Early on Christmas morning, a young Iranian in a green anorak collapsed on a Kent beach after getting out of a small inflatable boat.
‘I was so cold after hours at sea I twice fell over. My legs had gone rigid and didn’t work. But I was so happy to reach England,’ he says today.
They are words 30-year-old Mehrdad Kazemi utters with feeling. He is one of 40 migrants whose audacious cross-Channel flit on Christmas Day made headlines and forced the Government to show it was doing its best to plug this new illegal route into Britain.
Mehrdad Kazemi, 30, at a football match in Iran in 2017. He paid a trafficker to take him to the UK
Home Secretary Sajid Javid was called back from a holiday in Africa and declared their arrival in five tiny boats ‘a major incident’. Angry MPs demanded a tightening up of Britain’s coastal borders to halt the flow of clandestines using the sea route.
Mehrdad is just one of 434 migrants, the majority Iranian, who, since October, have been found making the 21-mile crossing from France.
We traced him this week to a Home Office hostel in Birmingham where he lives with 320 other newly arrived asylum-seekers from all over the world. We were told of his whereabouts by other Iranians, waiting in northern France to follow him to Britain. They showed us photos he had posted on Instagram and which he has agreed to share with the Mail.
They depict his life in Iran and his journey through Europe to Paris. From there, he made for Calais, where he arrived in the last week of November.
He is the first of the Christmas Day boat migrants — or, indeed, the first of any of the migrants who have smuggled themselves across the English Channel — to speak of their flight from Iran and the reason for it.
In an exclusive interview, Mehrdad told how he paid a people-trafficker in Turkey for his entire journey, including for the sea crossing with seven others in the boat that reached Kent on Christmas Day.
His journey from Iran, where he worked as a clerk on the capital Tehran’s underground, has cost him more than £5,500. He says it’s money well spent.
A most courteous man, he has few words of English, but told us his story through an interpreter in a coffee bar near his hostel.
A graduate in metallurgy, he dreams of reading political science at Oxford if his asylum claim is granted.
Targeted by Iran’s secret police
Mehrdad says he fled Iran when the country’s secret police targeted him as a political activist who was opposing the authoritarian Islamic regime.
He comes from a provincial city called Miyaneh, where he grew up in a small apartment with his schoolmaster father, his housewife mother and a brother and sister.
He says: ‘My friends and I thought people should have a voice and we began sending flyers and leaflets out through the social media.’
Mehrdad contributed to the letters over the internet from Tehran, where he was working.
Mehrdad says he fled Iran when the country’s secret police targeted him as a political activist
‘We called them “night letters” because we sent them at night. They were written in opposition to Iran’s Islamic ruling party. But because we were in such a small place, the repercussions from the police came quickly.’
Two of his friends were arrested. ‘That was a big shock,’ he says. Then, last summer, he was called back home to a family meeting. His mother — whose name he withholds to protect her — begged him to leave Iran.
‘She and my family felt my life was in danger. They told me to stop sending the “night letters” and said: “If this is what you insist on pursuing, then it is best you go from Iran.”
‘My mother pleaded with me. She could not bear to see me in prison. It would be better if I was far away, despite the wrench to her. It is for this reason I fled.’
Mehrdad flees into Turkey and Europe
Mehrdad left on October 25. He took a five-hour bus journey to Maku, a city near the border with neighbouring Turkey, and searched for a trafficking agent.
He remembers: ‘I paid an agent two million Iranian rial [£36] to drive me with five others secretly in the back of a pick-up truck across the border.’
A mile into Turkey, the pick-up dropped off its human cargo. ‘We walked on for two-and-a-half miles, then we found there was barbed wire which we went under.
‘The next obstacle was a wall. It had metal poles in it to help us climb up, so I think people had been there before. There was a van waiting on the other side and another trafficker inside, who drove us to Istanbul.’
Mehrdad had escaped the troubled country of his birth, but his journey to freedom had only just begun.
He went to Istanbul’s central square, where Afghanis and Kurds in cafes were running a giant trafficking network between Asiatic Turkey and Europe.
