On a rain-drenched Monday morning three years ago, half a dozen people gathered at a ramen-noodle fast food outlet inside the gigantic Terminal 1 building of the Hong Kong International Airport.
They were there to smuggle three Chinese migrants to Canada.
The plot would involve an intricate staging with six people simultaneously checking in for flights to Vancouver and Fujian province in China. Details about the plan have only recently emerged in court cases which ended this spring, opening a window into how undocumented Chinese migrants are using Hong Kong as a staging point to illegally enter Canada, the United States, Europe or Australia.
The situation became famous in 2010, when a Chinese man managed to board an Air Canada flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver wearing a silicone mask that made him look like an elderly Caucasian passenger.
But the masked man was far from being unique.
In the last four years, 117 Chinese travellers claimed refugee status after landing at Vancouver International Airport, while another 228 Chinese travellers did the same at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
Furthermore, the Canada Border Service Agency says that during that same period, another 1,452 Chinese citizens were denied entry at various border points and voluntarily returned to their original destinations.
Hong Kong officials acknowledge that the territory’s status as a transport hub makes it an attractive springboard for human smugglers.
“Hong Kong International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world with extensive air connection to about 160 destinations,” a spokesman for the territory’s Immigration Department told the Globe and Mail in an e-mail.
“For obvious reasons, human smugglers would take advantage of the transport convenience of international air hubs.”
Tribunal decisions here show that the Chinese migrants say they pay between $27,000 and $46,000 to smuggling kingpins, known as snakeheads, to get them to Canada.
They board Canada-bound flights, posing as travellers from South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia or Japan, countries less likely to raise the suspicions of immigration officials or airline staff checking their papers.
Typically, they come from Fujian province in southern China and often claimed to be persecuted because they are members of a Christian church. For some, Canada is just another staging point to their ultimate goal, entering the United States.
The plot revealed in Hong Kong court this spring shows the complexity of one such smuggling operation.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
The mastermind: Chan Ka-bo – Described in court as a kingpin who had previously attempted to smuggle Chinese mainlanders to Canada. Also goes by the name Adidas.
The boarding-pass swapper: Mak Miu – A 35-year-old former employee in a transportation company. Married and a father of two girls. He would be paid $4,000 HKD (About $515) for his role.
The escort: Christopher Leung Ho-yan – A 45-year-old casual worker in the same company, who earned approximately $7,000 each month. He remitted a portion of that back to the Mainland to support his wife and nine-year-old son. He would be paid $15,000 HKD (about $1,900).
Mr. Miu was drawn into the plot shortly after the Chinese New Year in March, 2009, when he and Mr. Leung met for supper at a restaurant in Shenzhen, the booming industrial city across the border from Hong Kong.
Mr. Leung was already involved that month in a plot with Chan Ka-bo, whom they called Ah Bo, to smuggle a Chinese migrant to Canada on Cathay Pacific’s daily flight to Vancouver.
Mr. Miu was jobless and needed money. Mr. Leung said he could introduced him to Ah Bo.
Unlike Chinese citizens, Mr. Miu and Mr. Leung have Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports and don’t need a visa to enter Canada.
Mr. Leung explained that the fraud required someone like Mr. Miu to check into an international flight to Canada. At the same time, a would-be migrant would get into the airport’s restricted departure area by checking into a local flight to China.
However, Mr. Miu’s wouldn’t go to Vancouver. His boarding pass would be handed to the Chinese migrant, who would use it along with a forged HKSAR passport in Mr. Miu’s name to get onto the Canada-bound flight.
Mr. Leung would also check in to the flight and, unlike Mr. Miu, would travel to Canada.
On arrival in Vancouver, the Chinese migrant would surrender to Canadian authorities and claim refugee status.
Meanwhile, Mr. Leung would collect Mr. Miu’s luggage, destroy the airline tags, enter Canada and stay a few days before returning to Hong Kong.