Incredible rise of people smuggling kingpin ‘The Scorpion’: How he went from being smuggled into Dover on a lorry to a life of fast cars, female admirers and piles of cash in Nottingham… before finally being snared at his luxury mansion

Clad in a Ralph Lauren shirt, layered with an expensive gilet, with gleaming white teeth and highly manicured nails, the man sitting in front of me looked like an affluent businessman: well groomed, good looking, the epitome of respectability.

What he was about to admit, however, in the nondescript cafe we’d agreed to meet in, belied his smooth appearance.

For while sipping a strong coffee, and with an insouciance that was utterly chilling, he began to explain that he had personally masterminded the smuggling of tens of thousands of migrants into Europe.

More than this, he casually confessed to being one of just two main smugglers heading operations across Belgium and France between 2016 and 2019.

Friends said Barzan Majeed, seen with his three of his brothers, ‘wanted to be a trillionaire’ 

He even claimed, without a hint of repentance in his voice, that some ’95 to 99 per cent’ of illegal crossings to the UK since 2016 – and one must thus surely conclude, all those tragic drownings of men, women and children in the Channel – could be linked to him.

For the man I was meeting was Barzan Majeed, better known as smuggling kingpin Scorpion.

A man on Interpol’s Most Wanted list, Majeed managed a highly sophisticated operation that – as my colleague Rob Lawrie and I discovered in a six-month-long investigation for BBC Radio 4 – spanned Turkish coastlines, Belgian ports and flimsy boats and rubber dinghies launched from France.

When police picked up migrants, inspection of their phones – thousands of them – revealed exactly the same number: Scorpion’s.

So keen was Majeed on his persona, he even used a picture of an arachnid as his avatar for WhatsApp messages.

Until his arrest this week, Majeed, a 38-year-old Iraqi Kurd, lived on a luxurious gated development in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, with his wife of two years and their infant son. They married after being introduced by their families.

His neighbours include many government officials. Their homes are marble clad, while swimming pools dot the landscape. A private park and school are on site for the wealthy inhabitants.

Majeed, better known as smuggling kingpin Scorpion, was arrested last week

Majeed, better known as smuggling kingpin Scorpion, was arrested last week

Yet Scorpion’s gilded lifestyle is founded entirely on others’ misery, as he openly admitted when we met at a cafe in Iraq last month.

When asked how many people he had helped smuggle to the UK, he bragged: ‘Maybe a thousand, maybe ten thousand. I don’t know, I didn’t count. I was on charge [sic] for Europe, for the money.

‘It doesn’t make me feel good, but I wasn’t a mastermind. I was between them all. It’s not easy to do all these things, and all these people is [sic] working for you.’

In the business of people smuggling, there’s no doubt, though, that Scorpion is highly skilled.

Not least because he too was smuggled into the UK on the back of a lorry into Dover, in 2006, aged 20.

Attracted by the promise of a good life and beautiful women – he said that, as a youngster, he always envisaged England being full of blondes – he left his Iraqi homeland, eventually settling in Nottingham.

There, he began to work his way up through the smuggling network, eventually rising to the top. His success would buy him fast cars, bring female admirers – and, say those who knew him, also give him a cocaine addiction, which created an impulsivity in his behaviour that would eventually lead to his downfall.

Majeed (right), speaks to Sue Mitchell, an investigative reporter, and her colleague Rob Lawrie

Majeed (right), speaks to Sue Mitchell, an investigative reporter, and her colleague Rob Lawrie

When asked how many people he had helped smuggle to the UK, he bragged: 'Maybe a thousand, maybe ten thousand. I don't know, I didn't count'

When asked how many people he had helped smuggle to the UK, he bragged: ‘Maybe a thousand, maybe ten thousand. I don’t know, I didn’t count’

In his picture on the Interpol wanted poster, Scorpion has a scar over his left eye and a menacingly direct stare.

While his appearance may be distinctive, he is an expert in evading capture.

When an international police surveillance operation caught 25 members of his gang across Europe in 2021, he was tipped off and disappeared, moving across borders from a hidden base in Turkey.

His gang members were prosecuted and sentenced by courts in the UK, Belgium and France, but Scorpion had to be tried in his absence.

In October 2022, Belgian authorities convicted him in absentia of 121 counts of people smuggling and imposed a ten-year prison sentence he is yet to serve.

