Heart-rending details have emerged in British and French media about the lives of the five members of an Iranian Kurdish family who drowned when the boat capsized in the English Channel.
Rasoul Iran Nejad and Shiva Mohammad Panahi and their children, Anita, 9, Armin, 6, and 15-month-old Artin, were all killed on Tuesday, October 28 while making the risky crossing from Dunkirk to the UK. The body of baby Artin has yet to be found
Around 20 refugees and asylum seekers were aboard the boat, with others – including several people from the city of Sardasht in West Azerbaijan, where the family were from – were rescued from the waters and taken to hospital.
In the aftermath, they and some of the family’s former acquaintances from the camp in northern France explained their situation to the media. The Iran Nejad family had travelled to Europe via Turkey, fleeing financial destitution in Iran.
The issue of illicit migration and asylum seeker arrivals is a political battleground in the United Kingdom and was one of the reasons many people voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Thus summer the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson decried people-smuggling as an “evil trade”, and in August this year, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the appointment of a “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” to “tackle migration by sea”.
British newspapers with an anti-migration stance have welcomed the move by Patel. In recent weeks British broadcasters including the BBC and Sky have also sent reporters out in boats on the channel to film some of the vulnerable people trying to make the crossing. This was sharply criticized by many political commentators and more sympathetic journalists, with one ex-BBC reporter calling it “voyeuristic and distasteful”.
Coverage of the tragedy that befell the Iran Nejad family, however, has been circumspect in the UK with most major outlets focusing on the difficulties the family faced on their journey from Iran.
Text messages apparently sent by Shiva Mohammad Panahi to a friend in Calais, reported the BBC, suggested the family had get into the UK by lorry – a generally safer mode of travel – but could not afford it. “If we want to go with a lorry we might need more money that we don’t have,” she wrote. “I know it’s dangerous but we have no choice.”
Conservative newspaper The Daily Mail, which has a strongly anti-migration stance and has portrayed migrants as “economic opportunists” and “terrorists” in the past, said the Iran Nejad family felt they had “no choice” but to make the crossing.
The family had been living in what the Mail described as “squalid conditions” at a makeshift camp in the Puythouck Woods in northern France, which is home to at least 200 migrants who mostly hail from Iran and Iraq. Reporters spoke to a 30-year-old man, Ahmed, who reportedly slept in the next door tent to the Iran Nejad family. He told the Mail: “The 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.
“Rasoul was saying, ‘I want to be in peace, I don't want to fear for my life any more’... They only wanted for their children to go to school.”
The same newspaper detailed the harsh treatment the Iran Nejad family had been subjected to during their first, failed attempt to enter Europe via Turkey in August. The family were “arrested, strip-searched and tear-gassed by Greek police”, the Mail reported, adding that they had lost all their belongings and had to borrow money to buy new clothes before traveling to Italy via the Aegean Sea.
It also quoted the Iranian Kurdish journalist Sarook Sarkda as saying the smugglers who owned the boat in France were “forcing” people to get onboard that boat before the fatal crossing in winds of up to 47mph before the crossing. The 37-year-old Iranian man who drove the boat has since appeared in a French court charged with aggravated manslaughter.
Other British outlets have been similarly compassionate in their reporting of the Iran Nejad family’s terrible fate. The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper that adopts a similarly anti-migration line, described the incident as “heartbreaking” and the right-wing Telegraph newspaper acknowledged they had left Iran “partly due to poor living conditions and persecution”.
More than 7,400 people have attempted to cross the English Channel from France to Britain so far this year, compared to around 1,800 for the whole of 2019, according to figures from the Press Association. In 2020, 44 per cent of recorded incidents – most of which involved a boat being intercepted by Border Force officials – involved Iranian nationals at 37 per cent involved Iraqis.
News coverage of the disaster that befell the Iran-Nejad family and the other boat occupants was sparser in France, with major outlets including Le Figaro mostly relying on the BBC in their reporting. Radio France International focused on the ongoing investigation into the sinking, stating the Iran-Nejad family had been trapped in the cockpit of the vessel when it capsized and, along with other French outlets, calling the episode “the worst migratory drama to have occurred so far in the waters of the Channel”.
Claire Millot, secretary of The Salam Association, a Calais-based volunteer organization which provides hot meals, clothing and other support to refugees and migrants in northern France, told AFP that the Iran-Nejad family would have wanted to leave “by any means, as the reception conditions are appalling in France.
“It is impossible for them to apply for asylum in France,” she added, “since most of them have had their fingerprints registered in other European countries. In England, it is easier to work illegally and to find accommodation.”