In June 2000, when port officials in Dover, Britain opened the back of a refrigeration container they found the bodies of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants and 2 survivors. This tragedy was particularly dear to my heart for two reasons: these people came from the same area as my ancestors (I still have many relatives there), and my family just happened to be passing through Dover Port a few days after the incident. I have been struggling to write about this tragedy for some time but because it is such a sad and difficult task, I had to stop every time I started.
Fujian is one of the poorest parts of coastal China due to the lack of farmland. For hundreds of years its people have immigrated, legally or illegally, to other parts of the world to escape poverty. Southeast Asian countries are full of my kinsmen. In recent years, they have targeted Europe and the Americas. They now make up a majority of New York’s underground Chinese population.
During a recent visit to New York’s Chinatown, I heard the distinct Fuzhou dialect being spoken wherever I went. The lucky ones who make it here safely begin a life of manual labor, and most of their meager income has to be sent back home to repay the debts (including high interest) they took out to finance their trip. Depending on their country of destination, the smuggling fee ranges from $10,000 for a South American country, to $30,000 for Europe, to $60,000 for the U.S. They constantly live in fear of being discovered by the authorities. Life underground is harsh: one person told me “I do nothing but work and sleep and I miss my family sorely. I get bored on my day off. A lot of my friends drift into gambling or crime."
But these are the lucky ones who survived the journey. Those 58 people (54 men, 4 women) found in Dover did not. Their doomed journey from Fuzhou took 32 days, during which time they traveled through Outer Mongolia into Russia, Belarus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Holland. In Holland they hid in a safe house for one week before being loaded into the refrigerated unit of a white Mercedes tractor at the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium. This “steel casket" then went on a 5-hour journey by ferry to the port of Dover. It is believed that at the beginning of the 5-hour journey the air vent was open. But it was mysteriously closed later, causing the 58 occupants inside to die a slow and agonizing death. When they were found, almost all had removed their footwear to bang on the walls in a desperate and hopeless attempt to alert people on the outside. For many, their dying act was to suck dry the tomatoes in the cargo. What a horrible and tragic end!
The burning desire to get rich
According to U.S. records, 30,000 illegal immigrants arrive from China each year, mostly from the Fujian Province. What has caused my kinsmen to take such huge risks with their lives in order to get out of China and to get into a lifetime of underground existence and hard labor? The lack of employment opportunities in Fuzhou is one reason – the average wage of a skilled worker in Fujian is only $3,000 a year. Some blame the “snakeheads" who seek out young people in the countryside and persuade them to buy their exit. But I think the main culprit is the burning desire to get rich at all costs. In Fuzhou and nearby areas, there are many luxurious mansions built with money sent from those who have left. People there are filled with envy. When the illegal immigrants write home, they do not mention their harsh life overseas. Instead, they paint a one-sided picture of prosperity and opportunity. Families in Fuzhou brag about their relatives overseas. They encourage their young people to go for the gold. It creates the illusion that one can get rich quickly overseas. No wonder young people are undeterred by the news of the Dover tragedy. My relatives back in Fuzhou told me the Dover tragedy had resulted only in a brief slow-down in the illegal immigrant trade, but that soon afterwards the illegal traffic continued as before.
While we pity our kinsmen who are driven by greed, let us not forget that we are all under the same bondage. In the Silicon Valley, many are awe-struck by the display of wealth around them and are willing to be enslaved by their ambition and greed. When the pursuit of material wealth is the overriding goal in life, one cannot see that there are other things which are much more important, such as: marriage, family, health and, above all, your relationship with God. Just like these illegal immigrants, we may soon find what we sacrifice so much to gain is not as valuable as we expected. King Solomon wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?"