15-month-old Artin found dead in the sea in Norway
- Henriette JohannesenJournalist
The remains found in the sea near Karmøy, in south-western Norway, on New Year’s Day this year, were those of fifteen-month-old Artin Irannezhad. He came from Sardasht, a city in the mountainous areas of north-western Iran, on the border with Iraq.
Artin was the youngest child of Rasoul Irannezhad (35) and Shiva Mohammad Panahi (35). He had two older siblings, Anita (9) and Armin (6).
The family spent the last weeks of their lives in miserable conditions living in a tent, at an unofficial refugee camp outside Dunkirk in France.
The entire family died on the morning of October 27th 2020, when the boat they were onboard capsized. They were on their way across the English Channel to apply for asylum in Britain.
There are reported to have been about twenty people on board the boat, a small leisure craft not suited for the rough waters, when the accident happened. Following the accident, at least fifteen people were rescued and received hospital treatment. The man who steered the boat is still being held by French authorities, on suspicion of human trafficking and manslaughter, a prosecutor in Dunkirk told Aftenbladet.
Artin had been missing since the accident. His body drifted 660 miles before the remains were found by a fisherman at the southern tip of Karmøy. Aftenbladet has tried to contact the fisherman, but was informed that he wishes to remain anonymous.
Artin’s identity was confirmed by police on Karmøy today.
Fled from poverty
Artin came from Sardasht, a mainly Kurdish city, in an impoverished part of Iran. Khalil Irannezhad, Artin’s uncle on his father’s side, told Aftenbladet jobs are hard to find, and that many people have left Sardasht for Europe in recent years.
Shiva, Artin’s mother, was a housewife, while his father Rasoul worked casual jobs, Khalil said.
Hawkar Irannezhad, also a relative of Artins father, said the economy in the area deteriorated further, following the reimposed economic sanctions towards Iran, put in place in 2018 by Donald Trump, the former President of the United States.
The sanctions turned Iran’s economic growth to recession. Oil exports plummeted and inflation rates rose sharply. The rural population was hit particularly hard by rising food prices, according to the World Bank.
Khalil told Aftenbladet Artin’s parents sold everything they owned to pay for their attempt to reach Europe.
– Rasoul wanted to go to England, he said.
According to Khalil, the reason they set their sights on England was that Rasoul thought it would give them the best opportunity to finding work.
Khalil told Aftenbladet the family has no relatives in England. They set out on the journey with several others from Sardasht.
Sent back from Greece
It was a long and demanding journey to Europe for the young family with three children, according to the relatives who spoke to Aftenbladet.
When they left Iran, around the end of May or early June 2020, according to Khalil, Artin had not yet celebrated his first birthday. He could not speak yet, said Khalil. The few words Artin knew before he died, he learned while traveling.
In a video recorded by another asylum seeker who met the family in France, Artin waves to the camera and says «Bye bye!». It is the last video of Artin Aftenbladet is aware of.
Turn on audio at the bottom left of the video.
Khalil, the brother of Artin’s father, remained at home in Iran but often spoke to the family during their travels. He told Aftenbladet the family crossed the border from Iran to Turkey, staying there for about a month.
From Turkey, they tried to enter Greece, Khalil said. He had few details about the journey when he spoke to Aftenbladet in April, but said the family was stopped in Greece and sent back to Turkey.
As a response to the staggering number of people crossing into Europe during what was dubbed the European refugee crisis in 2015, Turkey and the EU struck a deal on «irregular migration» in 2016.
The agreement allows Greece to send refugees and migrants back to Turkey in exchange for the EU resettling Syrian refugees from camps in Turkey.
Turkey also received six billion Euros from the EU to facilitate refugees, and the process towards future EU-membership for Turkey was to be «re-energized». The relations between the EU and Turkeys increasingly authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since deteriorated, but in one way the agreement on tackling «irregular migration» has worked:
The flow of migrants now arriving Europe through Turkey is only a fraction of what it was in 2015, when arrivals peaked.