He was first arrested in Iraq in May last year but was mysteriously released from custody a short time later and promptly vanished again.

In the past he’d evaded the UK authorities, too.

His UK immigration records reveal the startling fact that he lived in this country for almost a decade, largely under the radar, after he tumbled off the back of that lorry in 2006 and joined the black economy here.

It seems Scorpion didn’t officially register with the Home Office for several months and when he did, he used a false name and claimed to be an asylum seeker fleeing persecution in Iran.

After making his way to Nottingham, he worked in a car wash. Later, as he rose through the ranks of the smuggling world, he bought a 50 per cent share in the business, which he used to employ his smuggled passengers, some of whom paid off the cost of their illegal journey by washing cars.

Photographs from Majeed's Facebook page show a young man with an interest in cars

Photographs from Majeed’s Facebook page show a young man with an interest in cars

While Scorpion’s immigration records say he was refused leave to remain after a year, no one actually forced him to leave the UK, even though he was in and out of prison for handling firearms and dealing drugs.

Photographs from his Facebook page at this time show a young man living a high life.

He loved fast cars, like the BMW with blacked-out windows he raced on the back streets of Nottingham. At the centre of endless parties, he was often surrounded by the English blondes he had dreamed of.

One of his friends from Nottingham told us he once saw more than £200,000 stashed under Scorpion’s bed: ‘He wanted to be a trillionaire. He’d go out to the clubs, pulling the women, taking so much cocaine. I warned him to stop, I said you’ve made enough now, but he wanted more, always more.’

Then, in 2015, Scorpion was finally rumbled while in prison, after making a phone call to his mother – and the authorities saw the number he had dialled was in Iraq, not Iran. He agreed to be deported and left the UK for his real homeland.

When we spoke to him last month, Scorpion painted a picture of a devoted Iraqi family – he has five brothers and five sisters. His father, a builder, was dead, but his mother, a housewife, remained close to his heart, he said.

‘Kurdish mums will forgive their sons [for] anything,’ he said with a smile. ‘They’re not like English mums. My mother will always be there for me.’

While he was heading back to Iraq, millions of people, displaced by wars, were simultaneously trying to make it in the opposite direction, travelling to Europe from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea.

People smuggling had become a huge business and Scorpion was in luck – his brother, Carzan, had been sent to prison in Belgium for the crime but handed over his operation to his brother, now aged 30.

Under Carzan, the trade was focused on lorry crossings but by 2019 Scorpion saw the potential for boats, as the surveillance of such vehicles entering the UK tightened.

He was able to operate from a secret base in Turkey, and his gang began a rapid expansion across Europe, driven by Scorpion’s logistical and marketing nous.

In the glossy 40-second-long TikTok videos posted by his smuggling gang to advertise crossings to potential migrants, groups of happy young men hug each other and high five their successful voyages.

Scorpion told migrants they would board the ferry in Calais right under the noses of the border authorities, and no one would stop them (file image)

Scorpion told migrants they would board the ferry in Calais right under the noses of the border authorities, and no one would stop them (file image)

The waves are smooth, the skies are clear – you could almost be on a yacht cruise on the Mediterranean – and the videos conclude with those same men posing, thumbs up, beside a recognisable London landmark, Tower Bridge, for example.

As Scorpion’s business grew, so did the options available, with him introducing economy, business and first class travel choices.

The basic passage, a dinghy crossing, cost £6,000 per person; a lorry was £9,000 whereas it was £18,000 per person for the so-called VIP service on a cross-Channel ferry.

A wealthy Iranian man, who took the latter option, told us he had dealt personally with Scorpion in 2019. Some nine members of his family made it here.

Scorpion told them they would board the ferry in Calais right under the noses of the border authorities, and no one would stop them. The man was told to report to an electronic gate exclusively for use of the staff at the port.

At precisely the time they were told to be there, the gate opened. Scorpion had impressed upon them they should come smartly dressed and act confidently.

They were then picked up by a corrupt official in the pay of Scorpion who drove the family onto the ferry, avoiding British passport controls.

Once on board, the official bought each of them an English breakfast to celebrate their new life in Britain.

Scorpion’s smuggling also extended to dangerous migrant crossings from Turkey to mainland Europe.

