The tragic news that 39 people were found dead in a container in Essex on October 23 is a reminder that smuggling of illegal immigrants from the Continent into the UK still continues. The tragedy brought to mind events from 25 years ago, when I was on an assignment in the UK and Brussels to track the unscrupulous gangs who were behind such human trafficking using containers.
The year was 1995. I had never heard of The Cook Report and didn’t know that it was an investigative television programme lapped up by millions in the UK. Broadcast by Central Television, part of the Independent Television (ITN) network, a Birmingham-based TV news channel, it was presented by Roger Cook, a burly Australian whose intrepid and often brash ways stirred passions but drew many viewers to his half-hour capsule. Hard-hitting and punchy, Cook’s emphasis was on first-hand reports, often involving impersonations and secret filming that culminated in Cook dramatically confronting the ‘suspect’ with the evidence, all recorded on film. Unsurprisingly, he had been socked, threatened and beaten by the targets of his programme.
It was with this cheerful account of the TV show that Harinder Baweja, then with India Today magazine, and I, both on a British Foreign Office scholarship (the Chevening Young Journalists Fellowship) in the UK, were assigned to ITN to assist in a story that The Cook Report was doing on illegal immigration into the UK from the Continent. Most of these immigrants were Asian, but a fair number were from Eastern Europe as well. The immigrants were smuggled in on huge container-trailers through Dover, on the English Coast. The trailers had to have British drivers and number plates. With thousands of trucks going back and forth every day, the chances of being stopped were slim.
The programme’s researchers had got wind of one such network in Birmingham involving an Anglo-Caribbean and an Indian. ITN planted two men posing as drivers who were willing to drive a truck through the border. The idea was to set up a truck with secret cameras to film the whole operation and show up the British authorities. And also expose the human trade that was going on undetected. The drivers themselves were offered close to £6,000 each while the immigrants had to cough up a cool £1,800–2,000 to be smuggled through. With hundreds being smuggled through, it was good business alright for the racketeers. Never mind that the poor immigrants were ripped off to get to what they thought was paradise.
Adventure in Brussels
The Cook Report was sparing no pounds to get things right. It had hired a mammoth trailer that its decoy drivers would take through for the racketeers. The truck was rigged with secret cameras and microphones and monitors upfront for the drivers to know what was going on inside. As most of the immigrants were either Pakistani or Indians, that’s where Harinder and I came in. We were to pose as immigrants ourselves, get on board this rigged truck and interview the others. It would then be on film. The idea was to get more dope on the network itself, which extended all the way back to Pakistan and India. Sounded simple enough. Little did we know what we were stumbling on to.
With hundreds being smuggled through, the racketeers made good business, ripping off the poor immigrants to get them to what they thought was paradise.
So we took off for Brussels, Belgium, where most of the immigrants were massed together before being spirited across. The capital of the European Union looked deceptively calm. There were scores of Pakistanis and Indians in the city (mostly from Punjab and Kashmir) who had sought and been granted political asylum. Several manage night shops that are open till late, which the Belgians appreciate. So, it was a little galling to find that, having found a safe haven, many refugees were making a business of sending their hapless brethren across to the UK, after ripping them off for a couple of thousand quid.
In the case of the network ITN had wired into, it was a Belgian kingpin who was laughing all the way to the bank.
We led a double life the week we were in Brussels. One was us as us, in a cushy hotel. Once outside, we were down-at-heel immigrants wanting to get across to the UK, where we had relatives who would give us succour and a job. Harinder was clad in Indian clothes to make it look authentic. We went around the night shops, most of them manned by Pakistanis, with our sob story, which got more colourful as it developed.
Convincing sob story
I was the South Indian who had moved from Madras to a broker’s office in Rajendra Place, Delhi, where Harinder, a Punjabi, was a typist. We got married despite parental opposition and had to run away from home to escape the harassment. Our friend in the UK had asked us to come over and had promised us jobs. Our visa applications were rejected so we decided to smuggle ourselves through.
We created an imaginary agent called Chadha, a Poland-based ruthless Punjabi who had smuggled us across the Continent from Romania, where we had landed. And in Brussels, he ripped us off most of our money and our passports as well. He had vanished after having put us in a hotel and promising to come back after making arrangements to get us through to England.
Our sob story evidently went down well. In Brussels, just by being Indian, it was easy to meet a number of so-called agents who were willing to smuggle one through. The method was either be smuggled across in a trailer or with a false passport. To complete the subterfuge, I had a Paper Mate pen, actually a microphone, clipped casually in my shirt pocket, with a tiny tape recorder tucked away in my jacket to record conversations.
We didn’t think things would happen so fast. Before we knew it, through references and phone numbers, we were talking to agents who were more than eager to take us across for the princely fee of £1,800, as long as they saw the colour of our money. The modus operandi was simple — once the agent got a confirmation from somebody in the UK who was willing to cough up that hefty sum, the agent shoved the immigrants into a safe house to make sure they didn’t run away. And, once across, the UK friend had to come to a similar safe house, cough up the money and take custody of the immigrant. If the contact didn’t cough up the money, the agents rat on the hapless immigrant, who would eventually be deported.