At the same time, the agreement has been criticized for making life more difficult for people fleeing war, prosecution and poverty. Turkey now hosts about four million refugees, the most of any country, according tho the UN.
– It’s all about making sure as few people as possible makes it into our part of the world, Beate Ekeløve-Slydal, a political advisor with Amnesty International told Aftenbladet.
– The safe and legal routes to Europe are effectively closed for refugees. The routes that remain are the illegal, and the dangerous, she said.
– Quarantined on a ship
On their second attempt, Artin and his family succeeded crossing to Europe, Khalil told Aftenbladet.
He said he was out of contact with his brother for fifteen days. When they spoked again, they had arrived in Italy.
– Their biggest worry was Turkey, Khalil said.
– When they arrived in Italy, they felt as though they were safe and moving in the right direction. Rasoul called every night and said they were fine, and was getting closer.
The whole family spent the first three weeks in Italy in coronavirus quarantine, on a ship off the Italian coast, Khalil said.
The Guardian has reported that Italy has been using ships as quarantine centres for refugees rescued from the Mediterranean since April 2020. There have been reports of several deaths linked to the quarantine ships, including that of a fifteen-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who died in October 2020. Al Jazeera has reported people jumping from the ships in order to escape, and alleged suicide attempts.
Chose to travel onward
When Artin and his family had completed their quarantine, Khalil said they were asked by Italian authorities whether they wanted to stay and apply for asylum in Italy, or to travel onward.
The family wanted to move on. Khalil said they received a sum of money from the Italian authorities, enough for them to reach France.
Alberto Colella, Italy’s ambassador to Norway, told Aftenbladet that he has never heard of, and would «rule out the possibility that Italian officials have been offering money to refugees or asylum-seekers in order to leave Italy».
In an e-mail, Colella wrote that after registration and a health check, asylum seekers arriving Italy are offered shelter, in addition to food and health services, and are entitled to an allowance from the Italian authorities.
«What the refugees do with their pocket money is of course completely up to them to decide», Colella wrote.
The «Jungles» of France
For Artin, who was fifteen months old in October 2020 and had spent a third of his life on the move, Dunkirk in France was his final stop. Dunkirk, and the neighbouring town of Calais, are situated on the coast, where the English Channel is at its narrowest.
For years, migrants and refugees heading for Britain have ended up here. At times there have been organized camps to provide shelter, but mostly not.
The makeshift camps in and around Calais and Dunkirk – usually just simple tents and tarpaulins – are called «jungles». The name is said to derive from a word for «forest» in Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The most notorious of the «jungles» was simply called «The Jungle» or «Calais Jungle» and existed from March 2015 to October 2016, during the height of the European refugee crisis.
The camp was situated on what was previously a waste dump, just outside Calais.
In the summer of 2015, when millions of people were fleeing from war and poverty toward Europe, «The Jungle» grew to become a small town. There were restaurants, a library, hairdressers and a school, but the living conditions and sanitation were terrible. There was no infrastructure to cope with the number of people living in the camp.
Every night, or whenever there was a line of traffic backed up on the motorway, hundreds of people would attempt to sneak on board trailers that were heading for the ferry or the tunnel. This demanded a huge surveillance operation, with barbed wire fences, dogs, and large numbers of police, stationed around the ferry terminal and tunnel. One of the fences, donated by the United Kingdom, had previously been used to protect a NATO summit.
Around the huge terminal next to the tunnel, one square kilometre of vegetation was cleared to make it more difficult to hide. In addition, a network of ditches was filled with water, like moats.
There were repeated reports of police violence, in addition to violent conflicts within the camp in Calais. A 2016 Unicef report on children’s living conditions in the camps in northern France described degradation, sexual abuse, and forced prostitution, among other problems.
At its peak, ten thousand people reportedly lived in «The Jungle». Rumours about brutal and organized human trafficking were rife, and several deaths were given a great deal of media attention. In the autumn of 2016, French authorities razed the camp.
