Desperation breeds trade in human lives


THE ATROCITY of 58 asylum seekers suffocated in a truckload of tomatoes at the port of Dover, England, could happen here. It mixed globalization with despair.

X-rays have found smuggled humans in containers aboard ships at U.S. ports and on the road from Mexico. Last December, when the Coast Guard seized a tramp steamer with 249 Chinese migrants packed in the hold, the smugglers tried to sink the ship.

Cuban and Haitian boat people are dying at sea. Desperate Chinese migrants pay up to $30,000 each, and many are enslaved in sweatshops to pay the debt.

Destination countries are becoming less hospitable. The politics of immigration is getting ugly.

Britain, traditionally hospitable to refugees from persecution, had more than 75,000 applications for asylum last year, up from 49,000 in 1998. The authorities determine most to be economic migrants, ineligible for admission. Because many melt into the population, William Hague, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, proposes to lock them up until a determination is made.

President Clinton last year proclaimed the U.S. right to search vessels up to 24 nautical miles offshore, up from 12. Britain in April enacted a $3,000 fine on truck drivers caught trying to smuggle persons. With 4,000 trucks a day landing from ferries at Dover, the search is not easy. Australia last year added X-rays to the effort to stop Indonesian boats from smuggling Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants to its north coast.

In an overpopulated, shrinking world, the problem will only get worse as welcome mats are withdrawn and the temptation to flee poverty -- or to profit from those who try -- will increase.

Finding the right policies will vex every government of a prosperous country. But cooperating to stamp out the brutal smuggling trade is vital. There can be no controversy about that.

A start would be to capture those responsible for the 58 fatalities at Dover. That was mass murder in the commission of felonies, and must be treated as such.

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