SCMP Thursday, June 22, 2000

HUMAN SMUGGLING

Asylum seeker tells of illegal immigrants' likely route to Dover

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE in Dover, England


A grieving relative who fears his cousin could be among the 58 Chinese found dead in a truck which arrived in Britain on Monday spoke on Tuesday of the four-month odyssey the deceased were likely to have endured.

Chen Yang, an asylum-seeker who arrived in Britain in January, said he was almost certain his cousin, Chen Lin, 19, was one of the young Chinese who had been locked inside the hermetically sealed lorry.

What would have been their last leg of an arduous journey across Russia and eastern Europe to Britain ended in tragedy when all but two of the 60 people discovered in the back of the truck in Dover, southeast England, were found dead by Customs officers who opened it.

"All the way through their trip they were allowed to make calls back home to say where they were," Mr Chen said through interpreters. "The last call was from Holland on Sunday, and they said they were travelling to the UK that night."

Mr Chen, 20, has not heard from his cousin since then. He said he was convinced he had been on the ill-fated lorry. He said his cousin left the city of Changle, in China's southern province of Fujian, in February, and travelled via Beijing, Moscow and the Czech Republic on to the Netherlands.

Mr Chen, who is living in west London while he seeks political asylum, comes from the same city as his cousin, who, he said, was an only child who lived with his parents in a spartan house in a poor district.

His cousin's parents, both farmers, were told of the discovery in Dover by relatives in Britain. "His mother is devastated," Mr Chen said. "She was in tears on the phone. Both the father and the mother were crying as we talked about what had happened. They are distraught. They do not know what to do. I said I would help as much as I could, but there is not much I can do now."

He said his cousin's parents had known of his plans, but everyone thought he would be flying to Britain, not going overland. "He was told they would be well looked after. His mother told me that they would be flying. The impression was they were going to be flying straight to the UK to apply for asylum."

The mother told Mr Chen that the agent in Changle who had organised the trip had since disappeared and that everybody in the community was trying to find him to get some answers.

Mr Chen said his cousin's family had to borrow from relatives and money-lenders to raise the £14,000 (HK$165,000) snakehead fee.

It would take them five years to pay off the debt. He said his cousin had reported that the traffickers had guns and used threats of force to make the refugees undertake the journey.

His cousin and a friend, also 19, had reached the Netherlands in a small group and then been pooled with others to make up the 60-strong group who then climbed into the lorry bound for Dover.

Mr Chen said he last met his cousin, who claimed to have been persecuted for being a Catholic, in December 1999. "My cousin was not very happy in China because of his situation. He was an ordinary boy with hopes for the future."