of emigrants were held for ransom until the balance was paid. And who is going to pay that? That would be paid by either relatives in the US or relatives from outside of the US and perhaps other overseas Chinese communities.

PETER THOMPSON: If you're talking about 100,000 people a year - 2,000 people a week - how do they get past immigration controls? Or do they just simply sidestep them?

PAUL SMITH: Oh, that's a big issue in the US, and there are various ways they do that. Mainly, it's through clandestine circuitous routes through Central America. Perhaps the first leg is through air or maybe boat to Central America or South America; then following that, it's overland through Central America, perhaps by boat to the Dominican Republic and then from the Dominican Republic into Puerto Rico. There are all sorts of ways to get in and that's a big issue right now in the US, politically and economically.

PETER THOMPSON: Very briefly, is there a policy response to this?

PAUL SMITH: There have been a series of policy responses. Last summer, President Clinton declared it a threat to national security and invoked the National Security Council to direct the US response. Following that, a few months after, it appeared that the smuggling was dropping off, but it turned out that that wasn't true and lately there's been a sort of re-examination of how the US should respond to this crisis.

PETER THOMPSON: Thanks so much for joining us. Paul Smith from Hawaii's Pacific Forum Centre for Strategic and International Studies. It would be one of the great places in the world to sit and study anything, I think.