Police today arrested the suspected captain of a migrant boat which capsized in the Channel killing a family of five – but he insisted he was simply another passenger trying to reach the UK for a better life.
The unidentified 37-year-old Iranian appeared in court this morning and was placed under investigation for aiding illegal immigration, manslaughter, endangering human life and association with a criminal gang.
He was among 15 survivors of the tragedy in which construction worker Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, his wife Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, along with Anita, nine, and Armin, six, drowned off the coast of Dunkirk on Tuesday.
Their toddler son, Artin, is yet to be found and searches have been called off. Two men are also missing, the Dunkirk prosecutor confirmed yesterday.
The suspected driver appeared in a closed court session today at a court in Dunkirk before an examining magistrate.
The man told the court he was simply one of the migrants attempting to cross the Channel in rough seas, but other survivors told police he had been captaining the vessel as part of a people smuggling operation.
Fellow migrants described seeing a people smuggler forcing people to board the flimsy boat amid perilous conditions, including winds of up to 47mph. The Iran-Nejad family are drowned in the cabin when it capsized.
Four members of a Kurdish-Iranian family drowned while trying to cross the Channel. Their 15-month-old toddler, Artin, (pictured) is yet to be found
Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, with his missing son, Artin, (left) and his wife, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, (right). The family are pictured in a French migrant camp hours before attempting the perilous crossing on Tuesday
The bodies of Armin, six, and Anita, nine, were also recovered from the Channel near Dunkirk by French coastguard
The family had left Iran on August 7 to travel to Turkey, before taking a ferry to Italy and driving to France almost a month ago, according to a friend who remained in Calais. Pictured is the missing toddler, Artin
Sebastien Piève, the Dunkirk prosecutor, told MailOnline: ‘A male person born in Iran 1983 appeared in court today before an Examining magistrate.
‘Following interviews with survivors of Tuesday’s tragedy it emerged that this person was said to be driving the boat which capsized off Loon Plage .
‘The suspect was one of 15 people picked up following the capsizing of the boat. One of these people is still in hospital suffering from serious injuries .
‘The man described himself as a simple migrant attempting to reach the UK but investigators believe that he was involved in this senseless transport of migrants.
France is ‘finally ready to nail the traffickers’
By David Barrett Home Affairs Correspondent for the Daily Mail
France has signalled it will finally permit a crackdown on people traffickers after the Channel tragedy.
British Government sources said the deaths on Tuesday had served as a ‘wake-up call’ to Emmanuel Macron’s administration.
After months of an apparent impasse between Home Secretary Priti Patel and her French counterpart Gerald Darmanin, the disaster is likely to drive a determined effort to stop crossings at their source in northern France, it is understood.
‘The French response has changed somewhat since the tragedy,’ a UK Government source said. ‘Until now they have been somewhat reluctant to properly deal with this.
‘This very upsetting incident is driving a shift in that position.’
Conversations between the two countries through diplomatic channels had revealed a ‘real change of heart and a change of tone’ by the French, it is understood.
There is also likely to be much closer Anglo-French co-operation to trace the people smugglers who placed the 20 migrants aboard an unfit vessel in perilous conditions, the source continued.
‘There is a real determination to nail these b******s for this,’ he said.
Talks about cracking down on illegal migrant routes began in earnest between the two countries in April but there has been little progress.
A much-heralded agreement signed in September last year was expected to virtually eradicate illegal crossings.
But numbers so far this year have soared to more than 7,500, quadruple the total for the whole of 2019.
‘The migrants rescued and questioned also describe him as “being close”to the smugglers who organised the trip.‘
Mr Pieve said that the survivors had all been questioned by the Police de l’Air et des Frontieres at Coquelles, near Calais.
He added: ‘Investigations are continuing to identify and arrest other members of the people smuggling gang responsible for this tragedy.’
Relatives of Rasoul Iran-Nejad’s family are facing a bill of more than £90,000 to bring their bodies back to Iran, it emerged yesterday.
A cousin of Mr Iran-Nejad, who asked not to be named, said today his relatives were ‘all devastated’ as he begged for the French government to help with the cost of repatriating the bodies. ‘No-one’s been in touch with us about how or if they will be returned,’ he said.
