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Regional Outlook : Chinese Refugees Take to High Seas : Emigrants pay up to $30,000 to criminal syndicates that pack them into boats, the INS says. Numbers are small but growing.

March 16, 1993|This article was reported by Times staff writer Jim Mann in Washington and special correspondents Christine Courtney in Hong Kong and Susan Essoyan in Honolulu. It was written by Mann

WASHINGTON — When U.S. Coast Guard officials first boarded the cargo ship East Wood in the middle of the Pacific in early February, they found 524 Chinese hoping to come to America jammed into the hold and on the deck of a filthy, unseaworthy vessel.

After several weeks spent in limbo in the Marshall Islands, the would-be emigrants were flown back to China. And the compelling saga of the East Wood came to a close.

But the phenomenon of which the East Wood was the latest and most disturbing example--the apparently organized effort to smuggle cargoes of Chinese by boat from the Asian mainland to the United States--is continuing and growing.

U.S. authorities, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Coast Guard and the State Department, are becoming increasingly concerned about the recent upsurge in illegal immigration by Chinese "boat people." And they are gradually starting to devote new efforts to combat the smuggling rings.

According to U.S. officials, the passengers on the East Wood, virtually all of them from China's Fujian province, had paid up to $30,000 to criminal syndicates to smuggle them by boat to America. So far as is known, the Chinese on the East Wood were the largest shipment yet in the increasingly lucrative business of transporting human cargoes out of China.

"If this is an indication of things to come, we've got a major problem on our hands," says Rear Adm. William C. Donnell, commander of the 14th Coast Guard District in Honolulu.

In Washington, John F. Shaw, the INS' assistant commissioner for investigations, observes that when U.S. authorities first detected the oceangoing smuggling operations two years ago, each boat was relatively small, carrying fewer than 100 Chinese at a time. Now, he says, the smuggling rings "are using larger and larger boats and putting more and more people on them."

The number and variety of routes the boats have taken from China to America are breathtaking.

Over the last two years, fishing trawlers have been found unloading their Chinese passengers not only in the coastal waters off California and Hawaii, but even at East Coast locations off the shores of North Carolina and Massachusetts.

Authorities have discovered other vessels carrying Chinese emigrants bound for the United States in Japan, Singapore, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and the African countries of Mauritius and Kenya. And American officials believe there are more boats already outfitted in Asia and preparing to transport more human cargoes from China.

Generally, the smuggling boats avoid coming inside U.S. coastal waters, which extend to 200 miles beyond the shoreline. Instead, they remain on the high seas, safely outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement officials, and hire smaller boats to ferry the Chinese to American shores.

"The whole object is to offload in international waters," says the INS' Shaw. "Normally, they contract with people in the United States to do the offloading. The prices are around $1,000 a head. They've used Vietnamese crews, everyone." If caught, the hired hands face penalties of up to five years in prison for illegal smuggling of foreigners.

The departures by ship from China invite comparisons with the Indochinese "boat people" who fled Vietnam and Cambodia in the years after the 1975 Communist takeovers of the two countries. But the Indochinese fled in small boats, family by family, in a mass exodus whose numbers reached the hundreds of thousands. The Chinese are leaving in smaller numbers, using larger ships.

And in contrast with the Indochinese boat people, the Chinese smuggling operations are, Shaw and other U.S. authorities believe, highly organized criminal affairs, the work of rings whose international activities extend from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore to the United States and other countries.

"This takes a very involved network," says Wayne R. McKenna, an INS senior special agent for investigations. "It takes recruiters in China, other people to move aliens from the Chinese interior to the coast, and others to ferry them out to vessels off the Chinese shoreline.

"It takes people to get a boat and provisions and a crew. It takes people at ports around the world to take care of things like refueling and engine problems. There have to be people to help out the Chinese when they reach the United States. And most importantly of all, the money has to be collected, and the only way to collect the money is through muscle and intimidation, both in the United States and in China."

For organized crime, the potential profits that can be made from smuggling people are huge.

The math is simple. A ship the size of the East Wood, carrying about 500 Chinese paying an average of $20,000 apiece to get to the United States, would take in gross revenues of $10 million.

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