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Iranian Refugees in Zeebrugge: Desperate Dreams of Britain

November 1, 2019
Aida Ghajar
10 min read
Gates of the loading area in the Belgian port city of Zeebrugge and the trucks heading to Britain
Gates of the loading area in the Belgian port city of Zeebrugge and the trucks heading to Britain
The railway station of the Belgian port city of Zeebrugge
The railway station of the Belgian port city of Zeebrugge

It was a horrible death. For long hours they were cooped up in a freezing metal container. Even if the truck’s refrigeration system had been turned off, they could not have stayed alive much longer in that airtight trailer.

On October 23, the bodies of 39 people were found in a truck container in Essex in eastern England. Authorities later found migrants’ fingerprints inside the container, as though they were trying to claw their way out through the metal. 

The day after the bodies were discovered, the driver of the truck was arrested. Maurice Robinson, 25, has been indicted on charges of 39 counts of manslaughter, human trafficking and money laundering. Two brothers from Northern Island are also wanted for manslaughter in the same case. Police initially believed the victims to be Chinese nationals but their efforts to identify them are now focusing on the Vietnamese community. Some of the victims — eight women and 31 men — have been identified.

Further investigations revealed that the migrants had been loaded into the container at the northern Belgian port of Zeebrugge.

As the news of the tragedy emerged, it became evident that human traffickers use Zeebrugge as a key location from which to transport people to Britain. The news of the horrific death the 39 migrants suffered is not expected to stop desperate migrants from making similar journeys  — many of them do not believe that they have anything to lose and so are willing to risk their lives. 

The port of Zeebrugge is only a 20-minute bus or train ride from the historic Belgian city of Bruges. Two days after the truck and the bodies were found in Essex, when it emerged that the truck had started its journey from the port, all night trains heading for Zeebrugge were canceled. However, the road from Bruges to Zeebrugge is lined with gas stations, parking lots and truck stops and, every night, refugees and migrants scramble to get on trucks, trying their luck in the hopes that they can escape scanners, dogs and police officers and eventually get to Britain. Fed up with living in camps and on the streets, many of them keep trying this route, and some have been trying it for years.

The refugees and migrants are able to identify trucks heading for the United Kingdom by their license plates, and sometimes even from a distance away because many of them are yellow. The trucks carrying refrigerator trailers like the one that held the 39 people who died are sealed from the outside, and the locks look different from the locks on other trucks. Human traffickers break the seal, load the travelers into the refrigeration container and reseal its metal door. There is no way out for the travelers. Their lives are in the hands of the driver.


Freeze to Death or Suffocate

The refrigeration inside the container is turned on to fool police scanners. More deadly than this, though, is the fact that the oxygen in the container gradually runs out. “Before they freeze in subzero temperatures, the passengers suffocate,” Ahmad, a refugee from Iran, told me. “Probably that is why some of the 39 who died had taken off their clothes. When the oxygen runs out you feel hot and you fight for air. I was once in a refrigeration container. I was lucky that the police found me; otherwise I would have died, too.”

Ahmad lives in a camp in Belgium. He has secured a permit to leave the country and is now trying again to reach Britain. He has tried to get there many times. He has laid across a truck’s axle. He has cut through tarpaulin to get inside a truck. He has jumped on top of a train and been stuck to an electric fence at the entrance to the loading yard of the port. “Cutting through a truck’s tarpaulin is a mistake,” he says. “They all cut it with a blade, get in and then stitch it back together. But it is still visible. What we used to do was to untie the ropes, I would get in, a second person would tie the ropes back so that nobody would notice from the outside and then he would hide in the space over the driver’s cab. You have to be really tiny to fit into that space. I have tried it all. Then I got tired and said I would seek asylum here, but then found out that they want to return me to Slovenia.”

Ahmad, like others, appears to have become accustomed to risking his life. “I have no other choice,” he tells me. “Belgium rejected my request for asylum. They fingerprinted me in Slovenia and they wanted to deport me back there. I have not tried hard for two years to end up living in Slovenia. They say that human rights [in Britain] are better than in the rest of Europe. I will go to parking lots around Brussels or in Zeebrugge. And if I can’t make it I will go back to Calais [the northern French port city across the English Channel]. I will not stop trying until I can cross.”

Many people staying in the refugee camps or living without any shelter at all in Belgium have entered Europe legally as political asylum seekers, but have then become entangled in a bureaucratic web. Farzad is one of them. He has been wandering Europe for four years. In 2015, when Europe opened its border to refugees, he made it from Sweden to Turkey. After three years, he was told he could get a one-year residency permit that had to be renewed every year and, furthermore, that he was not allowed to leave Sweden. He decided to come to Belgium and says that if Belgium also denies him asylum, he will pay any price to get to Britain. When I mention the death of the 39 refugees in the truck, he raises his voice and says: “If I die, first Sweden and then Belgium will be responsible for my death.”