Today, nothing is left of what was once one of the largest refugee camps in Europe. A sign declares «No Access» and states that what used to be «The Jungle» is now a protected wildlife sanctuary. It is mostly scrub and thorn bushes, but half-buried in the ground, vestiges still remain: pieces of tent cloth, empty beer cans from 2014, a heat-reflecting aluminium blanket.
Three police officers guard what was once the main entrance to «The Jungle». They tell Aftenbladet they are making sure that no one starts living in the area again. The motorway behind the police officers, which leads down to the ferry terminal, is still protected by a three-metre-high barbed wire fence.
A child in the woods
Bruno Libbrecht, a social worker from Heuvelland in Belgium, just across the border from France, has been volunteering in the refugee camps around Dunkirk since 2018.
Along with friends and family, Libbrecht brings warm clothes, sleeping bags and toys to the suburb of Grande-Synthe outside Dunkirk, on the third Sunday of each month.
The camps in Grande-Synthe have never been as large as «The Jungle», but conditions are worse.
– We always bring hot water so they can wash their hair, shave and feel a little better, Libbrecht told Aftenbladet.
– They live in tents in the mud, the police harass them on a weekly basis, and everyone looks down on them. We try to help them feel some dignity, he said.
Libbrecht said that as they were visiting one of the camps in Dunkirk last October, they saw a small child standing alone, poking at a campfire with a stick. The boy was wearing Crocs, a blue one piece suit, and a life jacket. As they approached, the boy’s family came over and they began talking. The boy’s name was Artin.
– The parents shoes were in poor shape, so the others went off to buy new shoes for them while I played with Artin. He stuck in my mind, Libbrecht says.
After the accident that killed Artin and his family, Libbrecht wrote a post that was widely shared on social media in Belgium.
– The only thing we can do is tell people his name, so Artin doesn’t become just another statistic, he says.
– A really nice family
The camp where Artin and his family lived in the weeks before their deaths was located in a small, leafy wood between Le Puythouck, a popular recreational area for Grande-Synthe locals, and the Auchan shopping centre.
Broken tent poles, water bottles, beer cans and remnants of sleeping bags litter the forrest floor. There are tyre tracks everywhere from when the authorities brought in machinery to demolish the camp earlier this year. A children’s winter suit is left in a thicket.
Aftenbladet is not aware of official figures for how many people lived there, but volunteers we have spoken to estimate about five hundred.
The tent where Artin lived was about a hundred metres from the edge of the woods. Leyna Amara Hammou (25), a volunteer with the aid organization VZW Humain, met the family in the camp two days before they died.
Amara Hammou points to an open area between the trees and says she is quite sure that was where Artin and the rest of the family were living when she met them. Now there is nothing left.
– They were reserved and didn’t say much, but were a very nice and decent family. The daughter spoke some English and told me she wanted to be a doctor, she says.
A new camp
Since mid-April, refugees and migrants around Dunkirk have been living in a new camp. It is about a mile away, close to a factory of the industrial group Air Liquide. The new camp is also located in a small, wooded area, but is more hidden from public view.
In the camp, the vast majority are young men from the Kurdish regions of Iran and Iraq, and from Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are also a few families with children and a group from Vietnam.
It is difficult to get an overview of how many people live there, but there are at least two to three hundred.
There are no toilets. The one supply of water that has been set up is located on a farm road a few hundred metres away from the camp itself. Voluntary organizations are there every day with food, clothes, tents and sleeping bags, and generators and power banks to charge phones.
Everyone Aftenbladet talks to in the camp says that they want to go to Britain, where they think it will be quicker and easier to get a residence permit, find a job and start a new life. Several of those we speak to say they have family or friends in England.
Many people seem exhausted. Most of those who came to «The Jungle» in Calais six years ago arrived as part of the huge wave of migration that was known as the «Refugee Crisis». Now, several of those we talk to in the camp outside Dunkirk, say that they have been in Europe for years.
Charlie Whitbread (35), founder of the organization Mobile Refugee Support, which has aided refugees and migrants around Dunkirk since 2017, tells Aftenbladet that there are still newcomers to Europe arriving in the camp.
