The first winter snows came to Serbia last week, falling thickly around a sprawling migrant camp in Adasevci, a few miles from Croatia and the gateway to the European Union.
In the bitterly cold camp, 400 young men fleeing oppression in the Islamic Republic of Iran await their chance to smuggle themselves illegally across the EU border to make a new life in England.
Talk to them and you will hear how they dream of reaching the French port of Calais, some 22 miles from the White Cliffs of Dover, before sailing across the Channel to Kent.
Daily Mail reporter Sue Reid spoke these Iranian migrants who are trying to make their way into the UK having left the Middle East and arrived on mainland Europe
‘My younger brother, Ali, is in Calais now,’ says Iranian graphic designer Mohammed Azizi, after he sneaks out of the camp to talk to me.
‘He left here hidden under a lorry, got through the Croatian border and arrived in France two weeks ago.’
The 28-year-old adds: ‘He is waiting to pay a trafficker to send him by sea to your country. I will follow him on the same route. I have a friend from here in Serbia who reached Calais and is now in Liverpool. We know the way.’
Next to chat to me is Arash Avazzadeh, 30, a Christian who worked in a clothes shop in Iran. He has been at the camp for two months.
‘My friend, Abol Fazl, hid under a lorry and got through the border from here one week ago,’ he explains. ‘He is already in Calais after travelling right through Europe by train.
‘He was lucky. For every 20 of us who try to get through the EU border, 18 are caught by the Croatian border police. They take your phone, they steal your money. They try to break your spirit, so you don’t attempt it again.’ Arash, a handsome English speaker who might be a credit to any country, adds: ‘A friend of mine, Pedram, who was only 38 with two small daughters he left behind in Iran, died of despair the other day.
‘He tried many times to get across the Croatian border, but was caught each time. The last time, the police destroyed his phone in front of his eyes. Pedram was stuck in this camp, where we sleep in rows of bunk beds full of lice, for two years. He became mad with desperation and depression. He walked into the forest nearby, lay down and never got up.’
These migrants, who are mainly Iranian are standing in the Adasevci migrant camp in Serbia
What’s happening here in this isolated border village has a direct link to the extraordinary rise in Iranians being trafficked over the Channel to Kent. For this is the new migrant route into Britain and the numbers are increasing all the time.
Last night, Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared the growing number of migrant Channel crossings a ‘major incident’ and suggested that Border Force ships in the Mediterranean could be sent to the Channel to deal with the crisis. In November, Dover’s RNLI lifeboat, as well as English coastguard vessels and Border Force cutters, were called out to 18 vessels carrying scores from the north French coast to England.
This month, it has been the same story. On Christmas Day, 40 arrived on five different boats after crossing the Channel.
Twenty-four hours later, three more Iranians were rescued on a perilous craft trying to reach the UK. They were followed by the arrival in Dover of five Iranians who, having made it ashore, lit a fire to keep warm on the beach, before marching to the local police station to claim asylum.
On Thursday, nine more people, including three children, were intercepted on a beach in Sandgate, Kent, having been spotted in a 13ft inflatable vessel. As of last night, 94 migrants had been detained since Christmas Eve.
Iranian migrants are fleeing Tehran and trying to get into the UK ahead of Brexit
Little wonder Tory MP Tim Loughton said this week Britain is being made to look a ‘soft touch’.
Meanwhile, David Wood, former head of Home Office immigration enforcement, said it was crucial migrants were taken straight back to France, to stop people smugglers taking them half way across the Channel and leaving them to be picked up by a ‘taxi service’ of British rescuers.
The Home Office acknowledged this week that people smugglers (many of Albanian or Afghani origin, operating in France and the UK) are provoking this seaborne surge. A spokesman said: ‘We are working with the French to target the gangs behind illegal migration attempts which put lives at risk.’
Mike Williams, who runs charter boats out of Dover, knows the Channel well.
He is very surprised Iranians make it from France to England when overloaded with passengers. He believes ‘very few’ of the small rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RIBs) bringing in Iranians travel the whole way. He told Sky News he believes the migrants are being dropped off from bigger boats on to the RIBs half way across the Channel, in a highly organised trafficking operation.
Sailing the Channel in a small vessel is treacherous and may explain why many of those I spoke to who tried it from Calais beaches have failed to reach the UK. All of those detained on Channel waters in the 24 hours to Thursday night were Iranian. There are now 400 of them living in dire conditions under blue charity tents on rough ground not far from the ferry town’s centre and, every day, more arrive.
