Major UK migrant smuggler 'Scorpion' arrested in Iraq's Kurdish region

Ex-soldier Rob Lawrie tells The National a little girl's death drove him to hunt Barzan Majeed

Barzan Majeed, known as 'Scorpion', was arrested outside his home in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Photo: National Crime Agency
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A people smuggler known as “Scorpion”, who is wanted in several European countries, has been arrested by security forces in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Barzan Majeed was tracked down by Rob Lawrie, a former soldier, who told The National that the death of a five-year-old girl and her family in a boat in the English Channel drove him to hunt down the human trafficking kingpin.

Majeed admitted to Mr Lawrie he may have been responsible for smuggling up to 10,000 migrants across the English Channel and his gang is believed to have controlled much of the human trafficking between Europe and the UK between 2016 and 2021.

He was sentenced by a court in Belgium to 10 years in jail in October 2022, with a fine of €968,000 ($1.04 million), while 26 members of his gang were convicted there, as well as in the UK, France.

Mr Lawrie and BBC investigative journalist Sue Mitchell tracked down Majeed to the city of Sulaymaniyah. Their investigation features in a BBC podcast titled To Catch a Scorpion.

Mr Lawrie became involved in helping refugees after learning of the fate of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Europe from Turkey in 2015.

He has built up an extensive knowledge of people smuggling networks based on his work with asylum seekers in the north of France.

One of the families he got to know was that of Kajal Hussein, a woman who along with 27 people – three of them her children – drowned while crossing the English Channel in 2021.

Ms Hussein died aged 45, while the three children, Hadia, son Mobin, and younger daughter Hesty, were 22, 16 and seven respectively.

They had set of from a Kurdish town in the north of Iraq and Mr Lawrie explained that money paid by migrants often ends up in networks such as that led by Majeed.

“I really wanted to go after Barzan Majeed because I’ve worked with kids in camps,” Mr Lawrie told The National

“I remember little Hesty, who died with four other members of her family. When I met the other children I’ve been working with in the camp we just cried because little Hesty hadn’t made it across.

“So I decided to pull in all my resources, all my contacts and friends and said to them ‘we need to go after him and I need your help’.”

Majeed's involvement had first emerged when police in the UK noticed the same number appearing on the phones of migrants they picked up. It would often be stored under the name “Scorpion” or with a picture of the creature.

Using a contact, Mr Lawrie found out that Majeed was conducting business though Istanbul, which was confirmed by the people smuggler's brother.

After leaving his number at a money exchange in the Turkish city, where Majeed had recently deposited €200,000 (£172,000), Mr Lawrie eventually received a call in the middle of the night from him.

Hearing that he might be in Sulaymaniyah, Mr Lawrie and a BBC journalist set off to the Kurdish city. After another contact managed to reach Majeed, the people smuggler texted Mr Lawrie and they met in a shopping mall.

There he came across a “very well presented, very well manicured, very softly spoken” man who somehow believed he would be able to clear his name.

Mr Lawrie said that he had to put aside all the emotion from the deaths of the Hussein family.

“I had to prepare myself because we had hunted him down in a shopping mall but we couldn’t go in all guns blazing,” he said.

“What I wanted to do was get him somewhere quiet but l had to hold on to my anger and upset over Hesty and get information out of him.”

But Majeed “just didn't see a problem” when confronted with the fate of the migrants who paid his gang £6,000 ($7500) to cross in flimsy boats.

“When I put it to him that the journey that led to Hesty’s death started with him chasing money and organising that journey, he just didn’t get it. He was so far disassociated from that little girl who I bought shoes for.

“These people at the top of the chain, like Barzan Majeed, because they’re not putting people in boats so hey can very easily detach themselves from what we call human traffickers.”

Migrants attempt to cross the Channel from France – in pictures

In an interview with the BBC, Majeed spoke of how he got into people-smuggling in 2016, during a massive inflow of migrants to Europe.

But he denied he was a major player in criminal organisation and claimed other gang members had tried to implicate him.

He said that migrants “were begging the smugglers” and said the criminals “because of the sake of God” will transport them.

Majeed had himself been smuggled into England in the back of a lorry aged 20 and, despite being refused leave to remain in the UK, stayed several years.

He worked as mechanic in the city of Nottingham and spent time in prison for gun and drug offences before being deported in 2015.

During their investigation, the BBC team shared their findings with authorities in the UK and Europe.

Officials in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region used the findings to locate Majeed, said a senior member of the regional government and he was detained at Interpol's request.

“It was at 7am this morning that the arrest was made outside his home,” the official said. “They arrested him the moment he stepped out of the home and arrested him without any major problems.

“We are now looking at charges against him here first and foremost, and then we will be discussing with European police and prosecutors who want to question him and deal with him.”

“At last we have a chance of seeing justice done in this case, of having him directly face his crimes and answer for them,” Ann Lukowiak, from the public prosecutor's office in Belgium, said after his arrest.

Updated: May 21, 2024, 8:24 AM