Human cargo

Post Date: Dec 12th, 2010 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

When the war in Sri Lanka dispossessed the Tamil minority villages, I had no choice but flee my homeland to seek refuge in another country. I left in 2006 and eventually reached China 18 months ago and worked in a kitchen outside Shenzhen, until a twist of fate brought me to Hong Kong. One Sunday afternoon I was sitting on a bench by the Shangri-la Hotel when a Punjabi Indian talking to me in English. “Do you want to go Hong Kong?” he asked to my surprise, then explained that even without a passport he could arrange it for RMB 5,000. “You don’t believe?!” he asked realizing I didn’t take him seriously, having lost trust in these bogus agents. Then he called over a Pakistani and two Indian men, who told me they would cross the boarder in two nights and would call to confirm it was for real. Two years ago I lost HKD 75,000 my relatives collected, when a deal to reach Canada turned out too-good-to-be-true, despite the rip-off.

Now I know the 852 call could have been made from China, but then I believed the country code was proof the three had successfully been smuggled to Hong Kong. That was enough to convince me to take the risk. But where could I borrow the RMB 5,000 fee? I shared my frustration on the Tamil chat website KALAPAM and an online friend I’d chatted with for two years, agreed to wire it via Western Union. We’d only met on the internet, yet sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places! A week later I paid the fee to Punjabi Mr. Sing over a chapatti meal I was too nervous to enjoy, worrying what trouble I was getting into. Human smuggling is always risky business for the ‘cargo’: if things go wrong, the Snake-heads will do anything to avoid jail and the cargo’s wellbeing is their last concern, since payments are made upfront. I was lead to the six floor of a building near the Shangri-la, where I learnt Mr. Sing was just a broker, the first link paid to find targets, collect fees and pass them on to the smuggling ring. My heart pounded like it would explode, as a fake taxi drove around town picking up more ‘human cargo’ from other safe houses. We drove around for three hours, the taxi meter running into the hundreds of dollars, which nobody paid. I imagined they were taking their time to be safe. Maybe there were police problems. I feared we would be stopped and in such dubious company who knows what the police would think, besides the fact my renewed visa expired a year earlier.

Nighttime outreach in Lam Tei
Nighttime outreach in Lam Tei

Around 1am the taxi switched its lights off and drove down a steep hill, while we were commanded to keep silent. We were told to change into our best clothes, clean pants and shirt which wouldn’t attract attention in Hong Kong. We couldn’t bring anything but a backpack. We waited in an abandoned building by the shore, until suddenly orders were barked “Come! Come! Come fast!” We were directed onboard a small, wooden fishing boat, about 12 meters. The driver stashed the four of us cargo in the engine compartment, right next to the deafening diesel engine. We could fee the heat coming off the engine and were afraid of burns touching it. The engine hatch was locked tight and I got very scared. There was hardly enough air and I could only see a sliver of night through a crack between the old, rough boards. I thought I’d made a mistake. I feared I would never breath fresh air again. We were all very scared and I thought the old boat would sink in the swells. The fishing boat ventured across rough sea for a couple hours, slowly, dangerously, until it stopped at 4am at the pier of an old building, in a small, dark bay. At long last, the driver opened the hatch and commanded us onto a smaller speedboat, with two enormous outboard engines. The second driven was a young boy who hardly said a word. Probably too young to do any serious jail time if caught. He sped across the dark sea like a veteran seaman, while we keep low below the transom, as the salty sea splashed over us. Hope was rising in me, when abruptly there was absolute panic. The boy yelled over the roaring engines “Police! … Police! … Jump!” motioning frantically for us to jump into the sea. A helicopter swooped with a blinding searchlight over head. The noise of the chopper, the blast from the rotors added to the panic. We could see dark land a short distance away, but still the fear of jumping into the black sea was horrifying. For fear of being caught I plunged into the water and … thank God, my feet struck the bottom with my neck above water. The speedboat darted away into the night with the police in hot areal pursuit, but I doubt they could arrest the boy before he vanished into Mainland waters.

Early we’d been given simple instructions “See big mountain, you walk round, you walk round to road. On road, van waiting for you!” The helicopter never returned, it must have become somebody else’s problem. Expecting a police launch to appear and tracker dogs hunting us on land, we staggered to shore with water-log backpacks, without even feeling the cold November waters. There was no police boat. There wasn’t any patrol either. The peaceful beach was the first moment of tranquility since home that morning. With all that commotion, we figured we’d made it to Hong Kong and that surly that country park felt like a different world to Shenzhen. Soaked to the bones, mobile phones dead, we skirted the mountain to the road and – surprise! – there was a man smoking by a white van! As orange flares lit the bay behind us, the driver shoved us into the van and slammed the door shut. He hadn’t driven five minutes up the road, that a police cruiser came dashing down in the opposite direction, never bothering to stop us. Definitely they were looking for us, but we’d slipped through. Twenty minutes later we pulled up by the 7-Eleven in Yung Long, the door slid open, a simple “Bye-bye” was exchanged and this time the human cargo got its money’s worth. One of the guys called a friend who offered us a floor to crash on in Kam Tin. I still had HKD 100 in my wet wallet. In the morning I took a bus to Kowloon and found my way to the UNHCR where my registration was accepted and my case is still open today. When you are certain there is no more hope, that’s when God opens a door for you!

(a VF beneficiary)

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