It's when something goes wrong that Europeans become aware of the illegal immigrants trying to scratch a living in their midst. On a dank night in February 2004, anonymous calls to emergency services in Lancashire, England, gave the first hint of something that would expose the harsh life, and deaths, of a group of Chinese illegals. The calls warned that cockle pickers had been caught by the tide on England's northwestern seaboard, at Morecambe Bay. Last Friday, one caller, later identified as Lin Liang Ren, from Fuzhou city, China, was convicted of the manslaughter of 21 Chinese men and women. (Authorities believe another two died that night, but their bodies have never been found.)
Lin, the "gangmaster" of the cocklers, had misjudged the ferocious speed of the bay's tides. Each of the Chinese almost all of them from Fujian province, which has seen its natives emigrate all over the world for generations would have pledged some $30,000 to one of China's notorious snakehead gangs for the promise of a better life. Instead, they were sent to fill bags with cockles on a sandbank far from shore. Of the pittance they would have earned that night, much would have gone to repay their debts to the snakeheads.
Lin's trial revealed the culture of intimidation that surrounds illegal Chinese immigrants in Europe. Survivors of the tragedy gave testimony behind screens for fear of reprisals against their families back in China. The Rev. David Sieboth, whose church near the cocklers' base in Liverpool holds services in Mandarin and Cantonese, told Time recently that his parishioners are too scared to talk about their situation with him or, indeed, with each other.