Yachts are used for these journeys and every element of the boat is stripped out. What would have been a vessel intended for eight to 12 people would be crammed with as many as 100 passengers. For this, each would pay around £10,000.

Violence, unsurprisingly, is a constant undercurrent in this world.

One who knew the smugglers told us they were armed and would do anything to protect their trade.

‘I’m not scared of anyone, but these guys, yeah, they will put a bullet in your back,’ he said.

While on the trail of Scorpion we travelled to Turkey in March, where our our enquiries led to the kingpin himself calling us, using a withheld number, and briskly asking why we were asking people so many questions about him.

During our investigations there, it became clear he had led a high-octane life in the tourist hotspot of Marmaris, where he used a villa for a time.

One female friend told us about parties at this villa that she attended in 2021. Aged 28, she was attracted by his charisma – but shocked by his drug-taking.

‘At first, I found him very attractive. The way he made me feel… he had lots of women around him, but when I had his attention, it was nice,’ she said.

But, she added: ‘He was addicted to cocaine, and was sniffing 24/7. I would watch him. Sometimes he couldn’t sniff, you know, his nose was so bad. He loves the nightlife, the drugs, the women, the cars. He loves showing himself, his money.’

She continued: ‘He was always stressed about work. He had his business, the boats… he wouldn’t say anything, but I knew because I was around some conversations… He used to say, ‘I want to be a millionaire’.’

When asked if he ever showed concern for the migrants, she laughed – not callously, but because the idea was so preposterous.

‘He never cared about them. They were a business opportunity.’

Then, a month after our trip to Turkey, when we were told that Scorpion had been spotted in a money exchange shop in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We travelled there and, through contacts, he agreed to meet us in a cafe.

On arrival, he looked utterly at ease, shadowed by his three-man security team, who sat at a table behind us.

The full boxset of Intrigue: To Catch a Scorpion is available to listen to on BBC Sounds

The full boxset of Intrigue: To Catch a Scorpion is available to listen to on BBC Sounds

When probed about the loss of life, about the children who died in the Channel crossings, his detachment was chilling.

People going on these boat crossings, he said, only had themselves to blame if things went wrong.

‘No one forced them to get in the boats, they wanted to, they’re begging the smugglers, please, please, do this for us,’ he said.

Every accusation we levelled at him, he turned on its head. The police, he claimed, were lying to build the strength of their case. Members of his gang, he said, were lying to get shorter prison sentences. He was just, he insisted, a money man.

If anything, Scorpion seemed bitter other smugglers had been able to move to Britain and carry on with their smuggling businesses while he had been forced on the run. ‘There’s a smuggler in the UK – he got 170 people into boats last week and he holds a British passport.

‘He’s there working, enjoying a good life, making lots of money, whilst I’m f*****. I want to go to some other country to do business and I can’t. I can’t go anywhere.’

When asked if he was still smuggling, he immediately denied it: ‘How can I work from here. I’m telling you I’ve done them kinds of things. I’ve done it. But I was the money man, not the big mastermind.’

As he spoke, however, he was scrolling through his mobile phone. He didn’t realise it, but the screen was visible, reflected in a polished picture frame on the wall behind: it showed lists of passport numbers. Smugglers send these numbers to corrupt officials who then supply visas for migrants.

You might wonder why Scorpion agreed to be interviewed in person. After all, mafiosa or criminal bosses generally hardly dare break cover like this.

Yet most criminal masterminds don’t normally lead such a showy life, as Scorpion has. Perhaps his drug use made him excessively impulsive? Perhaps living so long on the edge made him careless of danger?

Whatever, the truth, it all led to his denouement. On May 10, when the first news of our investigation broke, senior officials in the Kurdish Government in Iraq contacted us to say they were disgusted to hear a man as dangerous as Scorpion was living a life of luxury there.

Events moved quickly. At 7am the following Monday morning, May 13, an elite police group arrested Scorpion outside his address in Sulaymaniyah. A short time later, he was behind bars in Iraq, hopefully for a very long time.

It would be comforting to think that without him, smuggling will cease. Yet there are other eager criminals to step into his place – and without international co-operation and dedicated police work, the boats will surely keep coming. Even without the mastermind of Scorpion.

  • The full boxset of Intrigue: To Catch a Scorpion is available to listen to on BBC Sounds. Episodes are broadcast weekly on Wednesdays on BBC Radio 4