The plight of nearly 600 desperate Chinese migrants who arrived on BC’s coast dominated the headlines in the summer of 1999. The Black Dragon ship gained notoriety after the crew dumped a cargo of Fujian migrants on the Queen Charlotte Islands then tried to outrace the Coast Guard out of Canadian waters to avoid capture (photo by Shayne Morrow, courtesy Alberni Valley Times).

The snakehead, a predator fish native to China, is the nickname for heads of international human smuggling rings that began operation in the early 1990s. Their victims come mostly from China's coastal province of Fujian with hopes of reaching North America or Europe. These Chinese are not necessarily fleeing poverty but rather, are lured by dreams of opportunity, tales of higher paying jobs and quicker prosperity. The snakeheads often finance the exorbitant fees—often tens of thousands of dollars—for forged documents and smuggled passage. The snakeheads often contract the migrants out as labourers, withholding their wages until debts are repaid, sometimes with exorbitant interest charges.

Ruthless snakeheads have imperilled the lives of their human cargo. Press reports abound of migrants crammed into sealed containers or trucks and found dead of asphyxiation, starvation or dehydration, or exposure. Those arriving in Canada are often not at journey's end; the ultimate destination is typically the United States, especially New York, where an illegal immigrant might more easily live unnoticed.

In 2003, American authorities arrested a Canadian named Cheng Chui Ping, nicknamed Big Sister Ping, and believed to have been engaged in human smuggling since 1984. Charged with conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens into the United States, hostage taking and money laundering, she was linked to at least 20 deaths, including women and children that she put on an inflatable raft to cross the Niagara River from Ontario to the state of New York. The raft capsized and four died.

Learn more:
Chinese Human Smuggling Organizations: Families, Social Networks, and Cultural Imperatives