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Immigration officials have begun hunting down illegal Chinese nationals who have come into T&T to “slave” in thriving casinos, Chinese supermarkets, restaurants and private members’ clubs. But while the hunt goes on inland, senior police officers lament that the coastlines of T&T remain open for human trafficking and smuggling of illegal cargo including drugs, guns and ammunition. The underworld trafficking ring is believed to be controlled by a branch of the Chinese Triad, a well-organised criminal gang which exploits poor Chinese immigrants. These Chinese workers, desperate for a shot at riches in T&T, come from poor areas of China, including Ningxia, Guizhou and Quinhai.
They work between 12 and 15 hours daily, labouring in Chinese business places and are given strict instructions not to speak or interact with local citizens, a security source disclosed. Although immigration officials have been visiting Chinese fast food outlets, requesting to see work permits and other documents, sources say many of the illegal Chinese immigrants remain hidden from the public glare, working in storerooms and kitchens. A senior police source, who requested anonymity, revealed that illegal immigrants were coming into T&T through several points in south Trinidad, namely at Puerto Grande, Erin; Buenos Ayres, Erin; Mahawal Trace, Santa Flora; Galfar Point, Cedros; Point Coco, Granville, Morne Diablo, Penal; and Quinam Beach, Siparia.
The immigrants are met by locals who use personal connections at the Immigration Department and Licensing Authority to provide official documents for the Chinese workers. In an interview, Minister in the Ministry of National Security Subhas Panday, who has been gathering intelligence on human trafficking in T&T, revealed that illegal immigrants were entering Trinidad through several points at Moruga, including La Lune, La Rufin, Gran Chemin, Canary and La Kable. “Many of the illegal immigrants come through the La Rufin River and they move upwards the island,” Panday said. Fisherman Paul Canoe (not his real name) denied seeing any Chinese workers in Moruga. “We more have illegal Venezuelans and Guyanese coming through here, but no Chinese,” he said.
But senior police detectives in the South Western Division said the influx of illegal immigrants was putting a further strain on manpower. A senior detective said it was near impossible to catch the traffickers who were always one step ahead of the police. “We know who are the ones involved in the trade, but they have a good network in the communities and before we reach on the spot, they are already tipped off,” the detective said. He added that all of the undesignated ports are heavily forested and it made better sense to fight the human traffickers at sea, rather than from land. “If Trinidad really wants to deal with the human trafficking, gun trade and drug problems, then all that needs to be done is to monitor every boat that leaves Trinidad and goes to South America,” he said.
“The radar at San Fernando Hill is supposed to pick up the boats...Our Coast Guard needs to intercept them on the sea, check their cargo, but for some strange reason, that is not being done. “Even the Coast Guard in Cedros are not doing that.” He said the Coast Guard must also monitor those fishing vessels which leave the ports without fishing nets. “These boats go with ten big containers of fuel and no fishing nets...What are they going there for?” the officer added. Another senior police source said the cancellation of the Offshore Patrol Vessels and the dismantling of the Blimp had further impeded their fight against human trafficking and crime. But Panday said it was the role of the Coast Guard to monitor the coasts.
He said the Coast Guard had enough equipment to do this and the Blimp and the OPV’s were not necessary. Panday said the Immigration Department was working assiduously to crack down on illegal workers in T&T. “They have been a lot of raids since the People’s Partnership came into power....A lot of Chinese have been detained and deported,” he said. “I don’t have the figures but since we came into power, close surveillance is taking place.” He added that apart from illegal immigration, there was internal human trafficking in T&T, whereby innocent country girls were being lured to Port-of-Spain to work in escort services.
No transparency says Penal chamber head
Meanwhile, president of the Penal Chamber of Industry and Commerce Lincoln Ragbirsingh said something was fundamentally wrong with the system whereby official documents were provided for Chinese workers. “It seems they have an unfair advantage...Locals have to wait for more than a year to get a passport, but the Chinese are coming in and they get in whatever they need in a couple of weeks,” he said.
“It is not fair...The authority has no transparency. “They need to find out who signs off these documents and take action.” Ragbirsingh said the Chinese nationals affected the economy because the Chinese businesses did not patronise the local businessman. “They are in their own world,” he said. “If they are using chemicals to clean, they use chemicals from China. Everything they use is from China. They use products that are not labelled properly.” Though he admitted to having no credible evidence of human trafficking, Ragbirsingh said the deplorable conditions under which some of the Chinese workers lived, as well as the rapid growth of Chinese businesses, made one suspicious.
Already more than 14 new casinos, supermarkets and restaurants have mushroomed along the SS Erin Road, Debe, with only a few offering employment opportunities for locals. Most of the businesses had Chinese workers, some of whom live in the business places, sleeping inside cupboards and on top of kitchen tables, according to health inspectors. But Panday said everything was above board under the People’s Partnership. “Under my watch as far as I concerned, no money ever pass...If I have the slightest indication that there is anything like that, the Government will look into it,” he said. A senior immigration official said the cost of getting citizenship was $840, the cost of acquiring residency was $1,000, while work permits cost $600 monthly.
$5,400 for work permits
But some of the Chinese immigrants say they paid as much as $6,000 for citizenship and $5,400 annually for work permits. Chinese restaurateurs also denied that the process of acquiring official documents was easy for them, although all of them said the fees paid were worthwhile. Chinese businesswoman, Sherry Zhou, who operates a restaurant at Golconda, said she had been in T&T for six years and still had not received resident status. “I like it here, people nice nice so I want to stay,” she said. “I pay $5, 500 to get my work permit...I pay this every year.”
Another Chinese restaurateur, of Barrackpore, named Jun Zheng, said he paid $4,000 per year for a work permit. Both said they were brought to Trinidad by relatives who later applied for the documents on their behalf. Another restaurateur, of Barrackpore, said he paid $5,400 for his permit. At Duncan Village, San Fernando, another Chinese businesswoman said for the past few months, immigration officials had been constantly coming to their businessplace looking for documents. She added that she had been operating a business for the past eight years and had obtained her citizenship. She paid $6,000 for her citizenship papers. She said: “I was lucky. I had two children here and I gave up China. I live here now.” She said the Chinese had contributed positively to T&T and deserved their opportunities. (See Page A10)