Justice for the hero PhD migrant who died in the Channel saving a baby

Posing for a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower, she could be any one of the millions of tourists who flock to Paris every year. But Mitra Mehrad wasn’t in the French capital for the sights. Her three-day stay in Paris was, she hoped, a final pit stop on a journey to Calais and eventually to Britain to join her boyfriend.

Like thousands of migrants before her, the 31-year-old PhD student knew she would need to do so illegally and was willing to pay thousands of pounds for a place on one of the boats arranged by people-trafficking gangs.

Tragically, Mitra never made it. She died making the crossing – the first migrant to perish in the Channel. This photograph taken by the Seine just days earlier is one of the final images that her family have of her.

Last picture: Mitra poses for a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower days before her tragic attempt to reach Britain

After she drowned and her body washed up nine days later off the Dutch coast, The Mail on Sunday established her identity.

Now the full details of Mitra’s final hours can be revealed following the conviction at Boulogne’s High Court last week of two smugglers – Wakil Alizadeh, 31, and Ibrahima Kaba, 44 – for her manslaughter. They were jailed for six years and three years respectively.

Mitra’s death has refocused attention on the thousands of migrants who risk their lives each year trying to reach the UK and the highly lucrative trafficking industry that fuels it. According to French officials, 1,473 migrants attempted to cross the Channel between January and August this year, compared to 586 for the whole of 2018.

Wintry weather, with 50mph winds, 20ft-high waves and water as cold as 7C, has not been a deterrent. On a single day last week, 69 migrants, including ten children, were rescued in the Channel and taken to Dover.

Mitra, an Iranian who had a master’s degree in psychology from Assumption University in Bangkok, arrived on the French coast on Tuesday, August 6, and was registered at the Espace Jeune du Moulin, a gymnasium converted into a sprawling migrant camp in the Dunkirk suburb of Grande Synthe. It has since been dismantled.

A coastguard vessel tows to shore one of the migrant dinghies found in the Channel

A coastguard vessel tows to shore one of the migrant dinghies found in the Channel

Dozens of tents were pitched in a litter-strewn field but officials say Mitra was seen as vulnerable and given her own cordoned-off sleeping quarters in the family area indoors.

Rahim, a migrant who got to know Mitra in Grande Synthe, said: ‘She was always very happy and full of life. She would talk to everyone. She didn’t wear the veil and didn’t seem particularly religious.’

Officials say she stayed for three nights before vanishing one morning. Last week it emerged Mitra had paid Alizadeh €3,500 (£2,900) for a place on a Zodiac rib, an inflatable 20ft dinghy designed to hold six people. It is unclear how Mitra met Alizadeh but the court heard that he touted for business at various camps between Calais and Dunkirk.

Alizadeh typically launched his boats from Oye-Plage, a six-mile stretch of beach just east of Calais. Parts of it are popular with sun-seekers but much is remote, creating the perfect location to hide boats and launch crossings. It was there at first light on Friday, August 9, that Mitra and 19 others, including seven children, clambered aboard.

But by mid-afternoon, the RNLI received reports of the boat being in trouble 20 miles off Ramsgate.

By the time rescue workers arrived at 4.50pm, they discovered 17 migrants huddled together in the boat, which had no oars or motor. Three others – two men and Mitra – had leapt into the cold water to rescue a five-month-old baby who had slipped overboard, and tie a rope to the rescue boat.

By 5.20pm, the two men had been rescued but Mitra had vanished. A search operation involving more boats and helicopters was launched but was called off the following day. Ahmed Nadi, who was on the boat, later said: ‘This girl was a very brave girl and what she did, us men couldn’t do. We were not as brave as her. She did it to save the baby and it survived.

‘Mitra was trying so hard to keep her head above the water, but the waves were so strong the current pulled her under. We watched Mitra with her arm outstretched screaming for help for 15 minutes.

‘When we realised we couldn’t do anything to save her, we couldn’t watch any more. Some on our dinghy fainted – they couldn’t comprehend what was happening.’

On August 18, her body was found by the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution in a wind farm 30 miles off the Dutch coast. She had drifted more than 100 miles.

While Mitra was missing, rumours began circulating that she was an Iranian and her concerned parents in Iran contacted authorities there. Contact was made with Mitra’s fellow passengers and the family sent back the selfie taken in Paris days earlier to help with identification.

The Dutch authorities took samples of DNA from her cheek and they were matched with that of her father. Mitra, whose body remains in the Netherlands, came from the affluent island of Kish, a popular holiday destination in Iran.

She later moved to Bangkok, where she completed her degree in 2017. Her thesis focused on mental health problems among Iranians.

Parvathy Varma, a lecturer at Assumption University who helped supervise Mitra’s thesis, said: ‘She was extremely bright and highly ambitious. She wanted to help her people back home through her work. She had a deep affection for Iran and for its people.’

But talent and ambition was not enough to land her a job. Mitra decided to leave Bangkok and said to Ms Varma: ‘Pray for me.’

At Boulogne High Court last week, Alizadeh was identified as the mastermind of the operation. An Afghan, he had lived in Britain for eight years where he sold fruit and vegetables, before being deported back to Afghanistan.

Dressed in a navy blue Tommy Hilfiger jumper and dark jeans, he arrived in court in handcuffs. As the harrowing evidence was heard, he fought back tears and whimpered that he played only a small role in the migrant smuggling operation. ‘I’ve got nothing to do with any of this. I’m here by mistake. I just helped people get on board the boats,’ he claimed.

