Illegal immigrant endured hell riding among veggies

Nguyen Thi Mai (above) Phuc entered Singapore illegally to look for her missing husband. The couple have a five-year-old daughter.

SINGAPORE - Her husband had entered Singapore for illegal employment but she had not heard from him.

While Nguyen Thi Mai Phuc, 27, had been previously arrested by the police for overstaying and was repatriated, she decided to take the chance.

In late December last year, she hid in a lorry and entered Singapore.

On Sunday, she was sentenced to one year's jail for entering Singapore without the permission of the Controller of Immigration. In an interview at her lawyer's office on Tuesday, Nguyen told The New Paper that it had been several days from Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia and Thailand, and then to Malaysia and Singapore. During the Malaysia-Singapore leg, she and the fellow passenger, a Vietnamese man in his 20s, hid amidst many vegetables, she said.

The journey an illegal immigrant takes to get into Singapore is often a dark one. And the only light at the end of the tunnel may well turn out to be a policeman's torch.

But they still come.

To find menial jobs no one here wants, to work in the flesh trade or, in Nguyen Thi Mai Phuc's case, to find her husband.

She said she endured several days of hell hiding among vegetables, in a small cramped space, all the way from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, to Cambodia, then Thailand, before entering Malaysia.

From somewhere in Malaysia, she was transferred into a cargo container for the journey to her final destination - Singapore.

Not only did she risk dehydration and other heat injuries while hiding from immigration officers in enclosed spaces, there was also the danger of being left in the middle of nowhere, alone with no way to contact friends or loved ones, should her smugglers get cold feet.

Her incredibly dangerous and expensive journey did result in finding her husband, but it also got her a jail sentence.

Phuc, 27, was sentenced last Friday to a year in jail for entering Singapore illegally.

Despite the fact that she will be spending the next year in jail, Phuc emerged from court with a smile on her face.

The reason: The court allowed her to visit her husband, who is now serving time after being convicted of immigration and customs offences, for one last time in early September, before she starts serving her sentence.

In an interview last Tuesday at her lawyer's office, Phuc said that her husband, Tran Dinh Hieu, had left her and their five-year-old daughter to look for work in Singapore illegally.

She said they have been married for five years.

The two had lived on the same street in Ho Chi Minh City, and had known each other for eight years.

When she did not hear from him , she decided to make the journey here illegally to be reunited with him

This despite the fact that she had been arrested in Singapore in 2010 for remaining here unlawfully.

Before her repatriation on July 3 that year, she was served a written notification in Vietnamese which stated that should she want to enter or reside here in the future, she would have to get the permission of the Controller of Immigration.

Speaking in Vietnamese through an interpreter, Phuc claimed that she did not know if she could have applied for a visa, given her previous offence.

According to court documents, she had paid a man known as "Ah Tin" US$1,500 (S$1,900) to make the arrangements for her illegal journey in December last year .

Phuc said that throughout the journey, which took several days, she hid with a Vietnamese man in his 20s.

"I didn't talk much to him. (The driver) didn't want us to talk," she said.

She was told to hide among vegetables that looked like lettuce.

She said that her arrangement with Ah Tin was that she would pay if the trip was successful.

"I kept money on myself but didn't bring anything else," she said.

She said she had been introduced to Ah Tin by a friend. When asked if she was anxious about making the journey, she nodded vigorously.

Disoriented

She replied: "Very worried! But he told me he had brought over a lot of people before."

During the journey, she had not been aware of what time of the day it was, she said. The group would sometimes stop to eat and drink.

"I didn't know whether to trust my driver or not. I kept thinking about whether I could get through. I just wanted to see my husband," she said.

After travelling through Cambodia and Thailand, Phuc arrived in Malaysia and was told to switch vehicles.

Court documents state that on Dec 22 at about 7am, while in Malaysia, she was told by a trailer driver to hide inside the cargo container.

About two hours later, the trailer and the cargo container went through an unknown land checkpoint and she entered Singapore illegally the same day.

She was told to come out from the cargo container shortly afterwards.

After arriving here, she stayed with a friend of her husband's and also at hotels and chalets, said Phuc.

