BEIJING -- Chinese officials apparently have breached a promise to the United States not to punish more than 500 Chinese recently repatriated after they were caught being smuggled to America.
The 524 Chinese have been fined more than $1,700 each by local officials in southeastern Fujian Province, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Lorraine Toly, said here yesterday.
In addition, 84 of them still are being held at a Fujian "processing center" -- about three weeks after their return to China -- while their identities are being checked by Chinese officials, she said.
These fines and relatively lengthy detentions are a sensitive issue between the United States and China because they could bolster the political asylum claims made by illegal Chinese migrants to the United States, who say they will be mistreated if they are returned to China.
China is now the United States' fastest-growing source of illegal migrants, with as many as 100,000 Chinese thought to be illegally entering the United States annually. The 524 repatriated Chinese represented the first large group from China sent back by the United States -- a move facilitated by the fact that they never reached U.S. territory.
Before their repatriation early last month, the Chinese government gave the U.S. verbal assurances that the 524 illegal migrants would not be "prosecuted or persecuted" in China.
Even after their repatriation, Fujian Gov. Jia Qinglin, publicly denied in Beijing March 16 that the returnees had been punished in any way. He said they had been "warmly greeted" and sent back to their families.
But the fines and detentions were decided by local officials in Fujian, who now have told U.S. diplomats that they have been levying such penalties in similar cases since last year, Ms. Toly said.
U.S. officials were not immediately aware of the fines because -- although a U.S. diplomat met the returnees as they came back to China -- they were not monitored afterward. U.S. diplomats checked again last week in response to Hong Kong press reports about the fines.
The United States now will raise with the Chinese government "our concerns about the slowness of the processing of the returnees and the fact they have been fined by local officials," Ms. Toly said.
She declined to say whether U.S. officials considered Chinese promises to have been broken.
The 524 Chinese repatriated to Fujian Province were found by the Coast Guard Feb. 3 on a disabled, Panamanian-registered freighter, the East Wood, about 1,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.
Their ship was among about a dozen vessels that have been intercepted by U.S. vessels in the past 18 months while smuggling large numbers of illegal Chinese migrants to America.
The illegal migrants typically promise to pay international gangs as much as $30,000 each to take them to the United States, where they often end up repaying their debts by working as virtual indentured servants in criminal pursuits.
Relatively few of the illegal Chinese migrants are caught. Virtually all of those captured claim political asylum, which begins a lengthy legal process. As a result, few who have made it to the United States have been sent back -- none last year.
The 524 Chinese on the East Wood were taken to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a site chosen because it is not part of the United States and thus would not enable the illegal migrants to initiate asylum claims.
Their supposedly voluntary return by air to Xiamen, a city in Fujian Province, was arranged by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migrants after negotiations between the Washington and Beijing. The migrants organization spent almost $1.5 million to charter four planes to take them back.
Alfred Kottek, director of the migrants organization in Hong Kong, said last week that initial reports of the fines were "distressing."
"I think it's a case where in China, one hand does not know what the other hand is doing," he said.