Alizadeh said he made two unsuccessful asylum applications while in the UK before being deported. But he was soon back in France and claimed to have travelled between his home in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, a Parisian suburb, and Calais to earn enough money to buy his way on to a migrant boat.

His lawyer, Svetlana Djurdjenevic, said: ‘He clearly wasn’t the big boss, so six years is not fair in my opinion. He was a hired hand and really it is the people in charge who should be on trial today.’

The judge, Xavier Charlet, was unconvinced, telling Alizadeh. ‘You are the one giving orders. You are the one in charge of the operation. Plainly, you were the boss.’

His fellow defendant Kaba has Dutch citizenship, but is of Guinean origin, and had been living in Brussels where he worked driving a taxi and washing dishes in restaurants.

Before he met Alizadeh in summer 2018 in a north Paris suburb, Kaba set up a migrant taxi service between Belgium and Paris. In court, he claimed it was to support his wife and two young children.

According to Kaba’s lawyer, Aimé Mouberi, Alizadeh was the head of a four-man migrant-smuggling gang that operated across France and England.

Kaba owned a van and bought boats from Bon Coin, the French equivalent of eBay, then transported them to Calais.

Mr Mouberi said that Kaba would pay between €1,700 and €2,000 – money earned from Alizadeh’s smuggling operation – for a boat. And he would earn €800 from Alizadeh each time he bought one.

Mr Mouberi explained: ‘Alizadeh didn’t speak French so it was my client who helped negotiate prices. He played a marginal role but the sentence is fair.’

As he was jailed, Alizadeh sobbed: ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone was going to die. I just thought she would be able to get to England.’

Prosecutor Helene Hriart said: ‘These migrants were sent off in rickety, crowded boats where they risked their lives. These men were well aware of the very serious risks and yet they had no hesitation in profiting from human misery.’

Jailing them, the judge agreed. ‘With about 20 migrants in each boat, we can estimate that they made around £50,000 for each crossing,’ he said.

‘These people were happy enriching themselves at the cost of human lives.’

How Britain’s FBI helped to nail smugglers whose greed led to disaster  

The people-traffickers behind Mitra Mehrad’s death were caught thanks to a painstaking two-month police investigation involving GPS tracking, phone bugging and hours of secret surveillance.

Between August 9, when the Iranian student died, and October 7 when Wakil Alizadeh and Ibrahima Kaba were arrested, French police and the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) amassed a wealth of evidence, including the pair’s organisation of six illegal crossings for 84 migrants that netted them an estimated £300,000.

Boulogne High Court heard that police, who hoped to catch higher ranking traffickers, decided to seize the men over fears that more lives would be lost from the ramshackle boats Alizadeh and Kaba sent into the Channel.

The trail to them started after the migrants who travelled with Mitra landed in the UK and the NCA, known as Britain’s FBI, checked their phones – discovering a number that they had contacted regularly.

The French authorities used GPS technology to track one of the phones, belonging to Alizadeh, and found he was making frequent journeys between migrant camps in Calais, a beach in Oye-Plage and the Parisian suburb of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, where he lived. They bugged his phone and another belonging to Kaba.

The court heard how the pair would buy Zodiac inflatables from the website Bon Coin, the French equivalent of eBay. French police were able to find on the website the previous owner of the boat that Mitra travelled in.

The seller, who had no involvement in the trafficking, helped police to identify the boat as the one he had sold to Kaba.

Alizadeh was the brains of the operation and would negotiate prices with the migrants. At times, GPS tracking showed, he would cruise the migrant camps of the French coastline for business. On other occasions, he would be called directly from desperate migrants looking to strike a deal.

Recorded phone conversations showed Alizadeh and Kaba charged migrants €3,500 each for a place on a boat.

In one call on September 23, Alizadeh tells an unnamed associate: ‘Six migrants are on their way. The journey is going well – they’ll be in Dover soon.’

Later that day, six Iranian men were picked up and taken to Dover by Border Force officers.

At 2am on September 19, Alizadeh was recorded telling a migrant where to find the boat in Oye-Plage. Other calls have him haggling over prices with migrants. On August 27, a clearly panicked Alizadeh spots police close to where a boat is leaving. He tells a migrant on the phone: ‘Hurry! There are police here!’

Kaba was in charge of buying the boats and bringing them to Calais on his van. Alizadeh would tell the migrants where to find the boat and they would have to inflate it themselves, or he would help push them out to sea.

The court heard payments for the trips were transferred into UK and French bank accounts. On many occasions, Alizadeh spoke with British ‘interlocutors’ to plan the operations and with people in Britain – some described as ‘bankers’ – who oversaw the financial side of the evil trade.

On October 7, Kaba and Alizadeh were arrested at a toll booth in Fleury-en-Biere, 30 miles south of Paris, as they drove from Dijon to the capital. In the back of their van was a dinghy.

Last night, the NCA said that as part of the investigation into Mitra’s death, they had arrested a 31-year-old Iranian on September 21 in Coventry on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration. He was questioned and released under investigation. Two Iranian nationals were also interviewed under caution by NCA officials.

Steve Reynolds, of the NCA, said: ‘We are committed to doing everything in our power to bring people-smugglers targeting the UK to justice and, through our close collaboration with French authorities, we continue to have an impact on them and their activity.’

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