There may be links between the case of 36 illegal Chinese immigrants found on a container ship here on Tuesday and a similar human smuggling operation uncovered last week in Long Beach, California, Canadian officials said. A Canadian Customs official said it was "highly likely" the two smuggling attempts were connected, but police said they had not confirmed the same smugglers were involved. Both attempts involved hiding the human cargo in squalid shipping containers designed for freight. The containers in which the migrants were found in Vancouver were bound for Long Beach.
Canadian immigration officials have begun interviewing the 36 stowaways, including a 15-year-old, who were found in two metal containers on a ship that docked at the Port of Vancouver on Tuesday after a 15-day journey across the Pacific Ocean from northern China and South Korea.
The two containers were marked as empty and were scheduled to be unloaded at the ship's next scheduled stop after Vancouver, at Long Beach, where U.S. immigration officials last week discovered 26 stowaways as they attempted to leave a container ship.
The freight containers
in both incidents were all loaded in the northern Chinese port of Xingang, and had been rented by the same shipping company and consignee, according to Daniela Evans of Canadian Customs.
"It is highly likely they were related," said Evans, who declined to name the shipping company or the consignee. The 30 men and six women discovered in Vancouver were reported to be in relatively good health, despite having traveled across the ocean in what an immigration official described as "very foul conditions."
Officials said migrants had food, bedding and limited lighting in the two three-meter by 12-meter (10-feet by 40-feet) containers, but the walls and floors were covered by urine and excrement that spilled from a makeshift bathroom as the ship rocked.
The captain of the Chinese-owned ship "Pretty River" alerted Canadian officials he had stowaways aboard after a crew member heard laughter coming from one of the containers as the ship crossed the Pacific, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman said. A Canadian immigration official said several of the migrants thought they had arrived in the United States when they were captured. Two of the migrants attempted to escape the ship in Vancouver as police came on board.
Asian organized crime gangs have developed a highly profitable business smuggling Chinese migrants into North America, with some saying they paid up to $50,000 to make the trip. It was not known how much the 36 captured in Vancouver had paid.
Migrants unable to pay cash for their voyage are usually forced to work off their debt in businesses operated by the gangs, including prostitution, according to experts familiar with the human smuggling business.
The smugglers sometimes accompany their cargo to make sure the migrants do not go astray but it was not known if there were any among those caught in Vancouver. "Nobody has been positively eliminated," Mountie spokesman Constable Grant Learned said. The use of freight containers to smuggle Chinese migrants into North America became a widespread problem in 1999, but the smugglers' use of that transportation method appeared to have waned by late last year.
Twenty-five Chinese were discovered hiding on a container ship in Vancouver in January 2000. That group was also believed headed to the United States. - (Reuters)