'Snakehead' Smuggling Ring Dismantled

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: They're known as Snakeheads, that's the term for human smugglers in China. This week Taiwanese authorities said that they have dismantled one of the largest human smuggling groups operating among Asia, Australia and North America. The authorities say the Snakehead ring smuggled more than 100 Chinese migrants into Canada and Australia. All of them flew out of Taiwan's international airport using doctored Taiwanese passports. Sheldon Zhang is the Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at San Diego State University. He studies human smuggling. Sheldon Zhang, in these days of such tight airport security, how is it possible to smuggle people?

Sheldon Zhang: It is likely that they go through what are called photo substitution. In other words, you get the passports and somehow figure out a way to lift the laminations and replace the photos with another person's photos, but these days these photos are typically color printed onto that passport page, so another way is to find passengers or passports that look alike.

Mullins: It must be hard though, if you're trying to send five, ten people out of the country at the same time. You get access to certain restricted area, then you have to switch passports to board, and this is possible?

Zhang: Yes, once you go into, well, you have to have two groups of people doing this, and one group of people have to come into the international transfer areas, the secured areas, with another group coming in who are heading towards Canada, then they swap out the passports, but on the other hand, you know there are always suspicions that there might be some insiders working at the security checkpoints in the airports. In the "Ë?80"²s and "Ë?90"²s, I know in China they had problems and then they instituted a bunch of frequent rotations to rotate the security guards or checkpoint inspectors in and out of the places and make it difficult to predict when certain inspectors will be working in a shift, and for some groups to do this, as news reported, in the 50 times successfully, it's also very difficult to do so many times without inside help.

Mullins: Why, in particular, would Taiwan be the departure point for these people being smuggled?

Zhang: Most likely it's convenience, because Taiwan is the closest international transit point to Fujain province as reported in news, that most of the smugglees, or the illegal immigrants, were found in Fujain province, which that province has had a long history of outward migration.

Mullins: From China?

Zhang: From China, especially back in the late "Ë?80"²s and early "Ë?90"²s and that is the single biggest group of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S.

Mullins: Which brings up a good point, by the way, and that is that these are not victims of human trafficking. These are people who are paying to be smuggled out of the country and end up, for instance, in Canada. How much do they pay?

Zhang: Typically around $50 to $70,000 for a trip to the U.S. Canada probably will be less, I would say anywhere between $50 to $70,000.

Mullins: And meanwhile, those who do the smuggling, how do they stay undercover?

Zhang: The Snakehead, oftentimes when people say they make $50,000, because it's $50 to $70,000 per head. There's actually a lot of costs that goes into the initial recruitment, the document vendors and the transporters, so there are a lot of people involved. There are very, very few cases where you have one big boss sitting on top and collecting money from all the players. Usually different stages are managed by different individuals, so this is really a group of entrepreneurs getting together and having the resources and the connections to pull through one of those operations.

Mullins: Professor, thank you, very nice to talk to you. Sheldon Zhang researches human smuggling. He is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at San Diego State University. Thanks again.

Zhang: Thank you.