The sting operation
Our best bet was an Antwerp agent called Tusavar Shah, who nonchalantly told us that he could easily get us through to the UK. We raced to Antwerp from Brussels in a car The Cook Report’s researcher, Sylvia Jones, hired. Earlier in the day, a technician, David, drove in from Birmingham (where Central TV is based) right through the night to rig me up. David taped a microphone to my chest, muttering under his breath about how tape wouldn’t stick on hairy chests. The wire ran through my shirt and I concealed the batteries in the pocket of my jeans.
There was more equipment. David had a leather bag, so beat-up and frayed one wouldn’t give it a second glance. One pocket concealed a camera, the size of a toothpaste tube with the lens fitted to a tiny hole, so small you couldn’t get the glint of the lens even if you had your nose six inches from the bag. The central pocket had a small Sony monitor and a recorder with a one-hour tape (this was pre-digital era) and the third pocket held batteries for the recorder. There was a small transmitter in the recorder and, sitting in the car, David could hear our conversation.
Armed with this equipment, Harinder called Shah from the car phone once we got to Antwerp, saying we had come by train from Brussels. We took a cab to his apartment. Just before we entered, I switched on the recorder and we, heart in mouth, went upstairs. Sylvia and David, parked outside as innocent bystanders, said I only had to yell into the microphone if the going got hot. Once we were inside, we had the most explosive conversation with Shah.
With my Hindi being suspect, Harinder did most of the talking, Shah was on the floor sitting on a mattress, and it was ideal for me to place the leather bag on my knee and face the camera towards him. Shah said he was from PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) and had sought asylum in Brussels a couple of years ago. Of course, he was most willing to take us across as long as our friend in the UK coughed up the money. Moved by our tale of woe, he even offered us a discount on the fee of £1,800 each to get us across.
Shah was at his reassuring best and said we would not get stopped in the truck. Smelling a good catch in us, he even offered to have us stay with him. Shah looked lethal, all right. If he had discovered that I had a secret camera, he would very likely have slit both our throats right there. He fed us well with some dry fruits. There were a few tense moments when he insisted on knowing where we were staying in Brussels. We goofed as we didn’t do our homework on hotel tariffs and he was surprised we got a hotel in Brussels so cheap. However, we managed to get away unscalped.
Once out, feeling most relieved, we scrammed to the station in a cab, where we were to meet Sylvia and David in their car. After that tense hour, I just had to head for the loo in a pub. When I came out, David was grinning broadly. “I heard you,” he said. I had forgotten to switch off the microphone and transmitter!
With more taped phone conversations and meetings, we unearthed the leads to a fairly well-entrenched racket. There was Avtar Singh Rana from Punjab who had assured us that as Indian brethren he would ensure that we got across on false passports (remember, ‘Chadha’ had made away with ours!). Sylvia was keen that we get on to a container which Shah would arrange and go right through to the UK and ITN would pay Shah’s agent the money for our eventual release. However, we were reluctant to do that as we were on the British government’s FCO scholarship and our visas to Belgium were almost expiring and we would then have really become illegal immigrants!
Later, following up our leads, ITN had a Pakistani engineer, a British citizen, get in touch with Shah at Antwerp. With his own sob story, a friend and he were smuggled across on a truck, quite similar to the one that ITN had fitted out with cameras et al and which we were to be on (the operation that fizzled out). Tariq, the Pakistani, carried a secret camera with him, but unfortunately the batteries ran out so he did not get any footage of the actual crossing in the truck. But he was holed up in the truck for 22 hours with dozens of other immigrants without any food or water. Central TV set up a contact in the UK and coughed up £2,000 for his release from the agents.
Telecast to millions of viewers
Cook’s programme on the immigrants was telecast on May 23, 1995, in the UK on the ITN network. Eight-and-a-half million viewers watched it in the UK. Despite my apprehensions about it being a rabidly anti-immigrant programme that would say ‘these guys are coming in and taking away our jobs’ it was fairly sympathetic to the immigrants who came in. It talked about their exploitation in the UK and the sweatshops they ended up in, constantly in fear of being deported. Cook, in typical fashion, confronted the Anglo-Caribbean and the Indian in Birmingham on film. The former reacted fairly coolly and said he would get back to Cook about the evidence he had (they had secretly filmed the two when they were negotiating with the two drivers ITN had set up). The Indian reacted violently and threatened that he would fix Cook.
Some of the secret footage I had taken of Tusavar Shah was shown in the programme. But Belgian law, funnily enough, unlike the English, did not allow the police to cooperate with the media or take cognisance of media reports. I never got to know if they had launched investigations against the likes of Tusavar Shah. For me, after skirting with danger and leading a double identity in Brussels, it was a relief to get ‘back home’ to London and continue with my scholarship programme. Tusavar Shah claimed he had a long hand. He had even offered to fix our imaginary Chadha in Poland to get our money back. If he’s still around in the immigrant-smuggling business, I sure hope his long hand doesn’t extend to India!
© The Hindu BusinessLine; the writer is a Senior Associate Editor with the newspaper.