The migrants want to take their chances and cross the Channel into the UK on small boats
But there are other disturbing factors at play. In the past few weeks, the Mail has talked to Iranians making the 1,120-mile journey from the Serbia-Croatia border to the French coast. From there, they hope to travel on to cities in England — Liverpool, Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent among them — to be housed in migrant hostels while their Home Office asylum applications are processed.
What we have discovered is that growing religious fundamentalism in Iran is driving many young people, mostly men, to flee the reign of the mullahs.
At the same time, America’s imposition of sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme has seen Iran’s currency plummet and life become all the harder for its people.
Of course, in recent decades, there was little choice for ordinary Iranians but to make the best of life in an authoritarian state where women are beaten even for removing their headscarves. But all that changed with a decision last year by Serbia to become the first country in mainland Europe to offer Iranians visa-free travel.
This has meant that many have taken the opportunity to fly to Serbia, ostensibly as tourists. Indeed, many cheap apartments and hotels are now packed, thanks to this influx.
The trouble is that while plenty fly in to Belgrade, not so many are keen to return home. Up to 40,000 Iranians flew to Belgrade before the visa-waiver was halted in October this year. Flights had arrived full and departed empty.
Serbian police estimate that 12,000 disillusioned Iranians, many young men who have protested at the country’s strict rules against homosexuality, sex outside marriage, oppression of women, the use of alcohol and free speech, never returned.
Today, many remain stranded in Serbia at migrant camps such as snowy Adasevci, 70 miles from Belgrade. Others, thought to be in their hundreds at this point alone, have made it through the border in the past few months.
They use fake EU passports to fool Croatian border guards, then pay thousands of euros to smuggling gangs who put them aboard vehicles driving across Croatia or take matters into their own hands by hiding on lorries.
Of course, once they are inside the EU, they can travel relatively easily, pushing up by train or bus to the northern French coast.
Though Croatia is not inside the so-called Schengen Area, which allows virtually unfettered movement, the checks on its borders with neighbouring countries such as Hungary and Slovenia are relaxed because they are all within the EU. Once the migrants cross those borders into the Schengen zone, it is simple to reach northern France.
Last week, having myself travelled to Calais, I spoke to Iranians who have arrived there from Serbia. One, Abol Fazl, 30, was at the Adasevci camp until a few weeks ago, when he secretly jumped on to the undercarriage of a freight lorry and got through to the EU. This is the man described to me by Arash Avazzadeh in snowy Serbia. Abol is now living rough near Calais, trying to find a trafficking agent to put him on a small boat to the UK.
‘I am with friends and I try every way I can,’ he told me, with hope in his voice.
In the Calais camp, another Iranian, 33-year-old Mehsan, explained why he, and so many of his kinsmen, have escaped their country and now dream of becoming UK citizens. ‘My friend reached England from here in a boat and is now in a three-bedroom flat in Birmingham. He likes it very much,’ he says.
Mehsan speaks perfect English because he studied the language at Tehran University and worked as an English teacher at a private college. ‘I had a good life.
‘My family were middle-class and I made decent money from my teaching work.
‘I used old copies of the Daily Mail to teach my students English [though he does not explain how he got these, English newspapers brought into the country by aid workers or the trickle of tourists are treasured by Iranians if they find them and kept for years].
‘In the evenings at our apartment, my family — who were all born Muslim — would enjoy wine or beer, which is against Islamic rules. The neighbours could be your enemy. We were afraid they would find out and report us to the mullahs and the secret police.
‘I applied for jobs teaching English in the state colleges. I never got one because my family had not fought for Iran against Iraq when it invaded our country in the Eighties. At my college, the secret police would come and check the books I was using to teach my students to make sure they were not against Islam.
‘Every one of us here has attended political demonstrations against the regime there. Many are well-educated, engineers and doctors.
‘But the mullahs back home have photos of our faces. They can easily find us, which is why we are scared even here in France.
‘Innocent people in Iran simply disappear in the name of religion. No one knows where you are when you are taken away by the police. Some families don’t even dare ask when their son does not come home. It is a life full of fear.’
Mehsan’s surname is known to the Mail. However, he asked us not to use it in case his family are persecuted by the Iranian regime because he has escaped.
He finally decided to leave Iran when he was talking innocently to one of his female students in his car on the street in Tehran. Both of them were taken to court and formally admonished for associating with the opposite sex.