The cousin said Mr Iran-Nejad was the eldest of five brothers who still live in Iran, along with his parents. He added: ‘They lived a not very well-off life. They were always short of money. His only hope of coming to the UK was for a better future for the children.
‘It definitely was a shock, we are all devastated. The family were absolutely lovely, they were fun to be around, they were extremely kind [and] so were the kids.’
Farhad Shekari, 28, a migrant who knew the family, described how he saw a people smuggling trying to force people onto the boat
‘[He] was forcing people to get on the boat. He was saying go, go, go even though not everyone had life jackets,’ Mr Shekari told The Times. ‘The smugglers are only interested in one thing and that is money.’
In the Dunkirk woods where the Iran-Nejads spent their final days, distraught friends said the family had agonised over making the crossing just hours before the disaster – the worst in the Channel during the migrant crisis.
Others also described how the family, from the city of Sandasht in north-west Iran, were repeatedly warned that the journey was too dangerous but pressed ahead after finding themselves living in squalid conditions in France.
The family were sleeping in a two-man tent in a makeshift camp in the Puythouck woods that is home to at least 200 immigrants, mainly from Iraq and Iran. A pair of shoes, a frying pan and a toy were outside the tent.
A series of text messages, thought to have been sent by Ms Mohammad Panahi on Saturday includes one that says the family ‘have no choice’ but to cross the Channel.
Another message says: ‘If we want to go with a lorry we might need more money that we don’t have,’ the BBC reports. A third says: ‘I have a thousand sorrows in my heart and now that I have left Iran I would like to forget my past.’
Mr Iran-Nejad (left) and his wife, Shiva, (right) with two rescue workers in a French migrant camp. The children are seen from left to right: Artin, Anita and Armin
Speaking yesterday, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the deaths were ‘an ultimate tragedy’ and one that ‘could have been avoided’.
She added: ‘We are working with our counterparts in France, in fact I am working with the French interior minister and with the National Crime Agency and many others, to ensure that we go after the people traffickers and the people smugglers.’
However, Ms Patel declined to answer whether the Government would consider allowing migrants to claim UK asylum from Calais, seen by some as a way of removing the need to cross the Channel.
The family’s perilous route from Iran: Smuggled by boat, truck and two failed crossings from France by train – as two migrants remain missing
The Iran-Nejad family left West Azerbaijan Province in Iran on August 7 to travel to Turkey and on to Greece, where they were arrested.
They were deported back to Turkey after they were arrested, strip-searched and tear-gassed by Greek police, Iranian Kurds have revealed.
One migrant who travelled with them from Turkey back to mainland Europe claimed that they had ‘lost all their belongings’ and were given money to ‘buy new clothes’ after their deportation from Greece.
The migrant, who asked not to be identified, said he had taken pity on them when he met them in Turkey. ‘They had lost all their belongings,’ he told The Times. ‘I gave them some money to buy new clothes.’
The Iran-Nejads then sailed across the Aegean Sea a second time, but to Italy where they avoided arrest.
From Italy, the family crossed the border from Italy into France in lorries, stopping in several cities along the way, unnamed migrants said.
According to Mr Iran-Nejad’s brother Khalil Irannazhad, the patriarch had initially decided to stay in Germany or Switzerland before changing his mind and carrying on to France.
Family members claim that the Iran-Nejads then stayed on a camp near Calais before moving to Puythouck, but were evicted by police and moved to a nearby hotel after social services found them a room.
Sources told The Times that Mr Iran-Nejad was leant money to pay smuggling gangs to get them into Britain.
The family made three attempts to cross to the UK. The first two times, they wanted to cross by train, and the last time they wanted to cross by boat.
‘It was the third time that they had attempted to cross to the UK. Two times they wanted to cross via train and the last time they wanted to cross by boat,’ said Khalil.
‘We begged him to not try to cross by boat. He insisted on going.’
On Wednesday, camp residents described hearing the family’s desperate cries in the days before they departed for Britain as they argued about whether to make the crossing.
Ahmed, 30, who slept in the next-door tent, told the Mail: ‘The last night before he left, the father was fearing for the children’s lives. They were all desperate and crying. And they were worried about the money, too, as they had borrowed it so had to go. They were really desperate.’
