Stowaways 'could have died'!

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2000, 12:00am

The 12 stowaways found inside a container bound for the United States on Sunday were all semi-conscious and could have died if they had not been discovered, police revealed yesterday.

Organised Crime and Triad Bureau officers believe they have smashed a major human smuggling syndicate that may have links to previous stowaway cases this year.

Police arrested two more alleged syndicate members yesterday, bringing the total to 14. They include the suspected masterminds and people working in the container industry. Several others are still at large.

Of the 14, aged between 21 and 40, one had been arrested and released on bail in connection with the discovery on April 11 of 15 mainland stowaways found in Los Angeles in a container that arrived from Hong Kong.

The 12 stowaways found on Sunday, aged 18 to 43, were discovered in a container at about 3.30pm at Kwai Chung Container Terminal No 8. The container was due to be loaded on to a vessel heading for Long Beach, California, at noon yesterday. It was fitted with two layers of plastic sheeting, air ventilation holes and two escape doors at the side to help the stowaways breathe and allow them to flee upon arrival in the US.

It also contained packets of instant noodles, congee, dried fruit, bottles of water, sanitary buckets, an improvised electric fan and two mobile phones for communication with snakeheads in Long Beach.

The bureau's head, Chief Superintendent Andy Tsang Wai-hung, said: 'These people intending to smuggle themselves to the United States or elsewhere could be risking their lives. When we opened up the container, the illegal immigrants were all semi-conscious. We believe they had only been in the container for a few hours. Had the container not been intercepted, I fear some of them would have died.'

Two of the stowaways who were believed to have suffered injuries before arriving in Hong Kong were taken to Princess Margaret Hospital after being arrested. One was still being treated last night. The other 11 stowaways and 14 suspected Hong Kong syndicate members were still detained last night.

Mr Tsang said that the migrants were from Fuzhou, Fujian, and were believed to have agreed to pay up to US$60,000 (HK$467,870) a trip for the 11-day journey to Long Beach. He said it was usual practice for stowaways to make only a downpayment before setting off, with the rest of the loan to be repaid over several years by working illegally in the US.

Police believe the stowaways sneaked into Hong Kong by sea. The suspected syndicate was found to have set up a bogus firm to book the container and shipment.

The bureau is investigating if the syndicate was linked with previous cases. SAR police have contacted US immigration authorities and the FBI, and will pass information about the stowaways on to mainland authorities for background checks.

Last January, 18 Chinese were discovered in a container aboard a Seattle-bound ship from Hong Kong. Three had died of exposure. Human smuggling was brought into the international spotlight in June, when 58 Chinese illegal immigrants were found suffocated in a container aboard a Dutch truck in Dover, Britain.