The muddy sprawl of chipboard huts on the north French coast was a miserable staging post for migrants fleeing war for a better life. For Mohamad Jabarzada, the refugee camp was the hub of a lucrative business built on violence and misery.
Jabarzada – who went by a string of aliases – was one of the major players of the illicit people-smuggling racket, trading on the desperation of migrants thousands of miles from home to cross the English Channel to join diaspora in the UK.
The 40-year-old was the leader of an Iraqi-Kurdish group based in the Liniere Camp on the outskirts of Dunkirk, the first official refugee centre built in France in March 2016 at a cost of €4 million ($4.7 m).
It was welcomed by rights groups as a welcome upgrade from squalid accommodation nearby but became controlled by mafia groups as people like Jabarzada ruled the camp with a mixture of threats and sexual violence. The camp closed the following year after a fire during fighting between rival Afghan and Kurdish groups.
The destruction of camps in northern France in 2016-2017 left adults and children vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers, according to the Refugee Resilience Collective, a group of therapists working with the migrants in northern France.
Children forced to sleep rough “often disappear” after they are turned out of accommodation by the French authorities, it said in a submission to British MPs last month. It “increases the likelihood that they will turn to any adult for help, including the traffickers who are watching and waiting for these situations,” the group said.
Traffickers had identified young migrants travelling alone as a potentially lucrative source of revenue and were targeting them in social media messages, said Vincent Cochetel, special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
British officials say tackling people like Jabarzada is key to their efforts to prevent migrants travelling in small boats to the UK.
At least four members of a Kurdish-Iranian family drowned when their small craft capsized five miles off the coast between Dunkirk and Calais on Tuesday. Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, Anita, 9, and Armin, 6, died while Artin,15 months, was missing.
The deaths followed three others in 2020 on the perilous route across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Four people are believed to have died last year.
The case of Jabarzada highlights the nature of the diffuse smuggling networks who all make profits from the trade. Jabarzada secured guns from a group of Albanian traffickers in Arras, a city some 100 kilometres inland from Dunkirk.
He shot at officers when they first tried to arrest him in 2017. He was believed to have netted hundreds of thousands of euros from migrants seeking to head to Britain.
He was finally caught eight months later after an anonymous informant passed on his phone number to police who put him under surveillance. He was caught in the woods with a gun and ammunition stuffed down his underwear, according to the French local paper La Voix du Nord.
He was jailed in February for up to 12 years, the latest in a string of sentences he received in France. Two of his accomplices received lengthy jail terms.
British investigators believe that most migrants become involved with organised crime at some point on long journeys from the Middle East and Africa. Anti-smuggling officials in the UK believe that migrants are passed between gangs when they reach northern Europe, using encrypted phone messaging.
Rob Jones, a senior investigator tackling people smuggling at the UK’s National Crime Agency, said it was cheap and easy to pick up a dinghy and outboard motor. “If you overload that, pack it, and charge people between €3,500 and €5,000, you can see what the profit margin is,” he told MPs.
An NCA threat assessment last year said that many camps were controlled by organised crime gangs “willing to use violence to threaten migrants into travelling to the UK by boat”.
An Iranian migrant told British media on Wednesday how he had been forced aboard a dinghy with 14 others by a smuggler at gunpoint. "They pulled a gun on me and said: 'You either get in the boat or you lose your money and your life,'” the man, who declined to give his real name, told the Press Association.
Despite the arrest of Jabarzada and other law enforcement successes, the French authorities said that they had intercepted more than 1,300 people on boats in the Channel last month.
Priti Patel, the British home secretary, has faced intense pressure from members of her party to stem the flow of migrants using the sea passage.
By July, the UK had paid at least £114 million ($149m) to France since 2015 for extra security measures on the northern French coastline to try to stem the flow.
The money was spent on increased patrols, night-vision goggles, security cameras and increased aerial surveillance, but failed to stem the increase. More than 7,500 people are believed to have tried to make the crossing by boat so far this year – four times the number last year.
The UK has given money to France to help build reception centres away from the northern coast to try to stop them from becoming jumping off points on the final legs of journeys that could have continued for thousands of miles.
Refugees have moved to using the riskier sea routes after security was stepped up at key transport interchanges where migrants tried to board lorries. Cross-channel traffic has been hit by Covid-19 restrictions.
Experts say that a surge in migrants trying to cross on small boats may have been triggered by concerns of more rigorous border checks after Brexit and to take advantage of a summer of warm, calm weather.
The UK government said it plans to make the crossings “unviable” and wants the boats to be stopped at sea and returned to France.
“The tragic news highlights the dangers that come with crossing the Channel and I will do everything I can to stop callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people,” said Ms Patel.