That was when she found out her husband had been jailed for entering Singapore illegally.

She then visited him in prison every fortnight.

She was arrested on April 1 by Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers at Goldkist Beach Resort in East Coast Park.

Her lawyer, Mr Choo Si Sen, said in mitigation that she had exhausted her savings by coming here.

"She committed the offences as she missed her husband and was concerned for his welfare," said Mr Choo.

He added that Phuc's husband is serving a 16-month jail term here.

The couple's daughter was also in court on Friday, having flown in from Vietnam with a relative.

Although Phuc was sentenced on Friday, her request for a two-week postponement of serving the sentence was granted as she wanted to make arrangements for her daughter's entering primary school in Vietnam.

She will start her jail term on Sept 3, the day after she gets to see her husband.

The maximum penalty for entering Singapore illegally is three years' jail and a $6,000 fine.Next page: Hiding methods

Sneaking across our borders

The Immigration and Customs Authority (ICA) arrested 2,580 immigration offenders last year, down from 3,110 in 2011 and 4,260 in 2010.

Of the offenders last year, 690 were illegal immigrants while the rest were overstayers. ICA attributed its success to increased enforcement and tightened security at checkpoints.

Here are some of the ways ICA officers have found illegal immigrants trying to sneak across our borders:

Curtain call

Last Tuesday afternoon, ICA officers conducting a check on a departing Malaysia-registered lorry at Tuas Checkpoint noticed that the driver's cabin was partitioned by a curtain. Drawing the curtain, they saw a woman curled up within the cramped space. The 54-year-old Malaysian driver and the 29-year-old Sri Lankan woman were arrested.

Basket case

In November last year, ICA officers inspected a departing Malaysian-registered lorry at Woodlands Checkpoint and found a man hiding between stacks of empty vegetable baskets in the lorry.

The 31-year-old Malaysian driver and the 28-year-old Bangladeshi national were arrested.

Rack and roll

In May 2010, ICA officers inspected a 40-foot trailer after noticing the flustered behaviour of its Malaysian driver and his passenger at the Woodlands Checkpoint.

The ropes holding down the canvas sheet of the trailer were secured very tightly, even though the trailer had no cargo. A thorough search of the vehicle turned up an illegal immigrant hiding in the storage rack of the trailer.

Under the floor

In April 2008, ICA officers searched a Malaysian-registered Honda Civic at the Woodlands Checkpoint and found a secret compartment under the rear seats of the car, in which two female Chinese nationals were hiding.

The duo, aged 31 and 33 years old, claimed to have each paid about 13,000 Chinese yuan (S$2,700) to enter Singapore illegally for work.

Tight squeeze

In February 2004, ICA officers at Woodlands Checkpoint noticed that the boot of a Malaysian-registered car appeared to be heavy despite the car having no passengers in the back.

They checked and found two men and two women squashed inside the boot. Another woman was found hiding under luggage on the floorboard.

The three women were Thais, one of the men was a Chinese national and the other was from Nepal.

The Malaysian driver, 26, said he was paid RM1,000 (S$390) to smuggle the five out of Singapore.Next page: Health risks, hunger and even death

Risking everything to sneak in

There are various means of coming in illegally, said Ms Braema Mathi, former Nominated MP and former president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

Overland, they may be hiding in vehicles such as buses, cars and lorries.

In some instances, they swim into Singapore.

They risk dehydration, hunger, muscle cramps, seizures, breathing difficulties and even death, she said.

What is more important is to understand the circumstances of these people, she said.

Social worker Jolovan Wham said they may pay a few thousand dollars for the opportunity to enter Singapore for work.

In order to pay off loans taken to make the journey, they usually end up in illegal jobs and are vulnerable to abuse. They may have to work long hours or suffer physical abuse, said Ms Mathi.

"The chances of getting caught in an everlasting cycle of debt are high."

Taking the risk

Even so, people such as Phuc and her husband take the risk.

"If a person feels stuck and can't move by his own aspirations - maybe it's not enough to eat, or to put a child through university - he will take a chance and move," she said.

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