Little has been publicly revealed about who the victims were, and how and why they came to be transported across the world in what is believed to be a refrigerated truck.
A murder investigation has been launched, the Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for those involved in the deaths to be “hunted down and brought to justice.”
But one question has perplexed many: why would citizens from the world’s second-biggest economy travel — either voluntarily or under duress — to the UK in such a way?
Most of these, almost 2.5 million, reside in the US, while there are 712,000 in Canada and 473,000 in Australia.
Who is migrating?
There is an assumption that migrants are often the poorest in society, seeking low-skilled employment or fleeing from terror. But this is not always true, especially for Chinese migrants.
“There’s a huge range of migration from China, so you have everything from low-skilled, middle-skilled to the highly-skilled,” Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, an associate director of MPI’s International program, told CNN.
Typically, migrants traveling to Europe or the US are not the “poorest of the poor,” she said, because they require significant resources to move, whether they are migrating legally or illegally.
“If you’re traveling through regular channels you need to think about passports, visa fees,” she said.
“If you’re traveling through irregular channels, smugglers often exact quite high fees and, more than that, it’s about know-how and being aware of opportunities, and this necessitates a quite sophisticated network of people aboard. Often, it’s the household who’ve had people move abroad that are likely to move.”
Migration patterns of the wealthy
Chinese migration has many forms. Where that country’s skilled citizens choose to live differs from their lower-skilled compatriots, experts say.
“You have migration pathways for very skilled people in academia, in the science and technology sectors that might take them to the United States and other high-income countries,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “And you may have pathways for construction in Africa or eastern Europe. They are very different numbers.”
Economist Christian Dustmann, from the London-based Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM), said many Chinese students in the UK are from wealthy families. “They are willing to pay high fees and live in expensive cities like London,” he told CNN.
Italy’s ‘shadow’ economy
But Dustmann added the number of illegal Chinese migrants in the UK is still small compared to those in Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Italy, mainly because it is more difficult to enter the UK.
“Of course, there are illegal immigrants from China in all European countries,” he said.
“Italy is one of the big destinations. They have felled the textile industry in Italy where they are willing to work at low wages. Italy has a large shadow economy where you find many migrants from China and the Middle East.”
An economic boom that led to inequality
In China, vast migration from rural to urban areas felled the economic boom, while pension reforms also helped move Chinese citizens out of poverty. “China has developed dramatically, poverty has decreased dramatically, the economic circumstances have improved — whether that will continue at that pace in that future is questionable,” Dustmann said. “Everything I’ve seen over the past years was actually positive, but that doesn’t mean that there were some groups who may have suffered more than others.”
Banulescu-Bogdan said that in becoming wealthier, China became a less equal society. “The opportunities within a country as large as China are not equally distributed,” she said. “You do have the high end of the spectrum, but you also have people in more desperate circumstances.”
Trafficking and smuggling
According to the Migration Policy Institute, Chinese citizens have migrated for many reasons over the years, including political repression, the one-child policy and a desire to study abroad.
But the methods to leave can vary significantly. “The opportunities that are available are not available equally for all citizens and this is also where smuggling and trafficking comes in, particularly with human trafficking,” Banulescu-Bogdan said.
“We don’t know yet if this was a smuggling operation gone wrong, but it’s important to understand that there’s no white line between the two.
“A young man who wants to find employment opportunity aboard might, for instance, engage the service of a smuggler from point A to B but, along the way, the relationship could turn more coercive.
“A criminal syndicate could attract more money from these people, or there could be multiple legs getting from China to the UK and it’s not one group, the migrant get handed off. It’s possible some of the drivers along the way didn’t know they were carrying human cargo. There’s a very wide range in terms of the criminality behind these movements.”