Winter is on the way, and the waves are getting higher. They say that that morning, the waves were one to two meters high. The best time for boats to cross the English Channel is when they’re no more than 40cm high, but ultimately it is the human trafficker, and no-one else, who will determine whether the journey takes place. In this case, he did. The refugees boarded the boat and struck out together for the English coast. But the waves rose higher and higher, and ultimately capsized them.
At least five of those onboard perished, either by drowning or after being pulled from the water. They were all members of one Kurdish family from Iran: Rasoul Iran Nejad and Shiva Mohammad Panahi, both aged 35, and their children Anita, 9, Armin, 6, and 15-month-old Artin.
On October 27, the French authorities reported that a small boat carrying around 20 refugees had capsized in the English Channel and a number of the passengers had died. At the time it was understood that four people had been killed: a man, a woman and two children aged five and eight. But within a few hours the number had risen to five, with refugee rights activists in northern France claiming on social media that the body of a still younger child had not yet been recovered.
Those killed were all from the same Iranian Kurdish family, from the city of Sardasht in West Azerbaijan province. Fourteen other passengers, some who hailed from the same city as the Iran Nejad family, were rescued from the water and sent to hospitals in Calais and Dunkirk.
Rasoul was a construction worker, and his wife Shiva took care of the children. Financial destitution had pushed them to emigrate from Iran with their three young children in tow.
A relative of Rasoul told IranWire that the family had traveled to Urmia, the capital of West Azerbaijan, in the hope of crossing the border into Turkey. Their first attempt failed, so they went home and returned in the summer to try again. It took them five days in total to cross the border, after which they had planned to take a boat from Turkey to Greece. But when they arrived, the boat was faulty, and the family were forced to wait in Turkey.
“They stayed in Turkey for almost another whole month, then tried again,” the family member told IranWire. “They came to Italy on a boat. They were quarantined in Italy for 20 days, and then they went to France.”
The family made their way directly to the forests of northern France, where many other migrants had taken refuge before them. But they were rounded up by police and taken to an asylum seeker camp. They spent around 20 days in the country in total. “Every day, they said they were going to cross the channel,” the relative said. “We told them to stay in France but they were adamant that they wanted to get to the UK.
“We were in touch every day. The night before the crossing, they called us. We told them not to go by sea. But they said they had tried to catch a train several times, and each time police had returned them to the camp. On the last night they sent an audio message, telling us that they were boarding the boat.”
An Iranian acquaintance of the Iran Nejad family from the camp in northern France told IranWire about their last night on French soil. “Our camp is near the port of Calais,” he said, “and whenever the police pick up refugees in the forests they bring them to this place or another camp in the city of Arras.
“On the Tuesday night they all went to ‘game it’ from Dunkirk. But instead they all drowned. I wish to God there were some way to tell everybody that there’s nothing going on in Britain; don’t risk the lives of your children.”
Rasoul and Shiva had borrowed money from extended family members to pay the people-smugglers in France. “They didn’t have enough money themselves,” the Iranian refugee said, “so their relatives gave what they could. They sold their jewelry and gold. They wanted to escape the miserable economic situation in Sardasht and get to the UK to build a better future for their children.”
Their relative told IranWire: “They had been given money from everybody in the family to get to their destination. As far as we know they spent 80 million tomans [close to US$19,300] on the trip.”
It was the other refugees from Sardasht aboard the boat who had to convey the news of the family’s deaths to their loved ones in Iran. “They told us they had all had drowned,” the relative said. “They told us that the bodies of four of them had been found – but not Artin.”
In the summer, after the family first left Iran, Rasoul’s mother was so worried that she had a heart attack. Now that she has been told of their demise in the English Channel, she cannot stop crying. She had five sons and three daughters; now she has four sons, and has lost her three grandchildren forever. The family have been told it will cost them 1.4 billion tomans (more than $337,000] to have their bodies repatriated to Iran. There is no way they can afford this sum.
Since the beginning of 2020, more than 7,400 refugees have arrived in the UK by entrusting their lives to small boats and crossing the perilous waters of the English Channel. What we do not know is how many have lost their lives in the attempt. Just 20 days ago some 235 refugees, including several pregnant women, arrived on British shores by this dangerous method: the highest number recorded in a single day.
Politicians in Europe have floated such extreme ideas for containing the crisis as allocating an island for migrants: that is, for around 70 million people across the world who have left their countries of birth in hope of security and a better life. Some of these desperate people do reach to their destinations but only after drawn-out and arduous journeys through forests, over mountains and across treacherous waters, only after being subjected to violence and racism, only after being pushed to the end of their tether both physically and psychologically.
Rasoul, Shiva, Anita, Armin and Artin did not reach their destination. They became the victims of human traffickers who ignored the dangers and sent them on a journey with no return. The four older members of the family will be buried a world away from their grieving families – in all likelihood, in a graveyard for refugees - while the body of baby Artin has yet to be found.