Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 4 News List

Hsinchu detainees rue hollow promises

REUTERS , HSINCHU

A woman from Fuzhou in Fujian Province, who was smuggled into Taiwan in January, cradles her newborn baby boy at the Hsinchu Detention Center for illegal immigrants on Sept. 10.

PHOTO: REUTERS

On a pitch-black night in January, as thick clouds hid the moon and stars, Xiao Zhou crept aboard a tiny fishing boat on the Fujian coast.

Her destination was Taiwan, 160km across the rough waters of the Taiwan Strait, where she hoped to find a job in a hotel or restaurant that would pay six times more than what she earned back home.

She had no idea she would be forced into the sex trade and, 10 months later, find herself trapped in a prison-like detention camp for illegal immigrants, cradling her newborn son.

"We climbed on to the boat and the fisherman didn't say a single word. He just gave each of us a plastic bag to use as a toilet or to vomit into," Zhou whispered, careful not to disturb the sleeping baby in her arms at the Hsinchu Detention Center.

"We were all seasick and threw up over and over again. With seven or eight of us crammed together, I could barely breathe," she said. "I never thought it would be so terrifying."

Zhou is one of an estimated 7,000 Chinese smuggled into Taiwan this year by fishermen working for so-called "snakeheads" -- ruthless human traffickers who have become a global menace.

Smuggling is flourishing across the Taiwan Strait as bitter animosity between Taipei and Beijing prevents a joint solution.

Taiwan says Chinese are sneaking in at an alarming rate. Coast guard patrols caught more than 2,500 this year, a nine-year high and up a sharp 25 percent from last year's total.

More than 80 percent are young women, who quickly disappear into seedy brothels and hostess bars.

Their plight hit the headlines in August, when smugglers chased by the coast guard threw 26 Chinese women overboard and six drowned -- a tragedy that further strained political relations.

Taiwan blames China for failing to provide for its people, forcing them into becoming refugees, and then dragging its feet in taking back those caught by Taiwan.

Beijing criticizes Taipei for not punishing human traffickers harshly and says the real problem is demand from the island's sex trade. A snakehead earns NT$200,000 to NT$300,000 for every woman he smuggles in.

Taiwan fears things could get worse in the run-up to its presidential elections in March.

"They use political considerations to purposely control the number they repatriate," said Steve Wu (吳學燕), deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration, in an interview.

When ties are good, China sends a boat once a month to Matsu that picks up about 150 immigrants at a time.

Last year, after Chen called Taiwan and China "one country on each side" of the Taiwan Strait, China failed to send a boat for six months. As a result, the detention camps are full, as are temporary shelters dotted around the nation.

Wu estimates that only a third of illegal immigrants are caught, saying efforts are hindered by patchy cooperation with China and frustrated by crowded detention centers. "If there is room, the police will try harder to catch more of them," he said.

In the early 1990s, the bulk of Chinese illegal immigrants were men from Fujian Province.

As the coastal regions prospered, the hazardous journey was increasingly undertaken by women from the poor hinterlands, left behind by China's spectacular but uneven economic growth.

"They said Taiwan is a great place, it's easy to find work and easy to earn money," said Zhang Hongyan (張洪燕), 22, from Sichuan in southwest China.

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