He added: ‘Rasoul was saying, ”I want to be in peace, I don’t want to fear for my life any more”. But his wife had second thoughts about going. Rasoul told her it was the only way as the [asylum] process is quicker in the UK. They could have stayed in Germany or France.
‘They only wanted for their children to go to school in England and have a better life.’
Rasoul worked as a construction worker and kolbar, a porter who carries goods such as cigarettes, food and clothes on his back over the border with Iraq, relatives said.
He often made the dangerous journey under gunfire but the work was one of the few ways to make a living in the poverty-stricken city.
The family is thought to have convened at 8am on Tuesday at a beach in the Loon-Plage area of Dunkirk after the crossing was organised by a Kurdish-Iranian middleman working with smugglers. A yachtsman saw the capsized boat 90 minutes later and raised the alarm.
Mr Iran-Nejad had sold everything in the hope of achieving a better future for his family, his brother, Khalil Irannazhad, said in a phone call from their home city of Sardasht in western Iran, near the Iraqi border.
He revealed that it was the family’s third attempt at crossing into Britain, following two abortive tries via train.
Tragic final pictures have emerged showing the family in France hours before their fateful journey.
The Iran-Nejads, whose initial destination was due to have been Germany or Switzerland, are thought to have sold all their possessions and borrowed money from relatives to make it to Britain, where they are said to have family.
Mr Irannazhad said he last spoke to his brother on Monday, when he urged him not to attempt the crossing. ‘We begged him to not try to cross by boat but he insisted on going,’ he told the Telegraph.
‘It was the third time that they had attempted to cross to the UK. Two times they wanted to cross via train and the last time they wanted to cross by boat.’
Iraqi-Kurd Choman Manish, 37, said that the ‘beautiful friendly family’ had told him of plans to join others on a small boat on Tuesday morning – but he too advised them not to go by boat.
He told them: ‘It’s not good and a really bad situation if you stay in the water,’ Sky News reports.
Mr Manish said: ‘I said, it will be bad for you. They told me God is big. I know God is big, but what can I do.
‘I told them many times, but they never accepted my word… They trusted in God, they think God will protect them.’
Mr Manish has been at the Dunkirk jungle – along with more than 500 other migrants – for more than four months.
He said that everyone at the camp – many of whom are Kurdish – is upset over the tragedy, ‘but what can we do’.
The family had left Iran on August 7 to travel to Turkey, before taking a ferry to Italy and rode in the back of lorries to France almost a month ago, according to a friend who remained in Calais.
Their toddler, Artin, is yet to be found, but French coastguard have called off searches and said there is no hope of finding any more survivors
The family is thought to have convened at 8am on Tuesday at a beach in the Loon-Plage area of Dunkirk after the crossing was organised by a Kurdish-Iranian middleman working with smugglers. A yachtsman saw the capsized boat 90 minutes later and raised the alarm. Pictured: The family’s tent (on the right)
How vicious people traffickers make thousands moving desperate migrants into Britain
Illegal cross-Channel migration is being fueled by a global network of people smugglers making millions from their evil trade.
Research has revealed how these smugglers operate, and the false promises they use to convince people to make the dangerous trip to the UK.
Agents of the smugglers drum up business by visiting impoverished families in Iraq, Iran, Africa and Pakistan, often with exaggerated tales of British largesse.
Potential migrants have to raise money for a fee, or agree to pay one later, with much of the sum – which can be up to £10,000 – usually donated by family members and non-payment punished with threats and violence.
Migrants from the Middle East often first step foot in Europe in Greece after making a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. They then travel more than a thousand miles – often in the back of a lorry – to Calais, where they set up camp.
Smugglers usually bring migrants to Calais in batches, with a new group arriving after the previous one has already left in boats across the Channel.
A people smuggler named Farooq revealed how the next stage of the process worked in an interview secretly recorded by LBC.
He revealed that migrants would be told to sleep rough around Calais while he bought a boat for them to travel in.
The migrants would then be put into the boat, pointed in the direction of Britain, and told not to stop until they reached UK waters, where they would be rescued.
