The New People Trade

Yeah, that's England," says Reza, a 22-year-old political-science student from Afghanistan. He has no passport, no "papers," as they say in Europe, and though he's willing to provide a reporter with his family name and e-mail address, he asks that they not be published. Reza paid smugglers $6,000 to escort him on a four-month journey from Kabul, by foot across the border into Pakistan, and from there to Iran. While crossing from Iran to Turkey, a friend lost a leg to a land mine, he says. Reza pressed on to Greece, then Italy. Now he's near the French village of Sangatte, on the edge of the English Channel. In front of him, huge ferries glide across the gray water, and the white cliffs of Dover, clearly visible in the morning light, rise on the edge of the horizon.

There lies the land where Reza plans to begin a new life. Yes, he knows that 58 Chinese died in the airless oven of a tomato truck that was smuggling them to Dover a few days earlier. But still, he plans to make a similar journey. Coming from a country where countless people have been slaughtered for so long and for so little reason--where his mother and brother were killed by Taliban militiamen--Reza finds a kind of consolation in headlines about the Death Truck. "I think this dying is better than that dying," he says. "In Afghanistan when you die, nobody knows, nobody cares, nobody hears."

Last week's tragedy in Dover ought to be a cautionary tale for others planning to make their way to democratic lands of plenty. But to hopeful migrants, the possibility of a gruesome death often is a risk worth taking. The Dover incident was unusual, in fact, mainly in the amount of attention it attracted: illegal immigrants, who often pay smugglers to take them across frontiers, die with grim regularity the world over. Chasing their dreams or fleeing persecution, they suffocate, or collapse of heat stroke, or freeze, or drown--in the Mediterranean, or the Rio Grande, or in the straits dividing Cuba from America. On New Year's Eve, a rickety boat carrying Iranians and Turkish Kurds sank in the strip of water that separates Albania and Italy. Over the course of a few days, 59 bodies washed ashore, none with identity papers.

Illegal migration is one of the most complex and controversial issues that wealthy countries face. Sometimes it's hard to sort out the good guys from the bad. Who, after all, can fault desperate or ambitious people seeking a better life? Yet the demand for visas far outstrips the supply, and the people who help migrants evade immigration and police officials often are criminal gangs. The International Organization for Migration reports that people-trafficking around the globe is a growing business, worth $7 billion to $12 billion annually, that transports up to 7 million illegal immigrants a year. Debate is growing in the United States and Europe over how best to counter the trade, but with little result. "The consensus is that the entrepreneurial-criminal syndicates are far ahead of law enforcement," says Arthur C. Helton, a refugee expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

China might have the most organized network. Underworld thugs called "snakeheads" charge up to $60,000 to smuggle one person to the United States, and roughly half that for the journey to Britain. Often a contract is signed: 10 percent down and the balance paid by relatives on arrival. "There will be all kinds of medieval torture if you don't pay up," says Ko-Lin Chin, a Rutgers University professor and author of "Smuggled Chinese."

A Chinese proverb has it that "after one relative sneaks across the water, the entire family gets rich." That's the thinking that propelled the 58 who died in Dover. Although the bodies had not been identified by late last week, the would-be immigrants were thought to be from Fujian province, where it's practically a rite of passage for a young man to set off to make his fortune abroad. Many have succeeded: white-tiled mansions with Disneyesque turrets in Fujian are a testament to the spending power of people with overseas relatives. Yet for every success story there's a tale of death or despair. The dead in the truck at Dover perished because the air vent was blocked. He Xiaohong, from Fujian province, believes her husband was on the truck, and hopes he was one of two survivors. "If my husband returns safely," she says tearfully, "he'll have to beat me to death before I ever let him travel abroad like this again."

Once migrants reach their destinations, many find themselves in bonded servitude. Sometimes thugs hold them hostage, or force them to work under slavelike conditions in restaurants or sweatshops to extract more money. "We kiss the stove by day and kiss the pillow at night" is the saying of newly arrived Chinese in New York. Women often are forced into prostitution.

The more that authorities crack down on illegal immigration, the more organized it becomes. In the early 1990s less than half the people caught by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican frontier had used a smuggler; now that the United States has tightened controls, the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 95 percent of illegal border crossers use smugglers, paying up to $1,800 for a journey to Phoenix and onward.

The French turn a blind eye to clandestins as long as they're moving on. That's why Reza, the Afghan student, could take his time figuring how best to smuggle himself to Dover. Together with hundreds of other migrants, he was staying at a shelter established by the French Red Cross at the request of local officials. Since the shelter opened in September, more than 10,000 people from 85 countries have passed through. "It's a kind of no-man's land for people from nowhere," says Red Cross administrator Michel Derr.

After paying smugglers to get him this far, Reza has no money left. So he's trying to improvise his own passage to England. "I haven't found the right truck," he explains. When he does, he will climb on the back and cut through the tarp to hide beneath it, or perhaps find a perch between the axles. "I'll see you in England, I'm sure," he told a reporter last week. "I'll send you an e-mail when I get there." Reza still believes, as he must, that he'll be one of the lucky ones.