When the migrant crisis started, about three years ago, it was seen as a mainly Syrian affair. Caught in the crossfire between Bashar al-Assad and sundry jihadist groups, ordinary Syrians were heading for Europe, part of the largest mass movement of people since the second world war. But as we now know, that analysis was wrong. Or rather, it was only one facet of the historical migration phenomenon that was unfolding then and still is today.
As a reporter, I hit the migrant trail, following the new arrivals by foot, bus, train and ferry through the Greek islands and the Balkans. I heard many languages besides Arabic, among them Pashto, Urdu, Bengali and even French (spoken by a Congolese family I encountered at the Serbian–Hungarian border). But the language that really made my ears perk up was my own: Persian, including the Dari variant of Afghanistan as well as the urban dialect spoken by my own kin, the Tehrani middle class.
Britain is now confronting the hitherto invisible reality of Iranian migration. The recent news reports have been about migrants making daily attempts to cross the English Channel by dinghy, and usually halfway down these reports comes the fact that the migrants say they are Iranian. At first glance, this might seem odd. Iran is not afflicted by a war, famine or other humanitarian disaster. But according to the L’Auberge des Migrants group in Calais, this is what makes Iranians stand out: they ‘seem to be the only ones who both dare’ to cross the Channel ‘and find the means to do so’.
For three years now, Iranians have topped the league tables of nationalities seeking asylum in the UK with more than 4,000 applications lodged in 2016 and nearly 2,600 the following year, according to Home Office statistics. Only a tiny minority attempt to cross illegally into England aboard unseaworthy vessels, but this is happening far more frequently. Why?
Iran has been miserable ever since the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his Parisian exile to usher in his total Shiite state. It’s a suffocating place, with Islamic conformity enforced on pain of flogging, jail and death, and a lousy, mismanaged economy made worse by US sanctions. For all its ancient civilisational glories, Iran is also a cruel, spiritually deracinated land. I increasingly struggle to decide where the blame lies: with the present regime or some deeper ailment in the national soul.
It’s why my own family has largely left. Some, like my uncle, went abroad for education (in his case Utah, of all places) shortly before the revolution and never returned. Others, like my mother and me, joined the diaspora in America post-revolution, thanks to the family-preference visa programme, aka Donald Trump’s hated ‘chain migration’. But all this has been going on for four decades. It doesn’t explain the latest wave, its size and timing. The answer lies elsewhere.
To wit: modern human-smuggling networks have perfected the business of transporting people from point A to point B, across national frontiers, for the right price. Information technologies, not least cheap smartphones with astonishing GPS capabilities, make it possible to blaze ever-new trails. Each group of migrants leaves digital breadcrumbs for subsequent cohorts to follow. There are tricks to adapt, even as governments open and close their borders. Entire Persian-language Facebook groups are devoted to helping Iranian (and Afghan) ‘travellers’ — the term migrants use to refer to themselves — cross into Europe.
I had an insight into this world when I joined a group of Afghan and Iranian migrants, all of them men, at a smuggler’s safe house in a working-class district of Istanbul. The cockroach-infested house was a staging ground, so to speak, where the migrants rested briefly, after making the passage through the mountains of north-west Iran into Turkey, and prepared for the dinghy ride across the Aegean to Greece.
The process was remarkably business-like. At one point, the smuggler, an Afghan with slanted Central Asian eyes and a Bruce Lee haircut, summoned us to his makeshift office and tried to up-sell services beyond the basic boat ride to the Greek islands. If we paid him $8,000 each, on top of the agreed $2,000 for the Aegean crossing, his men could get the group from Athens all the way to Paris or Berlin or wherever else by car, saving the migrants the hassle of trekking by foot, bus and rail. And now, it seems, the UK is being added to this list of destinations — at least for those with the money.
The migrants I spoke to passionately debated where to settle once they made it to mainland Europe, almost like a family weighing up various vacation destinations. Finland was ‘too cold, and they don’t pay much welfare’, said one. Switzerland was too expensive. And by picking Europe, the men had ruled out other destinations. Oz, for example, was out of the question: they had heard that Australian authorities divert illegals to Papua New Guinea, and you could end up ‘having to share a hot cell with a darky’. A consensus formed around Britain, mainly because most of them spoke at least a little English. But they also knew the Channel crossing was no easy feat. In reality, most of them would end up in Germany or Sweden.
Unlike the Afghans, Iranians can’t claim to be fleeing war and the Taliban. So they either pretend to be Afghan (not difficult) or they cite persecution on account of being Christian converts. (Liverpool Cathedral has reported converting Iranians at the rate of one a week.) There are many sincere Iranian converts who risk their lives to follow the Nazarene; but there are also some like the young man I met on Lesbos who asked me if it would be better for his asylum case if he were a Christian, a homosexual ‘or maybe both’. I told him to pick one or the other.
A few years ago, these trafficking options were not open, even to those who had the money. But the past few years have seen people-trafficking become a vast global industry, reaching from Tehran to Calais and now Kent.
So why do the Iranians come? The answer is simple: because they can.