02/12/2004, 00.00
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Illegal Emigrants disguised as tourists

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Guo Binlong, one of 35 shellfish hunters hit by heavy seas on the British coast on Thursday, Feb 5, made a cell phone call to his wife in China just before dying.  

Guo was a 30 year-old Christian from Fujian. While the tide got higher, as told by his wife in the Daily Telegraph, Guo said," I am in great danger; the water is already up to my chest. I think I'm about to die…Tell everyone in the family to pray for me. The end is near, I'm dying."  

Guo had been working in Morecambe Bay, on the northwest coast of Great Britain, for only a few days. The tragedy 's 19 victims (17 men and 2 women) were all young twenty year-olds who illegally emigrated to the country with the help of a Chinese trafficking ring in order to work on this dangerous coastline. They lived under inhumane conditions in overcrowded homes, earning about 10 dollars per hour.  

This tragic story pays testimony to the widespread and dramatic issue of illegal emigration and trafficking of Chinese laborers, who for decades have been recruited by criminal organizations operating worldwide which promise them stable and well paying jobs in the West. 

In recent years, China's openness to the western world and increasing economic prosperity have pushed Beijing to eliminate restrictions on international travel and transfers, causing an ever greater flow of Chinese travelers abroad.   

This has also led to a change in the dealings of illegal labor traffickers, particularly in the way they recruit workers.  

Taking advantage of the greater ease in obtaining visas, criminal organizations are able to handle their business in much safer, cheaper and "legal" way. The "aspiring workers" no longer have to leave the country without visas under risky circumstances in which they can be easily found out (hidden in ships, trains and trucks). Rather, they legally exit their homeland, heading for the country stamped on their tourist visa. Usually this means they have valid travel permits to enter the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Last October, the European Union and China signed an agreement permitting the 12 EU member countries to issue tourist visas to Chinese citizens, who in the past could only obtain visas for certain Southeast Asian countries.    

Twenty-eight other countries (Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, and Egypt –to name a few) can accept groups of at least 5 people coming from China, thanks to the stipulated agreements.

The World Tourism Organization predicts that by 2020 over 100 million Chinese will spend vacation time abroad. According to Xu Peng, director of the Department of Administration and Organization for Zhejiang's Office of Tourism, the number of tourists who have gone "missing" has increased over the last few years. 

Dr. Huang Lunlong, emigration expert at the University of Nanking, said the number of Chinese traveling abroad is diminishing, while the number of those traveling with tourist visas is increasing. According to official estimates, 1-3% of tourists do not return home: more than 50,000 in 2002 and 60-70,000 in 2003.

To counteract the illegal traffic of "tourist-laborers", Beijing has imposed more severe rules and sanctions on travel agencies, who complain about how difficult it is to handle the situation. If tourists remain longer in a country than is permitted, the agency can lose its license to organize travel in the particular country.    

Travel agencies also have the obligation to inform themselves of their clients' financial and economic conditions, in order to try and understand if they are "real" tourists or potential victims of illegal labor organizations. 

Upon booking a trip travel agencies must also ask for a 20-100 thousand yuan (2500 – 12,500 dollars) deposit from their customers, to be given back to them after returning to the country. Payments asked by illegal traffickers vary from 20-20 thousand yuan for South Korea to 30-50 thousand (even 100,000) yuan for the United States.   (MR)

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