'Fujianese want to bury victims, but fear arrest'

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For Zhang Gu, the prospect of being sent home to his coastal township in the south-east of China fills him with trepidation.

For Zhang Gu, the prospect of being sent home to his coastal township in the south-east of China fills him with trepidation.

Not only does he fear the wrath of the Chinese authorities for bringing shame on the country by claiming asylum overseas, he also faces violent retribution from the "Snakehead" trafficking gang which brought him to Britain.

Zhang Gu, 25, paid around £15,000 to the smugglers to be ferried and chaperoned over 6,000 miles from his home in Changle, in the province of Fujian, in July 1997.

Nearly three years later, he is still in this country and has found work in a Chinese restaurant to pay off part of his debt.

But Zhang Gu's refugee status is still unsettled and he is one of 2,000 Fujianese asylum-seekers now on the books of the London lawyer Wah-Piow Tan.

Yesterday Mr Tan was inundated with calls from friends and relatives of the 58 dead Fujianese, anxious to identify the bodies of their loved ones. But many of them are themselves illegal immigrants and are fearful of arrest.

Mr Tan said he had asked the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, for an amnesty to protect relatives from being deported. "We have faxed Mr Straw, hoping for a meeting to sort out some sort of assurance so that people can feel more comfortable about coming forward," he said. Under Chinese tradition, the families of the victims would want the bodies sent home for burial in Fujian, he said. Most are likely to be Buddhist, although the region has a small Catholic minority.

Mr Tan said: "The relatives in China are not going to rush forward to speak to the public security bureau if their children have left the country illegally."

The lawyer said that China protected its international reputation by taking a hard line on illegal immigration, with traffickers facing the death penalty. Nevertheless, China is now rivalled only by Sri Lanka as the major source country for people seeking asylum in Britain.

In London's Chinatown, the growing number of jobless illegal immigrants is becoming an increasing source of anger for the established Chinese community.

Lured by the promise of well-paid employment as waiters and cooks, many have instead found themselves shunned by Chinese bosses who are wary of fines of up to £5,000 for employing illegal immigrants.

Britain's Chinese community is overwhelmingly from Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, with a minority from mainland China and Taiwan who speak Mandarin.

The new immigrants are almost all from the townships of Changle and Fuqing, in the province of Fujian in south-east China, and mostly speak in their own regional dialect. Some can communicate in Mandarin but almost none speak English, giving them no prospect of work in the wider community. So they gather in groups along Chinatown's Gerrard Street and outside the nearby Chinese pavilion building.

Stephen Yiu, a journalist on the Chinatown-based Sin Tao newspaper, said: "It sets a poor image for a tourist area like Chinatown. They have become a nuisance and an eyesore for the business people. They just hang around on the streets with nothing to do. Their appearance is not desirable and they are looked down upon as second-class citizens by the first generation of Chinese immigrants."

Desperate for money, some of the Fujianese have taken to providing on-street massage to passing tourists for £5 a time. Others have resorted to facilitating illegal immigration themselves, by forming their own Snakehead gangs. Without the power and influence of the larger China-based syndicates, they have resorted to extreme violence to get paid, including kidnap and torture. Last year, 19 Chinese men and women were jailed in Britain for their involvement in such rackets. They face possible execution on being returned to China at the end of their sentences.

Mr Yiu said the illegal immigrants carried out crimes within the Chinese community because of their lack of English and fear of being deported if caught by the authorities.

Chinese community leaders have complained to the Home Secretary and Scotland Yard about the growing presence of illegal immigrants in Chinatown and in other British cities with large Chinese populations.

The Fujianese who do manage to find work are often employed in take-aways and restaurants at below the minimum wage or at half the earnings of Cantonese staff.

The Chinese illegal immigrants that come to the attention of the authorities are applying for asylum at the rate of around 500 a month.

Amnesty International said it had no specific evidence of persecution in Fujian province, although it has fiercely criticised the Chinese authorities for general abuses of the human rights of religious and political minorities.

Derry Hugh-Roberts, of the Refugee Legal Centre, in London, said several Fujianese clients had been granted refugee status on appeal, after claiming asylum from political persecution or opposing Chinese laws limiting the numbers of children per family. One was a nurse who had opposed the policy of compulsory abortion.