Some Iranians I spoke to paid enormous sums and used their various connections to get from Iran to Belgium over the course of a few months. They have also tried to get to Britain more than once, but have failed and have now decided to stay. 

As one of the refugees described it, Zeebrugge is now a smaller version of Calais. In recent months there have been increasing numbers of news stories about human trafficking or attempts to cross the sea from this port city to get to the UK — including the Iraqi man who tried to swim to Britain by tying empty plastic water bottles to himself but died in the process. 

After the discovery of the “lorry of death” in Essex, the Belgian police stopped two trucks carrying refugees. The first one was carrying 11 Iraqi refugees toward Zeebrugge and the second one, apprehended near the border with the Netherlands, contained nine Eritreans.


“We either get there or we die”

Refugees who want to go to Britain tell me: “We either get there or we die.” They tell me that Britain respects human rights. Even though they all have heard the news and can imagine that they themselves might have been one of the 39 people who lost their lives, it has not changed their commitment to get to Britain in whatever way they can. 

I talked to Saleh, a Palestinian teenager who has been on the refugee trail for two years. He shakes his head in sorrow for the 39 who perished but then says: “I will eventually get to Britain. Every night I try it at gas stations but either the driver finds out that I am in the container or the police catch me. During the day I come to the park and at night I go to the home of a Palestinian friend or sleep in the park.” He joins dozens of other refugees who live in a park near Brussels.

Saleh first went to Egypt from Palestine. A trafficker put him and a group of other refugees on a boat and sent them to Turkey. From Turkey, Saleh and refugees from different nationalities set out for Greece. From Athens he traveled to Macedonia and from there went across Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Then came Italy, France and eventually Belgium. Now he says wants to go to the UK and “eventually, Canada.”

While Saleh is speaking to me, another young man from Morocco repeatedly warns him in Arabic that he might be talking to the police. He is 17 and says it took him two years to get to Belgium. He is looking for an Iranian trafficker. “I will give money to whoever gets me to Britain,” he says. “Here, they will take you for 1,500 euros Iranians charge €2,000 or €2,500. From Calais it costs up to €3,000. I can get my hands on €2,000.”

He still looks at me with suspicion but continues. “I have tried dozens of times. I have boarded any truck that you can imagine. But each time I have been caught. But I just want to get there and it is not important who and from what nationality gets the money, or what nationality they are.” As with other refugees I have talked to who are following this route, Saleh has lost his teenage years. His eyes are cold, tired and untrusting, and yet they sparkle when he talks about Britain.

Among the group I talk to who are hoping to get to Britain, there are also those whose requests for asylum have been rejected or, like Ahmad, will be returned to another country according to the EU’s Dublin Regulation. The regulation states that the asylum request by a third-country national is to be presented in the first European country the person arrives in, and where he or she is identified by local authorities. In such a situation, these men and women prefer to find their way to Britain any way they can — they are not prepared to return to countries that they took so many risks to leave behind.

Looking at media reports, it is easy to see how prominent Belgium is in human trafficking in Europe. It’s a destination for some, a country of transit for others. Adults and children from around the world are trafficked to and from Belgium and exploited for prostitution and cheap work, including being forced to work in the service industry, sweatshops, the farming and agricultural industries, and on construction sites. 

For years now, Belgian governments and their policies have failed to rise to the challenge of the refugee crisis, and the same can be said of the governments of most European countries, as well as that of the European Union as a whole. Just witness refugees who live on the streets and have no shelter. As the winter closes in, any one of them might lose his or her life to the freezing weather — just like the people whose bodies were discovered in Essex.


Related Coverage:

Refugees in Belgium Desperately Dream of Reaching Britain, October 25, 2019

Racial Conflict Ends in Devastating Fire at Greece’s Samos Refugee Camp, October 17, 2019

Human Traffickers, Drug Smugglers and the British Channel, October 7, 2019

Refugees Fight Racism and Insults in Greece, October 1, 2019

Using Social Media to Expose Traffickers, September 16, 2019

The Life and Loves of a Human Trafficker, September 6, 2019

A Life Lost: Two Decades of Asylum-Seeking in Calais, August 30, 2019

Iranian Human Traffickers and the Journey Across the Balkans, August 19, 2019

Rape and Sexual Abuse is Common, August 8, 2019

“I left Iran so my daughter could choose her own destiny”, August 1, 2019

From Christian Refugee to Austrian Futsal Star, July 25, 2019

"The Biggest Torture Was Losing my Identity”, July 11, 2019

“I Left My Daughter With a Human Trafficker”, June 28, 2019



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