He looked for someone to help him. Not knowing anyone, he felt he couldn’t trust a soul. Then, close to the square, he met a fellow Iranian of Kurdish descent, a trafficker who promised to get him to ‘where ever you want to be in Europe’.
He took a five-hour bus journey to Maku, a city near the border with neighbouring Turkey, and searched for a trafficking agent to escape Iran, Pictured in Paris last year
The deal was struck. Mehrdad was to leave funds at a money exchange office and release it to the Iranian Kurd when he got to Europe. Mehrdad was to be smuggled in a van from Turkey via Bulgaria to Serbia, on to Bosnia then Croatia. The trafficker kept his word.
Mehrdad, however, says: ‘When I got to Serbia by van, I found it was bad. I had nowhere to live apart from a migrant camp. The police mistreated everyone. After 12 days, I was taken on by the agents to the border by car and walked through to Bosnia on foot.’
From there, he was smuggled through to Croatia with a group of other Iranians. ‘We arrived and found the police want to beat you up. They broke my phone. They emptied out my rucksack. We were strip-searched.
‘And then the police drove us to the middle of nowhere and dumped us with nothing.’
Mehrdad and his group walked until they found a road to a town
They were lucky. Mehrdad was able to buy another phone and contacted the original trafficker back in Istanbul, who sent his local agent to rescue them.
‘We were taken to a wood for five or six days and waited to hear what to do next,’ Mehrdad explained this week, dressed in a smart shirt, jeans and trainers given to him by British charities since his arrival in the UK.
Finally, in the bitter November weather, the agent told Mehrdad to go to a lorry park where he would ‘arrange something’.
The first day, he watched other migrants being smuggled onto lorries and leaving. The second day, it was his turn. ‘I was with one other Iranian. We were really scared. We thought if the police catch us, this is the end.
‘We were put in a truck carrying crates of food and fruit. The crates were separated so we could hide in the middle and we were covered up. We were ordered to keep quiet.’
For nearly two days, with only a few biscuits and water, he and his friend lay in the lorry as it travelled from Croatia through Slovenia and northern Italy to Milan.
He reaches Paris — and heads to Calais
Mehrdad was, he says now, immensely relieved to arrive in the Schengen zone of the EU where there were no border checks. ‘I caught a train to Paris. I visited the Eiffel Tower and then I went to Calais.’
There, Mehrdad found the makeshift camp where 400 Iranians live on a muddy patch of land next to an industrial site. Some of them gave him a candle, a charity tent and blankets to keep warm in the wet December weather.
Mehrdad pictured in Birmingham in January this year, he was placed in a hostel here
‘If I wanted to sleep I had to put the candle out, so it did not burn the tent down,’ he remembers with a rueful smile.
At first, Mehrdad tried his luck hiding on lorries going to Dover from Calais on ferries. But one night he and an Iranian friend from the camp were in a lorry park hoping to cut a hole in the soft side of one of the vehicles and climb in when, at 3am, they were spotted and attacked by ‘two of the black guys’ who did not want them on their trafficking patch.
‘They had metal bars and we ran,’ he says. ‘They caught us and beat me on my leg and the back of my head. The French police finally came and the black guys ran away. I was taken to hospital overnight.’
Mehrdad explains: ‘The Iranians in Calais only want to get to the UK. It is the Afghanis, Iraqis, Kurds, Eritreans and Sudanese who work there as traffickers’ agents.
‘They don’t mind living in squalid camps because they are making good money. Each gang of a different nationality has its territory. It is a racket.’
Determined to reach England, perceived by Iranians as the most welcoming country in the EU for migrants, he did not give up.
After 35 days in Calais, an agent connected to the original Iranian Kurd trafficker made contact. He offered to move Mehrdad by boat to Britain.
‘I was told to go by bus to a beach called Wissant about 45 minutes from Calais on Christmas Eve. It has a woodland above the sea where I waited until it got dark.’
Then he received a mobile message to go to the shoreline.
The risky channel crossing begins . . .
