Artin’s journey: asylum seeker speaks of the smuggling trade that killed Iranian baby

The authorities in Norway did not have much to go on when they found the body on the shore on New Year’s Day. But the baby boy was wearing a jacket – navy blue with white stitching.

And that helped them solve the mystery of what had happened to 15-month-old Artin Iran Nejad, who had died months earlier in the English Channel.

The baby had been photographed wearing the same coat in a refugee camp in Calais, not long before he and his family boarded an overcrowded boat that then capsized.

All five members of Artin’s Kurdish Iranian family were lost in the incident on 27 October 2020 – his mother, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, his father, Rasul Iran Nezhad, his sister, Anita, nine, and brother, Armin, six.

But while the bodies of the others were recovered quite soon, Artin was not found. He was listed as missing, until a formal identification followed on Monday this week.

The announcement by Norwegian police was the final chapter in a short life of endurance over many long and difficult journeys, trips the baby was on oblivious to government restrictions at borders and hostile environments for refugees across Europe.

After crossing the Iranian border on 7 August 2020, from their home in Sardasht, the family moved through Turkey then went by boat to Italy before reaching the refugee camp in Calais.

Tens of thousands of other refugees make similar high-risk journeys every year underlining the enormous risks people take to save their lives.

An asylum seeker who crossed the Channel from Calais just a few weeks ago and is now accommodated in a hotel in London by the Home Office told the Guardian he knew the family well. He said he had lived alongside them in Calais in the days before they made they attempted the fateful crossing. He told how the family had come under extraordinary pressure from smugglers to cross the Channel.

Had the family had more money to pay a more expensive smuggler he believes they might all still be alive today. “If you don’t have money you cannot save your life. You must die,” he said.

The asylum seeker said that he had bonded withArtin and spent a lot of time playing with him in the camp. “I played with him every day. He was so sweet and lovely and playful. He particularly loved playing with a drinking water fountain in the camp and always wanted to go there so he could play with the water.”

He said the family lived in poverty in Iran. Rasul Iran Nezhad sometimes worked carrying goods such as household appliances on his back across the mountainous border area where many Iranian Kurds live. The work was difficult and high risk. Those who are caught can face severe penalties. Kurds are a persecuted minority in Iran.

The family decided to leave in the hope of finding safety for themselves and their children. “They had a lot of hope about making a new life in the UK. Shiva had many beautiful dreams for the children,” he said. “She wanted them to get a good education at schools in the UK and then go on to university. Anita wanted to become an actress and had already passed some acting screen tests. Of course Artin did not understand about crossing the Channel and reaching the UK, but the two older children did.”

The friend added: “They understood that since they had left their home city of Sardasht travelling through Turkey, Italy and France they had become homeless. They believed that if they could reach the UK they would no longer be in that situation.”

He explained that the smugglers in northern France used different systems. He said that in Calais the majority of the smugglers were Kurdish Iranian, in nearby Dunkirk many were Kurdish Iraqi.

Asylum seekers with greater financial resources can deposit their money in an informal, clandestine, money “exchange”, sometimes in a supermarket or small shop. It works as a kind of underground international money transfer system.

If people arrive successfully to the UK they call the exchange and ask for money to be transferred to the smuggler organising the crossing. If the crossing fails the money is not transferred.

Those with no money at all are forced to work for the smugglers, helping them with between three and 10 crossings before they have “earned” free passage in a flimsy boat.

Those with some money but not enough for the “exchange” pay low-ranking smugglers slightly less money than the going rate to travel in a relatively good boat with a new engine motor that is not dangerously overcrowded.

According to the asylum seeker, Artin’s family had originally approached a smuggler offering a relatively safe passage but that person had rejected them for want of better payment.

“They had very little money,” said the asylum seeker. “They begged family and friends to sell their gold so they could pay the smuggler and managed to raise €5,000 to pay for the whole family to cross. But the smuggler said this was not enough.”

He said he had kept a voice message from Shiva saying the smuggler had rejected them because they could not pay as much money as he demanded.

“The smugglers are very dishonest. They did not take us … They took some of our friends who had paid more money,” Shiva said in a flat, despairing tone in the voicemail message.

“Shiva was hopeless and disappointed and they gave the money to another smuggler who was charging less,” said the asylum seeker. “But he forced them to cross when the weather was bad, in an overcrowded boat. He said the family needed to cross to help him because he was in debt to another smuggler he needed to repay.”

He said some of the asylum seekers had a rule that they would not attempt to cross the Channel if the waves were higher than 10 to 20 centimetres. “That night the waves were 70 centimetres. Many smugglers were not doing crossings then because the weather was too bad.”

He said the family was faced with an impossible choice. “The smuggler said to them, ‘if you don’t cross tonight just go away, you will not get your money back’.”

The BBC reported that Shiva had sent a text shortly before their fateful final journey saying: “If we want to go with a lorry we might need more money that we don’t have.”

The asylum seeker said that the instruction by the home secretary, Priti Patel, telling social media companies to remove online posts from smugglers about crossings, was pointless. With or without smugglers posting on social media desperate asylum seekers would contact them to cross the channel.

“If we as asylum seekers have no legal way to reach safety we have no choice but to use the illegal way. That is what the family who drowned were forced to do. I wish they can rest in peace in the next world.”

Though Artin’s body was discovered on 1 January near Karmøy, in south-west Norway, it took the Norweigan authorities more than five months from that date to confirm his identity. The identification was made through retrieving and matching DNA, with the help of specialists from Oslo University hospital.

“We didn’t have a missing baby reported in Norway, and no family had contacted the police,” said Camilla Tjelle Waage, the head of police investigations. “The blue overall wasn’t a Norwegian brand either [and] that indicated the baby was not from Norway.”

Artin’s remaining family have reportedly been notified and his remains are to be flown back to Iran to be buried.

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