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Four Iranians who died crossing Channel were part of same family

Michael Safi, Akhtar Mohammad Makoii and Jamie Grierson
·4-min read

Four Iranian Kurds who died trying to cross the Channel in high winds were members of one family who paid smugglers thousands of euros after two failed attempts to reach Britain, the Guardian has been told.

Rasul Iran Nezhad and his wife, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, both 35, and two of their children, Anita, nine, and Armin, six, drowned as they tried to reach Britain by boat, according to a relative of the family and the Iranian-Kurdish human rights organisation Hengaw.

The fate of the family’s third child, 15-month-old Artin, is unknown, though French officials have said it is possible an infant also died when the vessel sank. The family was from the north-western city of Sardasht.

Speaking from Sardasht, Iran Nezhad’s brother Khalil said he had last heard from the family two days ago. He said they had crossed from Iran into Turkey during the summer before proceeding through Europe to France.

A representative from Hengaw said the family had attempted to enter the UK by train twice but failed both times, and so decided to pay a smuggler to take them by sea.

Iran Nezhad was a low-paid labourer while his wife was unemployed, and they sought to escape economic hardship, Khalil Iran Nezhad said.

A friend of the family in Calais, who asked to be called Ali, said he had met the family about a month ago and spoken with Panahi in the lead-up to their departure for the UK. “Shiva and I were talking about the issues with going to England,” he said. “I told her: ‘This is way too dangerous, you have children. Do you think they can survive in the water if, God forbid, something happens?’ And she said, ‘It’s OK, we will do it. Everyone is going there, it’s not a problem.’”

He said the family paid a smuggler about €5,000 to €6,000 to take them on the boat. “Shiva told me they didn’t have enough money to pay the smuggler and she asked her parents and parents-in-law. They sold gold and valuables for them to pay the smugglers and they prepared the money.”

The family believed they would receive accommodation in the UK and could find work paying at least £100 a day, he added.

He said people in the camp had confronted the smuggler who organised their journey after the boat sank. “They asked him: ‘What did you do?’” Ali said. “He only said: ‘They did a good try, they had a good chance.’ These people [smugglers] are so cruel and without heart.”

French officials said on Tuesday that a man had drowned when the overloaded boat sank in poor weather, and three others died after being pulled from the water. Another 15 survived, though Hengaw said there was a total of 28 people on the boat – suggesting further people could be unaccounted for. The survivors are said to have included Iranian and Iraqi nationals.

Iranian Kurds, who make up about 10% of Iran’s population, report facing significant discrimination in housing and employment as well as political repression, according to human rights monitors, with a UN special rapporteur estimating in 2017 that almost half of the country’s political prisoners belonged to the ethnic minority. Kurdish regions of Iran are some of the poorest and least developed areas in the country and have been hit hard by a recent economic downturn exacerbated by US sanctions.

The deaths have reignited the debate over the UK’s asylum policy and led to renewed calls from humanitarian organisations for “safe and legal” routes to the UK for asylum seekers.

More than 7,400 people have arrived in the UK in small boats this year, according to analysis by PA Media, nearly four times as many as in 2019, with a record 416 arriving on a single day, 2 September. Seven migrants have died trying to cross the Channel this year, three more than last year’s total death toll from crossings.

Groups such as Safe Passage, Amnesty and Choose Love/Help Refugees have warned that the UK government’s hardline approach, which focuses largely on physically obstructing the crossings, will not deter migrants from attempting the dangerous journey.

Safe alternatives such as cross-border family reunion arrangements are the best way to reduce the number of attempted crossings, the groups have said, although as recently as last week the UK government rejected amendments to its immigration bill that would have ensured that rights under British law to family reunion continued after the Brexit transition period.