There, two of the trafficker’s agents were pumping up an inflatable boat with an outboard motor.
‘At 11.30pm, I was told to get in with five other Iranians, a Kurdish man and an Afghani girl who was really scared. I was frightened, too. I was shaking. I thought it was impossible to cross the ocean in such a small vessel.
‘We all had to help push the boat out so that the engine did not hit the sea-bed. The water was up to my chest. The Kurdish guy said he would drive the boat, but said he was also an asylum-seeker. He had a mobile phone with a GPS signal to guide us to England.’ And so the flimsy craft set off, leaving the trafficking agents on the French beach.
For three-and-a-half hours, the rubber boat bobbed about in the Channel avoiding big ships on what is one of the busiest seaways in the world.
Finally, they came across what Mehrdad says was a ‘big red sign’ which made him think land was near. It is likely to have been one of the scarlet-painted lightships off the Kent coast that stop vessels hitting sandbanks.
‘The weather was clear, there were no clouds,’ he says. ‘We sailed towards a beach using the GPS. There, we lit a fire to keep warm and called 999 to tell the local police we were there. They arrived after 15 or 20 minutes and took us to the police station.’
. . . he’s detained by UK border force . . .
That he survived is incredible. We have co-ordinated Mehrdad’s story with Border Force reports of the Christmas Day migrant boats. From these — and his own timings — we know that his inflatable was the first of the five to reach the UK — on a beach near Folkestone just before 3am.
From Folkestone, Mehrdad was driven to Barking, East London, for questioning by immigration officials. He told them he was claiming asylum because he fears persecution in Iran.
. . . and PLACED in a Birmingham hostel
Then, a Home Office van took him to Birmingham where he was put up for a few days in the BH Residence hotel before being moved to the hostel where he now lives.
‘It is old, dirty and the bathrooms are not good,’ he says. ‘It is just a start for me.’
Of course, if Mehrdad had time to pose happily for photos in front of the Eiffel Tower, it begs the question why he — and other Iranians — refuse to claim asylum in France and do so in the UK.
When we asked him this, Mehrdad said: ‘I had heard not so many great things about France, that it was not safe to go out at night [as a migrant], so I did not want to stay.’
They are the kind of scare stories peddled by the Calais traffickers to encourage Iranians to buy a place on their boats to England.
Of his old life, Mehrdad adds: ‘Any opposition to the strict Iranian government is not allowed. There’s no equality between men and women. Everything is in favour of men.
Migrants on a boat during a rescue operation as they were trying to cross the Channel between France and Britain in December last year
‘It is not like Europe with its free speech. My political group wanted open debate about how women should not be forced to wear the hijab which is the rule in Iran. No other ideologies, apart from Islam, are accepted. Everything is monitored: Facebook, YouTube and they have now got their sights on Instagram, too.’
No wonder Mehrdad ran away.
He destroyed his old phone in France — on the orders of traffickers who don’t want their own numbers traced by UK immigration officials — and has a new one (given to him by refugee organisations in Birmingham).
He has called his delighted family to say he is in England. They told him his two ‘night letter’ friends are still in prison and he is convinced they’re being ‘mistreated’.
He spends his time aimlessly wandering around coffee bars near the hostel and, thanks to an invitation from another migrant, going by bus to a Christian church group in the village of Dorridge, ten miles from Birmingham.
Though born a Muslim, Mehrdad has renounced Islam. He hopes to move from his ‘dirty’ hostel into permanent accommodation.
With his diploma in metallurgy, Mehrdad may well turn out to be an asset to the UK. Let’s hope so.
In the meantime, it is taxpayers who will provide for his new life. For, as he finishes his coffee, he assures us: ‘I will never return to Iran while the present Islamic regime is in power.’
Home Office staff, though, may not agree. Immigration officials must decide if Mehrdad, and the boatloads of Iranians who have reached Britain, should be allowed to stay.
One thing is sure. On the coast of northern France, hundreds of others who have fled the oppression of Iran are massing and waiting to make the same sea crossing the minute the weather improves.