– Last week there were around eighty new people, he says.
– About half in the camp are new arrivals, but yes, there are a huge number of people who have been circulating around Europe for several years now, he says.
Mohammed (27), a beekeeper from Mosul, says he has been in the camp for two months, but that he arrived in Europe six years ago. He says he has lived in Genoa in Italy and in Hamburg in Germany.
Mohammed says that he made the decision to leave Germany after ending up in conflict with his boss, who according to Mohammed did not take the welfare of the bees seriously. Now he wants to go to England and work with honeybees there instead.
A new, dangerous route to Britain
For a migrant or refugee, targeting Britain is a dangerous undertaking. According to a report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), from 1999 to November 2020, 293 people lost their lives while attempting to enter the country.
The number includes Artin, his parents and siblings.
The summary of deaths features accident after accident of people knocked over by vehicles; others fell from a trailer or a train, were crushed under a truck, or electrocuted on the railway lines.
The vast majority who have entered Britain have hidden in trucks on their way to England, either on their own or with the help of smugglers. Until the end of 2018, crossings in small boats were rare.
Since then there has been a sharp increase both in numbers crossing the English Channel by boat and in deaths at sea.
One explanation is that the increasingly stringent security measures around the ferry terminal and tunnel have forced the smuggling networks to rethink their methods. Another is that COVID-19 has led to less cross-Channel freight traffic.
According to Khalil, Artin’s uncle in Sardasht, Artin and his family attempted to reach Britain on a boat organized by traffickers, because they found no other way.
Khalil said they first tried the Channel tunnel, but were stopped by security guards and returned to the camp outside Dunkirk. In the end, they risked an even more dangerous route.
On the morning of October 27th last year, Frans Botman, an airline captain and sailor living in France, was heading east in The English Channel. He was on his boat «Marbuzet», a 40-foot sailboat, with a niece and a cousin. They had set out from Calais, on one of the last stages of a long journey from the south of France to the Netherlands.
Off the coast of Dunkirk, there was a fresh breeze to a light gale and waves of one and a half meters, when they spotted a group of people in the water waving at them, Botman told Aftenbladet.
For a moment Botman thought they were divers. Then he alerted the Coast Guard over the radio.
Some of the people were sitting on a small boat lying upside down. Others lay in the water holding on to the boat. The few who wore life jackets, Botman estimates there were five or six, were floating in the water, with cans of gasoline and other debris from the capsized boat.
A few hundred meters away they spotted what seemed to be two lifeless bodies floating in the water.
– Hard to comprehend
Botman said they rescued two boys who were some distance away, on board the boat. They took off their wet clothes and warmed them with towels.
The first, a boy maybe 14 or 15 years old, Botman said, was so cold he had to be hauled on board. The second one was older, in his late teens, Botman said. He does not think they would have survived much longer in the frigid water.
– The eldest spoke a little English. He said they had been in the water for 40 minutes, Botman said.
Botman told Aftenbladet a fishing boat came along and rescued more people out of the water. Then came a rescue vessel, a rib, a pilot boat and a helicopter.
– We kept some distance and followed the rescue operation. We saw a diver jumping in to retrieve bodies from the capsized boat, Botmans said.
Over the radio, they heard rescuers had found a young girl, Artin's sister Anita (9). Her heart had stopped. According to Botman, rescuers tried to revive her on board a rib.
Botman said they stayed in the area for an hour and a half before sailing on.
– It was a shocking experience, he says.
– It is difficult to comprehend that someone will pay so much money to risk their lives, in miserable conditions at the end of October, to come to a kind of promised land. It's a harsh reality, and shows a side of life that is far from our own, until you suddenly encounter it.
Aftenbladet has reached out to one person who supposedly are one the survivors from the accident. The individual declined to be interviewed for this story, citing fear of interrupting a pending asylum application.
In addition to Artin, two people were reported missing after the accident. Aftenblad has no information about them being found.
When Artin’s remains were discovered, he was wearing an orange and grey life jacket from the French sports chain Decathlon, outside of his overalls.
