They wait in seedy flophouses in the garbage-strewn back alleys of Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown district. Some are shipped off to dingy safe houses in Phnom Penh or Vientiane until passports are stolen and visas forged. They are human cargo being smuggled from Asia to more prosperous destinations in the U.S., Europe and Australia. Many of them pass through Bangkok on their way. "Bangkok is definitely among the top 10 transit points," says Brian J. Vaillancourt, assistant district director of investigations in the Bangkok office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Bangkok is a bottleneck."Vaillancourt says law enforcement is making some gains against the traffic in people. "It's a chess game," he says. "We make moves and the smugglers find new ways to get around them. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated." Working with the Thai police, and with help from their British, Australian and Canadian counterparts, the INS nabs an average of 200 "irregular migrants" at Don Muang International Airport each month. In late 1996, Vaillancourt's predecessor, Michael Riordan, estimated that 2,000 people a month were slipping through — and the number was rising. Vaillancourt says there is no reason to believe that the numbers are going down now. More than half of these irregular migrants are from the People's Republic of China, followed by Sri Lanka, India and other countries from the subcontinent and the Middle East.
The overwhelming majority of these migrants travel by air, with most flying from Hong Kong to Bangkok and then on to third countries. Vaillancourt says the price of passage can be as high as $60,000. Those heading for Western Europe frequently pass through Eastern European countries, with Moscow and Amsterdam used as staging points. Italy, because of its long coastline, is another popular disembarkation point. Once the migrants reach their destination, they normally ask for political asylum.
Bangkok isn't the only major transit point in Asia. "There are so many routes, we can't begin to keep track of them all," Vaillancourt says. When law enforcement agents make moves along a particular route, the traffickers simply switch to another. But several factors make Bangkok a prime starting point. The city is ethnically diverse, thus making it easy for Chinese, Indians and others to blend in. Thailand, one of the few democracies in the region, also provides relatively free movement. Chinese gangs operate openly in the country and, significantly, the government, police and bureaucracy are fairly corrupt.
Angela Longo, a researcher with the Bangkok office of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration who has worked with Chinese migrants caught by Bangkok police, says the people being smuggled "usually end up in bad hands ... They don't know really what they are getting into. They get in touch with someone from their village ... who has gone and come back, and that person has been recruited by the traffickers ... If someone from your village or clan tells you it will be okay, you tend to listen. Even after they get to their destination and end up in a sweatshop, it takes them years to accept that they haven't found paradise."
"Jean" is a 29-year-old European who worked for a people-smuggling ring in Bangkok in the mid-90s. Jean had worked as a bouncer in nightclubs in Europe before settling in Bangkok in 1994. He was looking for work while staying at a guest-house in downtown Bangkok when he struck up a friendship with three Iranian men who were waiting for stolen passports with forged visas so they could go to Europe. The Iranians introduced Jean to a Pakistani man who was selling the passports. The Pakistani introduced him to a Kurd who was smuggling Middle Easterners to Europe and America. This is Jean's description of how the process of transporting illegal immigrants into the West works:"We got [stolen passports] from the [Thai] tourist police. I saw police come with stacks of them. Sometimes we would put in orders for passports from certain countries, and the police would ask workers in hotels or other tourist places to steal them to order. The price varied, but the police were usually paid around $100 a passport."The Kurd "had a travel agency as a front, but he was never there. Most of the people involved in this have travel agencies as fronts, or have some business with their name on it, but they don't really do any business. The Kurd was at the airport everyday, eating in the restaurants, joking with the immigration police. It was really funny."I would go to the airport with the people [to be smuggled]. If it was one person, I would check in for them. This was the ingenious part. When the Kurd had a passport, he would use some chemical to peel back the plastic that covered the page with the photo. Then he would put the photo of the person who was traveling in it, and then my photo on top and then reseal the plastic. I would check in and then meet him in the men's room and he would go inside a stall and take my picture out and reseal it so only the picture of the person traveling would show. I had already given him his boarding pass, so he would go right through immigration. He never told me what chemical he used to peel back and reseal the plastic. That was his secret."I would usually do this two or three times a day. I would check one person in, then go into the men's room and change my clothes, come back out and go to a different counter and check in someone else. I got $200 per check-in. I wasn't able to leave Thailand at the time, but others would fly with the passengers to make sure they got through immigration and arrived at the other country. Those people got paid $800 per trip."If I was checking in, say, a family, then I would be the husband and check in myself, the wife and child. I would be the only one to speak. That was because the others would not be able to speak the language of the country of the passport. Because we were taking only Middle Easterners, we needed passports from places like Spain or Italy, because they are also darkskinned. But the passengers couldn't speak Spanish or Italian, so I would do the talking. Mostly, they went to the Scandinavian countries, other European countries, Canada and New Zealand, because in these countries, as soon as they got off the plane they would ask for political asylum and usually get it."It cost each person $5,000 for the whole trip. We were taking out more than 100 people a month, and that's just one guy, the Kurd. Imagine how many others were being smuggled out. There were so many others involved in this business, many other nationalities: the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Chinese and the Thais."In 1995 and 1996, the business was booming. Now I'm told by others still involved in it [that] it's fallen off by about 80%. It's getting tougher and tougher. The Thais are cracking down. The airlines are cracking down. And so the prices have gone up."The airlines would be fined by the countries when a person got off their plane and [asked for] political asylum. So they got much stricter, especially in Bangkok. You used to be able to pay them off. There was much more corruption back then. The Thais are trying to clean up their image now. So we started sending them out of other airports in the region, like Indonesia and Malaysia. But now they are getting tougher also. It's got so difficult that some who were involved in this business are now turning to smuggling drugs instead. Now, many are smuggled out of Cambodia. It's easier there. No computers at the airport and still very corrupt."