Honeymoon is over for snakeheads

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2011, 12:00am

Ruthless snakehead people-smugglers are trying to portray a softer image to fool guards at border checkpoints and airports.

They are posing with female clients as honeymoon couples, Hong Kong immigration officials revealed.

To back up their claims, the couples wear wedding rings and even carry fake photos of them looking lovingly into each other's eyes as they share a drink.

In a case in Hong Kong last year, a young snakehead pretended to be the husband of a female client using a fake Singaporean passport. They were intending to travel to New York after a honeymoon in Hong Kong and even had a photograph album full of pictures of their romantic time together in the city.

But after they were pulled over for a check, it emerged that the female's passport was fake. Later, it was revealed she paid the snakeheads at least HK$100,000 to be smuggled into the United States.

Asked how the bogus couple were spotted, Tse Tak-hung, chief immigration assistant at the Anti-Illegal Migration Agency, said: 'They acted too intimately at the boarding gates area and leaned on each other in a strange way.'

He said the couple were spotted by plain-clothes officers patrolling the airport. These officers were particularly effective in the restricted boarding gate areas, where people-smugglers were known to help clients switch identities, he added. These areas are often used to hand over boarding passes and fake passports as the security checks are not as tight as at the immigration counters, he said.

Head of the agency Kris Kwong Wai-shing said: 'This was a rare case because the snakehead and his client made so much effort to pretend they were a newly-wedded couple.

'We have previously found some pretending to be father and son or father and daughter.'

Some clients being smuggled abroad were even found to be fluent in the language of their fake identity.

This was the case when two Chinese women were being smuggled into South Korea last year. But Tse said: 'Their clothing and make-up made us suspicious of their identities.'

He said the women were heavily made-up with scarlet lipstick and wore clothes more commonly seen in the 1990s.

The snakeheads travelling with them were later jailed.

Tse said baggage checks were also an essential weapon in the battle against the people-smugglers.

He said: 'Once, our female investigators checked the bag of a female smuggler intending to be smuggled to South Africa. She was very nervous when the investigator found a pack of napkins.' The pack was found to contain two fake South African visas.

Figures showed that last year, immigration officials carried out 43,391 spot checks on passengers and conducted inspections on 24,889 flights, increases year on year of 73 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

A total of 491 passengers were investigated and 213 of them were charged. Those convicted received sentences of between two months and four years.

The work of the agency, established in 2004, came under the spotlight in October after a young Asian man boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Canada wearing a silicone mask of an elderly Caucasian man.

Kwong said: 'We will continue to strengthen efforts to combat people-smuggling syndicates, including co-operation with overseas and local law enforcement agencies and different countries' embassies.'