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France Jails Iranian Imam for Helping Human Traffickers

June 7, 2019
Aida Ghajar
5 min read
The French courtroom during the trial of Iranian imam Mohammad Barikchi
The French courtroom during the trial of Iranian imam Mohammad Barikchi

A French court has jailed an Iranian imam for two years for helping human traffickers.

Mohammad Barikchi Ghaleshi, 39, was accused of selling inflatable boats and life vests to traffickers organizing English Channel crossings for migrants.

His co-defendant, Mohammad Vagoy, a 29-year-old Senegalese man who worked at the same mosque in Rouen, was sentenced to nine months in prison and banned from Nord and Pas-de-Calais for three years.

The investigation into Barikchi’s activities started on the night of March 27, when police discovered life jackets, wet sweaters, and two small inflatable rowboats next to a pier in Calais.

Ownership of the boats was traced to the imam, whose home was found to contain two more boats, three outboard engines, and 20 life vests.

Barikchi told the court he had made only €1,300 (US$1,464) out of selling the boats, but witnesses said the figure was nearer €10,000 (US$8,860).

Both defendants claimed they bought the equipment for an unidentified third party and stopped working with him when they discovered what the boats were being used for.

Once he was told of the verdict, Barikchi reportedly fainted and his 11-year-old daughter, who was present at the court, began screaming and crying.

His lawyer says that he is the father of three children, and that he spent several years as a prisoner in Iran. His request for asylum in France was reportedly due to be approved in seven days.


In their defense, both men said they were ashamed of what they had done.

"When I learned [about what the boats were used for], I thought of the children on board and I told myself there could have been deaths," Vagoy told the court.

Both confessed that they bought seven boats between 27 December 2018 and 30 April 2019, around the time that hundreds of refugees were attempting to reach the UK.

According to British officials, since November 2018 at least 672 refugees, most of them Iranian, have made the Channel crossing.

A New and Costly Crisis

The wave of Iranian refugees bound for Britain started in October 2018, creating a new and costly crisis for France and the UK.

Both countries have brought in tougher measures in an attempt to curb the rise in trafficking.

In January, a 33-year-old Iranian and 24-year-old British man were arrested in the UK and charged with the “illegal transportation of refugees.”

In France in the same month, the arrest of four Iranians and two taxi drivers led to the conviction of a French boat seller and taxi driver for trafficking offences. Both were jailed for 18 months.

In March, a French court jailed two Iraqis and one Iranian for organizing boat crossings for refugees.

In April, at least 140 refugees are reported to have reached the UK. On June 2, the day before the trial of Barikchi, 74 refugees on eight boats successfully crossed the Channel in just one day.

A “Deeply Concerning” Phenomenon

Sajed Javid, the British Home Secretary, has called this wave of refugees a “phenomenon” that is “deeply concerning.”

He pointed out that the crossings are illegal under the Dublin Regulations: the EU laws regulating unauthorized migrants.

"It is an established principle that those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach," he said. "Since January, more than 30 people who arrived illegally in the UK in small boats have been returned to Europe."

Javid has called for stronger enforcement, and has asked the Border Force to consider whether deploying more vessels in the Channel might help to reduce the problem.

British and French officials have repeatedly warned of the dangers to refugees of trying to reach the UK. “Anyone crossing the Channel in a small boat is taking a huge risk with their life and the lives of their children,” said a British Home Office spokesman.

According to international NGOs, in January more than 21,300 people crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe, of which at least 519 lost their lives. This is similar to the risk that refugees take to cross the English Channel.

It is often difficult to prove the charges against traffickers but, because of this risks involved, punishments can be heavy if they are found guilty.

The Economic Crisis in Iran

To date, Iranians have not been returned to Iran because of the country’s poor human rights record.

“They don’t have to be smuggled covertly into the UK,” Chris Hogben, head of Invigor (the British Organized Immigration Crime Taskforce), told the Financial Times in December.

“All they need to do is get into British waters and call for British law enforcement’s help. Once they’re picked up by Border Force or law enforcement, they’ve made it because we’re not going to send them back.”

Now that Britain is taking stronger measures against human traffickers and their accomplices, however, more Iranians might get arrested.

Despite the efforts by France and Britain, official statistics reveal that the number of refugees crossing the Channel, including Iranians, continues to rise.

The UK is seen as a desirable destination due to its strong currency, the shelter it provides for asylum seekers, and its thriving underground labor market.

But reports suggest that the main reason for the surge is the struggling Iranian economy. This has left refugees and migrants with a dire choice: impoverishment on the one hand or risking their lives for a better future on the other.

It is not a choice anyone would like to have to make.


Related Coverage:


"I just want to leave this misery", May 31, 2019

In One Weekend, More than 50 Refugees Picked up in the English Channel            , May 22, 2019

Hundreds of Iranian and Afghan Refugees Thrown out on the Streets of Athens, April 23, 2019

Refugee “Caravan of Hope” Ends in Frustration and Violence, April 8, 2019

“Caravans of Hope” in Turkey and Greece as Rumors of Open Borders Spread, April 5, 2019

The “Hellhole of Athens”, April 3, 2019

Asylum Seekers in Greece: A Life of Fear and Suffering, January 29, 2019

Iranian Refugee Rights Activist Faces Long Prison Sentence in Greece, January 28, 2019

From Asylum Seeking to Asylum Dealing, January 23, 2019

French Police Raid and Destroy Iranian Refugee Camp in Calais, January 11, 2019

Meeting with a Human Trafficker in Istanbul, December 18, 2018

Iranian Ambassador Shrugs Off Responsibility for Refugees, December 11, 2018

From France to Turkey: Human Trafficking and Asylum Seekers, November 13, 2018


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