LONDON — The 58 Chinese immigrants found suffocated in the back of a refrigerated truck in Dover last month have exposed a horrifyingly simple truth: Men, women and children are dying to get into Europe.
Although the Dover tragedy was extreme, it was hardly isolated. More than 2,000 people are known to have died crossing the seas and borders of Western Europe in the last seven years, and the mortal tide continues with numbing regularity.
They drown in the Adriatic on the way to Italy or in the Strait of Gibraltar while headed for Spain. They step on mines along the Iranian-Turkish border and freeze to death on an icy mountain pass between Bulgaria and Greece. They die in the landing gear of a commercial airplane.
This grim toll is the underbelly of Europe's economic success and, to some degree, of its efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration. Pulled by a demand for unskilled laborers and pushed by desperation in their own countries, more and more Asians, Africans, Indians and Eastern Europeans are making their way to Western Europe's dynamic cities.
Visa requirements, sanctions against airlines transporting illegal immigrants and new enforcement measures, however, have forced these desperate migrants to seek ever more clandestine and dangerous routes into Western Europe. Whether they are refugees fleeing persecution or laborers looking for a job, for the majority of migrants the only way into Europe is illegally and often perilously.
Professional traffickers are happy to ply their trade to the 250,000 refugees who ask for asylum in European Union countries each year and to the hundreds of thousands of economic migrants looking for a better life. Law enforcement officials and refugee workers say the business of human trafficking has become as lucrative as drug smuggling in Europe.
"There has always been illegal immigration, but there is a massive growth in organized, illegal immigration. Instead of coming in ones and twos, they are coming in fifties and hundreds," said Fleur Strong, a spokeswoman for Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service.
"In most European countries, the penalties for human trafficking are lower than for drugs, and the money is just as good," Strong said.
While the short trip from Albania to Italy may cost as little as $500 to $1,000, the price of an illegal journey from China's Fujian province to London ranges from $18,000 to $30,000.
The penalty for people smuggling in Britain is $3,000 a head for drivers and up to 10 years in prison for trafficking masterminds. Drug smuggling is punishable by prison terms of up to life.
"Human smuggling is a growth industry for organized crime, and [the smugglers] adapt well to changing circumstances," said Mark Pugash, a spokesman for the Kent County police in Dover.
Smugglers Can Quickly Reroute Their 'Cargo'
When routes from China to London through Russia come under scrutiny, traffickers quickly transfer their "cargo" through Thailand or Cambodia. Law enforcement pressure on one European border may shift immigrants and would-be refugees to another.
"The majority of immigrants have a likely destination, but when they arrive [at the border] they look at the circumstances in Europe," said Bobby Chan, a legal advisor with the Central London Law Center. "There are always rumors about the amnesty situation. Recently, clients told me there were rumors that there would be an amnesty in Britain for the Queen Mother's 100th birthday."
Immigration attorney Wah-Piow Tan believes that the 58 Chinese who died en route from the Netherlands to Dover might have been the victims of one smuggler's efforts to outwit British law enforcement techniques. Typically, immigrants have been ferried across the channel inside canvas-topped trucks that let in air but also make it easy for police dogs to sniff out human scent.
"The syndicates have responded with more expensive transportation. At one point the air vent was closed on this truck," Tan said. "Was it because something went wrong, or was it because of a fear of being detected by the dogs?"
An estimated 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants live in the European Union, compared with about 7 million in the United States, which has a slightly smaller population than Western Europe.
But about 500,000 illegal immigrants try to get into the EU each year, according to British Home Office figures.
British officials detected 616 people trying to enter the country illegally in 1996 and 16,000 last year. They now nab about 100 illegal immigrants daily in Dover--stopping a small fraction of the 4,000 trucks that roll off the ferries each day. About half of the immigrants say they had planned to ask for asylum, and half say they had planned to remain illegally.