For Mehsan, it was the final straw. He slipped over the border to Turkey and, from there, managed to make his way into the EU country of Hungary via Romania — smuggled by a trafficker with 63 other migrants in one truck, all sitting on a load of cakes.
‘The Hungarian border police found us. They gave us no food or water. They sent us back to Romania where I was questioned for two days and forced to sign papers without a translation, then fingerprinted. It means that if I reach the UK and fail to win asylum I will be deported back to Romania under EU rules.’
In Romania, Mehsan was put in a camp in the city of Timisoara from where he and 15 other Iranians hired three taxis and were driven by traffickers hundreds of miles to Austria.
‘Some are in England now. But I had been fingerprinted in Romania, so I claimed asylum in Austria and began taking Christianity classes to show I wanted to live a Western life.
‘When I failed to get asylum in Austria, I ran away before the appeal because I was afraid of going back to Romania.’
He went from Austria to Calais by train four months ago. Now, ‘living like a primitive man in the mud’, he waits for a boat like the other Iranians here.
One, huddling in the camp with Mehsan is called Hossain. He is 28 and has tried five times to sail to Kent. Six months ago, Hossain stole a tiny boat from the Calais port and headed off with 13 other Iranians towards the UK coast.
‘The English police stopped us and brought us back to France,’ he says. ‘We did not have a skipper. We did not know which direction we were going. We only had our mobile phones to tell us which way to go.’
In late November, Hossain made another failed attempt. He paid £4,000 to a trafficking gang for a place on a boat to England.
He was picked up by one of the gang members at the Iranian camp and taken to a beach near Calais. ‘I don’t know which one, because the smugglers don’t tell you,’ he explains, shivering from the cold.
‘It was night-time. On the beach there was a big group of other migrants I had never met before.
‘We got on the boat and set off, but in the middle of the sea the engine failed.
‘We called 999, the number in England the traffickers had told us to ring if we got into trouble. They did not give us a boat driver. The English police answered our distress call, but could not find us for nearly an hour. When they did, we were brought back here to Calais.
‘Now I will try again. I will never stop trying. I want to get out of this hell.’
Many others have been luckier. The Government estimates up to 300 Iranians and a few Iraqis have reached Kent in the past two months.
After being interviewed by Border Force officers, some have been despatched to live in Liverpool at a migrant holding centre called Birley Court.
It is a red-brick building, and in the courtyard groups of young men, in their mid-20s, congregate and chat in Iranian language Farsi. They will now wait up to two years for their asylum claims to be assessed by the Government.
When we visited, one young Iranian in smart clothes said: ‘I had no option but to come to the UK. Life in Iran was horrendous.’
His friend added: ‘Getting here has been a bad experience.
‘I do not know if I will get asylum and be allowed to stay. I only want to work and never want to return to Iran.’
These young migrants are clearly nervous of speaking publicly, and are often told by immigration officials not to communicate with journalists.
After all, they come from a country where free speech is condemned and worry that if they break British Government rules it will mean their asylum claim is turned down.
Not far from Birley Court is Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Here they are giving Iranian newcomers a warm welcome. Dozens are converting to Christianity and some services, where the majority of the congregation are Iranians, are now held in Farsi.
People-smugglers advise Iranians coming to the UK that if they say they are Christians it will smooth their asylum claim.
They can argue, too, that they cannot be returned to Iran, where they would face persecution and even death at the hands of the strictly Islamic country where Christianity is abhorred.
This turn of events has led dubious Home Office officials to quiz the new ‘converts’ about their faith. During their asylum application process, they can face such questions as, ‘How many chapters are in the Bible’s Book of John?’ and ‘Can you name Jesus’s 12 disciples?’
Back in Serbia, this religious test is far from the minds of those still plotting a route into the EU.
A 32-year-old Iranian called Amir calls to me over to the wire fence surrounding the Adasevci camp. He is wearing a red bandana round his head and whispers that he was a barber in Tehran.
Poking his mobile phone up to the wire, he shows me an official-looking document he has photographed, which states his name.
‘I am atheist and this is the summons for me to attend an Iranian court for punishment because I dared to say I was not Muslim,’ he says sadly as he pleads with me for help to get to Calais and then England.
No wonder Amir — and so many young men like him — run from the country of their birth.
And now they are arriving in ever-greater numbers across the perilous English Channel.