The life jacket is made for kayaking, for people weighing between 25 and 40 kilos. The life jacket is not intended for children who cannot swim, and is far too large for a child of fifteen months.
In the photos of the life jacket, taken by the police on Karmøy, it appears as though someone has tried to adapt it with extra straps. Aftenbladet does not know who gave Artin the life jacket.
Two people arrested
Following the accident, it was reported that the alleged driver of the boat, an Iranian born in 1983, was arrested by French police.
Sebastien Pieve, a public prosecutor in Dunkirk, told Aftenbladet in March this year that the individual is still in custody, suspected of manslaughter and trafficking.
Another individual was arrested in March this year, suspected of the same crimes in the same case, Pieve said. Aftenbladet has no information about the identity of the other suspect.
Volunteers in the camps around Dunkerque who spoke to Aftenbladet, said it is rare for traffickers themselves to be on the boats crossing the channel. They said the boats are often driven by migrants who can’t afford to pay the full prices for the passage.
One survivor of the accident told the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw.net that the person steering the boat was not a trafficker.
Aftenbladet has asked Mr. Pieve at the public prosecutor in Dunkerque if any of the arrested individuals has been appointed a lawyer. Pieve did not respond.
The investigation was slow
The investigation into the remains found on Karmøy took longer than expected. As early as the beginning of January, the police on Karmøy were tipped off that the body could be Artin’s.Three days after the remains were found, Aftenbladet wrote that the accident off Dunkirk was part of the investigation.
There were no reports of missing persons in the immediate area around Karmøy that matched the discovery, and the suit the remains were found in, was identical to the one Artin was wearing in photos published in British media.
Norwegian police were aware of the photos, but reluctant to provide details to the press, since they could not establish the identity with certainty.
Shortly after the discovery, police were able to obtain a full DNA profile from the remains. Nevertheless, the case still took five months to solve.
The reason for this is that a DNA profile alone does not provide an identity. The DNA profile must be compared to the DNA of a family member. Following the accident, Artin’s parents and siblings were taken to shore in France. France was therefore seen as a the key to solve the case.
If France had DNA profiles from an autopsy of Artin’s siblings or parents, those profiles could be used to confirm whether the body found off Karmøy was Artin.
The exchange of DNA profiles between countries is standard procedure in identity cases, but for a long time Norwegian police received no response from their counterparts in France. Aftenbladet is aware this led to frustration on the Norwegian side.
Aftenbladet repeatedly tried to get answers from the French police on whether they had DNA profiles and why the case was taking so long, without being given a satisfactory response.
After speaking to Aftenbladet once by phone, Mr. Pieve seized to reply to requests for comments or further information. In April, Aftenbladet tried to seek out Mr. Pieve in his offices in Dunkerque, but was told to make an interview request by e-mail. The e-mail was not answered.
At the end of April, Thomas Utne Pettersen, division leader in Haugesund police force in Norway, told Aftenbladet that they had been given «indications» that France had the DNA profiles, and were to send them to Norway.
The Norwegian police never received DNA-profiles from their French counterparts.
The case was solved after the Norwegian police got touch with a relative of Artin, living in Oslo, Norway. Aftenbladet does not know the identity of the relative.
When it was established that the family relation was sufficiently close for DNA comparison, a DNA test was done by the police, and the profile was compared to DNA from the remains found at Karmøy.
Artin’s relatives are informed about the identification, according to a police statement.
Want the remains to be returned home
Artin’s parents and siblings – Rasoul, Shiva, Anita and Armin – were buried in Sardasht, Iran, in November 2020. According to Rasoul’s brother Khalil, the Iranian government paid to have the bodies repatriated from France to Iran.
Hawkar, cousin of Khalil and Rasoul, has told Aftenbladet that they want Artin’s remains to be buried in Sardasht.
Artin’s grandmother has said the same to TV2.
Aftenbladet has not spoken to Khalil, or any of Artin’s other relatives, since the boy’s identity was confirmed today.
The Iranian embassy in Oslo has not responded to a request for comment.
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