There have also been reports of people traffickers hiring French fishing boat crews to carry desperate migrants halfway across the Channel in a bid to evade eye-in-the-sky military drones.
When migrants are picked up by the UK Coastguard they are taken to a migrant detention centre to be processed.
Of the 1,890 foreigners reached British shores in small boats last year, only about 125 were returned European countries, according to the Home Office.
Asylum seekers are housed in accommodation centres for the first few weeks after arriving before being moved elsewhere, including into hotels and bed and breakfasts.
During this period they are not allowed to work and sometimes fall into menial jobs in the black economy, such as cleaning or washing dishes.
If they are successful they will be allowed to take a job. However, despite the false claims of people smugglers, many of these jobs are low paid, with migrants often held back by low skills or a lack of English.
Additional reporting by Sue Reid for the Daily Mail
In Calais, they were staying in a camp near the town before moving to the Puythouck site, but were evicted by police and moved to a nearby hotel after social services found them a room, ahead of their crossing on Tuesday.
They were travelling in an 18-man, 20ft boat packed with as many as 22 passengers that capsized at around 8.30am on Tuesday off the coast of Loon-Plage near Dunkirk.
The French-flagged Marbuzet, a 40ft-long pleasure craft, was passing by and told the coastguard, which rescued fifteen survivors who had suffered cardiac arrest and hypothermia. That puts the estimated death toll at seven, with three people yet to be found, including the toddler.
Alain Ledaguenel, the president of the French coastguard (SNCM), said the boat was a death trap, adding: ‘It wasn’t a dingy but a polyester amateur fishing boat. It was overloaded and capsized because it almost certainly hit a wave sideways.’
Kurdish journalist Sarook Sarkda, 37, who is from Iran, said the smugglers who owned the boat were forcing people to get onboard before the fatal crossing.
Mr Sarkrde said he had ruled out trying to reach Britain by boat after a near-death experience on October 17 when the 10ft boat he was in began to sink in the Channel.
Mr Sarkrde, who had paid £2,000 to get on the boat, said he and 18 other immigrants, including a pregnant woman, were pulled from the sea and returned to France.
Wearing soaking clothes, they were dumped in an unfamiliar town by aggressive French police, who told them: ‘It was your choice to cross, so it’s your problem.
After the deadliest tragedy of the Channel migrant crisis so far, Boris Johnson vowed to ‘crack down’ on brutal people smugglers who have fueled a surge in crossings.
A Kurdish Iraqi migrant who befriended the family at the makeshift camp where they were staying in Dunkirk said the family wanted to join at least one other relative already in the UK.
He urged them not to attempt the crossing due to the stormy conditions but they went ahead, saying: ‘God is big’.
Choman Manesh told Sky News: ‘It is so sad because I know this family over here that situation happened yesterday.
‘I advised them ‘please don’t go by boat. It’s not good. It’s really bad situation. If you stay in water, it will be bad for you’. They told me ‘God is big’.’
There is confusion about how many people died in the incident, with some sources putting the figure as high as 28 but others saying 22.
The tragedy has prompted fury at vicious smuggling gangs who are blamed for fueling the rise in crossings, with Boris Johnson vowing a ‘crackdown’ after the worst loss of life during migrant crisis so far.
Dover MP Natalie Elphicke tweeted: ‘It is terrible that tragedy has struck in the Channel again. People traffickers have no regard for life, no matter how old or young.’
Meanwhile, Alp Mehmet, from Migration Watch, blamed French officials for not preventing the ‘totally avoidable’ tragedy. He told Talk Radio: ‘Why didn’t they stop them from sailing in the first place? We are talking about a lot of people in a big boat, someone should have noticed.’
The migrant boat was spotted by Marbuzet, a pleasure boat. This graphic – based data from shipping tracker Marine Traffic – shows the Marbuzet’s course on Tuesday morning
After the deadliest tragedy of the Channel migrant crisis so far, Boris Johnson vowed to ‘crack down’ on brutal people smugglers who have fueled a surge in crossings. Pictured are emergency services at Dunkirk harbour on Tuesday
How Iran has a long history of discrimination and repression against its Kurdish minority
The Kurds are an ethnic group native to a semi-autonomous region known as Kurdistan that spans parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia – nations where they live as minorities. There are thought to be around 35million of them in total, with up to 12million based in Iran.
