- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2000

SEATTLE Three Chinese stowaways were found dead this week in a cargo container that arrived aboard a ship from Hong Kong the first known deaths in what has suddenly become one of the busiest methods of smuggling immigrants into the United States.

Crammed into 40-foot, canvas-topped corrugated-metal boxes, the stowaways try to survive on bottled water and little food for the two-week Pacific voyage.

Immigration officers have stepped up efforts to catch the immigrants and the smugglers they pay up to $50,000 to make the trip, but the boxes keep coming.

"Until now, the prices migrants have paid for illegal passage to the United States have been high in terms of dollars," said Bob Coleman, acting director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Seattle, "but in a situation like this, where lives are lost, the cost is unfathomable."

On Monday, federal officials boarded Cape May, a Japanese-owned freighter that left Hong Kong for Seattle on Dec. 27, and found three dead Chinese and 15 others in threadbare clothes and bare feet. All needed medical care, and seven remained hospitalized yesterday. The cause of death was not immediately released.

Yesterday morning, 19 more immigrants, all in relatively good health, were found in a container from a ship that likewise docked in Hong Kong before arriving here.

They will be taken to a federal detention center.

The latest illegal immigrants arrived in Seattle three days after the United States repatriated 246 stowaways to China.

In response to the growing problem, Hong Kong officials yesterday announced measures to crack down on human smuggling.

[Hong Kong Customs Senior Superintendent Ronald Au told a news conference yesterday that shipping companies now must report "soft-top" canvas containers for inspection before export, Reuters news agency reported.

["Shipping companies and container terminal operators will try to strengthen the detection of illegal emigrants inside their containers by means of modern technology, namely [carbon dioxide] detectors," Mr. Au said.]

INS spokeswoman Irene Mortensen said conditions inside the container from the Cape May were deplorable. People barely had enough room to lie down, and had only the bedding and survival gear they brought with them.

Food consisted of slowly rotting vegetables and crackers. The only toilet was a bucket; the only ventilation came from holes cut in the canvas roof.

For anywhere from three to seven days, the 15 survivors, many of them seasick, lay next to the bodies of the dead.

Last month, authorities in Long Beach, Calif., arrested 30 illegal immigrants from China after they crossed the Pacific in cargo containers.

Their travel conditions were better than those of the group caught in Seattle. The containers had food, water, battery-powered lights, portable potties, cell phones and ladders for climbing out.

For years, Chinese smugglers called "snakeheads" have been bringing illegal immigrants to this country aboard ships to both coasts and through Canada. But the use of the sealed containers is a relatively new twist, and Monday's deaths were the first known to have occurred through that method.

Most West Coast ports handle freight almost exclusively in containers. The ports move tens of thousands of containers each year the largest ships carry 5,000 or more and there is no telling from the outside which of the boxes might hold people.

"There's certainly a growing sophistication on the part of smugglers," said David Bachman, chairman of the University of Washington's China studies program. "I would expect that for each container caught, there must be some multiple that are getting through."

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