Tue, Jan 04, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Marshall Islands rounds up Chinese

AFP , MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS

For 12 months Zhang Lianyun gambled that she could be anonymously absorbed into the Marshall Islands population, but her luck finally ran out at Christ-mas when she became the latest statistic in a crackdown on Chi-nese overstayers.

The dragnet sweeping through the capital Majuro is in the hands of Assistant Attorney-General Jack Jorbon, who has the task of eradicating the hangover of an ill-fated passport sales program.

In the past year Jorbon has charged about 30 Chinese overstayers among an estimated 250 -- or 1 percent of the Marshalls capital -- whose visas have expired.

Many have been in the central Pacific island nation for several years, largely as a result of a mid-1990s passport sales program that drew the Marshalls, which has diplomatic relations with Taipei and not Beijing, to their attention.

At least 2,000 passports were sold before the program was terminated in 1996 following complaints from the US State Department about passport purchasers attempting to illegally use the documents to enter the US.

Many Chinese who bought their citizenship set up businesses in Majuro, attracting other compatriots who arrived on 30-day visitor visas and then stayed on.

The combination of lax immigration policing and the potential to enter the US by marrying a Marshall Islander made it an attractive destination.

For Zhang and others, the risk of staying on in the Marshalls, which has a strategic partnership with the US under a Compact of Free Association, outweighed the threat of jail if caught.

Immigration officers say she was among three Chinese nationals arrested at Christmas after staying in the country despite being given two weeks to leave in mid-June.

Jorbon said the big challenge is to get overstayers to leave, especially as no action had been taken against them for many years and the return airline tickets they arrived with had long expired.

"The crux of the problem is they say they have no money to buy an airline ticket," Jorbon said, adding the government did not want to pay for deporting overstayers.

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