Iran has a long history of discrimination and repression against its Kurdish minority. Partly, the discrimination is religious. A majority of Kurds consider themselves to be Sunni Muslims, unlike the majority of Iranians, who are Shia.
While equality of religions is technically guaranteed in Iranian law, in reality Sunni Muslims struggle to establish places of worship and schools for their children.
According to an Amnesty International report in 2008, Iranian Kurds have been subjected to discriminatory hiring policies that make it hard to get jobs, with their home regions under-funded and neglected, leading to ‘entrenched poverty’.
Kordestan, the centre of the Kurdish community in Iran, is one of the country’s poorest provinces with its economy relying mostly on farming and handicrafts.
Kurds have also been subjected to forced evictions and live in largely substandard housing, lacking proper sanitation and water supplies. Some Kurdish housing has not been sufficiently rebuilt since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, according to UN reports, when the Kurds were targeted by Saddam’s forces.
The town of Sardasht, where the migrant family who drowned hailed from, was among those targeted – struck by poison gas dropped from Iraqi fighter planes. At least 113 people died while thousands more were injured. Kurdish leaders say the victims were never given proper medical care, and some still suffer from debilitating lung conditions.
Kurdish children are often forbidden from speaking their native language in schools, and Iran bans mothers from giving their children certain Kurdish names. Literacy rates are also significantly lower for Kurdish students – particularly women – than in the Iranian population as a whole.
Those who do speak up about the plight of the Kurds face arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and the death penalty. According to the UN, there were around 1,800 Kurdish political prisoners being held in the country in 2017. Charges against them ranged from eating during Ramadan, to cheering the results of a referendum in neighbouring Iraq.
The same year, 64 Kurdish prisoners were executed – the highest number of any minority group – while at least 16 were subjected to torture, and 31 went on hunger strike to protest their conditions. Those who did go on strike, were routinely denied medical care.
The tragedy will intensify the pressure on the Government to broker a deal with the French to finally stop the crossings.
Mr Johnson said on Tuesday: ‘My thoughts are with the loved ones of those who tragically lost their lives in the Channel today.
‘We have offered the French authorities every support as they investigate this terrible incident and will do all we can to crack down on the ruthless criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people by facilitating these dangerous journeys.’
Seven migrants have died trying to cross the Channel this year – three more than last year’s toll.
The PM’s words were echoed by Home Secretary Priti Patel, who said: ‘We are in touch with our French counterparts who are leading on the response and have offered whatever support they need as they investigate this incident.
‘This tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the Channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.’
Last October Miss Patel pledged that illegal Channel crossings would be an ‘infrequent phenomenon’ within six months.
But at least 7,500 migrants are known to have crossed to England by small boat so far this year – more than four times the total for the whole of 2019.
Miss Patel has been negotiating with the French government to step up patrols on their coastline but no deal has yet been reached.
She wants Paris to agree to migrant boats being turned around in the Channel and sent back to France.
Marlene Schiappa, deputy French interior minister, tweeted that the death toll from Tuesday’s incident ‘is heavy and still uncertain’.
The migrants made a Mayday call in which they begged, ‘Help us, we’re sinking’, according to The Sun.
However, it is not clear who received the call, as the French coastguard said they were informed of the incident by the a passing pleasure boat, the Marbuzet.
Retired coastguard officer Andy Roberts said Tuesday’s horrific incident was predictable.
‘It’s absolutely tragic,’ he added. ‘Something like this was always eventually going to happen and sadly it now has.
‘There is no way that boat was ever going to successfully cross the Dover strait.’
Home Office Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney said he was ‘deeply saddened’ to hear of the deaths and added there was ‘no way’ the boat was going to get across the Dover Strait.
He said the weather was ‘appalling’ at the time, with wind speeds of 42 knots (around 47mph).
Last night sources told The Sun: ‘The boat had not left French waters but the conditions were pretty tough.
‘The radio message came in at about the same time a yachtsman had reported seeing the vessel in difficulties.
‘It was incredibly fortunate the alarm was raised quickly enough for a rescue operation to be mounted.’