When the call came to emergency services, all the operator could decipher over the foreign voices howling in the background was a man yelling, "Sinking water, sinking water!" The operator implored the man to pass the phone to an English speaker, but he just kept shouting those two words before the line cut out.
The caller's identity remains unknown, but his fate and that of 22 of his countrymen who died on that Feb. 5 night in 2004 was a reminder of the dangers facing illegal immigrants in Britain. Like many other Chinese migrants who find their way to northern England, those who died had found shift work as cockle pickers on the mudflats of Morecambe Bay. It was a cruel existence of grueling hours, perilous tides and pathetic pay, but one that largely escaped the notice of authorities and citizens.
All that changed with the night's events. It was already late by the time the 35 illegal workers trudged out onto the mudflats for their shift, armed with fishing permits gained with false documentation. They could not read the signs warning them of the tides, and neither they nor their gang boss heeded locals' advice not to venture too far. Eventually 11 workers headed back to escape the icy wind and rain. By 10 p.m., 21 had drowned and two were missing, never to be found. Only one man, Li Hua, was rescued from the inky water that night, plucked from a rocky outcrop some 1,000 m from the shore.
Li's evidence, and that of other survivors, proved crucial in sentencing Lin Liang Ren, 29, to 14 years in prison on 21 counts of manslaughter. Lin had fled the scene and later attempted to finger one of the dead men as responsible while he slipped away with a girlfriend and a cousin. But Li Hua revealed the underworld of Lin Liang Ren's network in Liverpool, from where the cockle pickers would travel by minibus each day.
Liverpool is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, and locals said at first that they were unaware of Lin Liang Ren's activities though some had noticed the blue overalls and weird fishing nets dumped in the garbage outside a rundown house in one inner-city neighborhood. He had allocated new illegals to his various properties, trucking them to the Morecambe mudflats and profiting from their labor while they earned less than a few dollars per day. In the tight-lipped Liverpool Chinese community, such business deals had gone unquestioned.
In the wake of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, the British government has introduced new regulations to govern the gangmasters' trade. But in local Chinese communities, only a handful of leaders seem prepared to acknowledge the danger of the immigration racket. As Edward Murphy, the director of a refugee support charity in Liverpool explained, "There are four reasons people don't want to mess with these gangs: your limbs." One survivor of the cockle picker tragedy, Lin Guo, gave evidence from behind a screen in the courtroom as his family in China, who live in the same village as Lin Liang Ren's relatives, had already been threatened and his father beaten. Perhaps Little Lin, on the coast of China, dreaming of a restaurant in Cambridge, is right after all; there are ways in which Fujian and Britain are closer to each other than you might think.