Unveiling the Hunt for Europe’s Most Wanted Migrant Smuggler

I am sitting face to face with one of Europe’s most notorious human traffickers in a shopping center in Iraq.

His name is Barzan Majeed and police are looking for him in several countries, including the UK.

During our conversation – both here and the next day in his office – he says he does not know how many migrants he has transported across the English Channel.

“Maybe a thousand, maybe 10,000. I don’t know, I didn’t count.”

The meeting is the culmination of a task that seemed impossible a few months ago.

Together with Rob Lawrie, an ex-soldier working with refugees, I set out to find and interrogate a man known as Scorpio.

For many years, he and his gang controlled much of the human smuggling – by boat and truck – across the English Channel.

More than 70 migrants have died in boat crossings since 2018 – last month five died off the coast of France, including a seven-year-old girl.

The journey is dangerous, but it can be very profitable for smugglers.

They can charge £6,000 per person to cross the boat – and with almost 30,000 people attempting it in 2023, the profit potential is obvious.

Our interest in Scorpion started with a little girl we met in a migrant camp near Calais in Northern France.

He almost died trying to cross the English Channel in a boat.

The boat was not seaworthy – it was cheap, bought used in Belgium – and the 19 people on board had no life jackets.

Who would send people into the sea like that?

When the British police catch illegal immigrants, they take their mobile phones and search them.

Since 2016, the same number has been steadily increasing.

It is often recorded as “Scorpio”. It was sometimes recorded as a scorpion.

Martin Clarke, a senior investigator at Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), told us that officers realized that “Scorpion” was referring to a Kurdish Iraqi man called Barzan Majeed.

In 2006, at the age of 20, Majeed was transported to England in the back of a truck. Despite being refused permission to stay a year later, he spent several more years in Britain – some in prison for gun and drug offences.

He was finally deported to Iraq in 2015. Soon after, Majeed allegedly “inherited” the human trafficking business from his older brother, who was imprisoned in Belgium.

Majeed was known as Scorpio.

Between 2016 and 2021, the Scorpion gang allegedly controlled a large proportion of people smuggling between Europe and the UK.

A two-year international police operation resulted in the conviction of 26 gang members in courts in Great Britain, France and Belgium.

However, Scorpio himself evaded arrest and ran away.

In his absence, he was tried by a Belgian court and convicted of 121 counts of human trafficking. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and €968,000 (£834,000) in October 2022.

Since then, Scorpion’s whereabouts have been unknown. This was the mystery we wanted to solve.

Rob’s contact introduced us to an Iranian who said he was involved with the Scorpio trying to cross the channel. Scorpion told the Iranian he was based in Turkey, from where he coordinated his business operations remotely.

In Belgium, we tracked down Majeed’s older brother – now out of prison. He also said that the Scorpio will probably be in Turkey.

For most migrants to the UK, Turkey is an important stopover. Due to immigration laws, obtaining a visa from Africa, Asia and the Middle East is relatively easy.

The trail led us to a cafe in Istanbul where human traffickers frequent. Barzan Majeed was seen there recently.

Our initial investigations did not go well. We asked the manager if he could tell us about the store – the cafe was quiet.

Soon after, a man walked past our table and opened his jacket to show us he had a gun. It was a reminder that these are dangerous people.

Our next stop yielded more promising results. We’re told Majeed recently deposited €200,000 (£172,000) at a currency exchange a few streets away. We left our numbers there and the next night Rob’s phone rang.

The caller ID read “Number Withheld” – there was someone claiming to be Barzan Majeed on the end of the line.

It was so late and so unexpected that I didn’t have time to record the beginning of the speech. Rob remembered the voice on the line: “He says, ‘I hear you’re looking for me.’ And I’m like, ‘Who are you?’ Scorpio?” He says, “Huh, you want to call me that? It’s good.’”

Couldn’t tell if it was the real Barzan Majeed, but the details he provided matched what we knew. He said he lived in Nottingham until 2015 when he was deported. However, he denied participating in human trafficking.

“That’s not true!” she protested. “It’s just the media.”

The line went down and despite our gentle probing, he gave no clue as to where he was..

We had no idea when he would call or if he would call again. Meanwhile, Rob’s local contact told us that Scorpion is now involved in smuggling migrants from Turkey to Greece and Italy.

What we heard was disturbing. Up to 100 men, women and children were crammed into yachts licensed to carry about 12 people.

Boats, often piloted by smugglers with no sailing experience, take a dangerous route between small groups of islands to avoid Coast Guard patrols.

A lot of money came. Passengers reportedly paid around 10,000 euros for a seat on one such boat. More than 720,000 people are thought to have tried to cross the eastern Mediterranean to Europe in the past 10 years – nearly 2,500 of them have died, most of them drowned.

Julia Schafermeyer, of the SOS Mediterranean charity, says that traffickers put people’s lives at great risk: “I don’t think they care if these people live or die.”

Around this time, we had the opportunity to ask Scorpion this question directly. Suddenly he called us again.

Again he denied being a smuggler. But his definition of the word seemed to be someone who physically completed the task, not someone who pulled the strings.

“You have to be there,” he told us, adding, “I’m not even here right now.”

He was just a “money man,” she said.

Majeed also seemed to have little sympathy for the drowned migrants.

“God [writes it] when you die, but sometimes it’s your fault,” he said. “God never says ‘Get into the boat’.”

Our next stop was the resort of Marmaris where the Turkish police said they believed the villa belonged to Scorpion We asked around and got a call from someone who said they were friendly with him
\ n He knew that Majeed was involved in people smuggling and said that although it caused him stress, his concern was about the money, not the fate of the migrants – that’s really sad, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about and I’m a little embarrassed because… I heard things and I knew they were not good.”

He added that he had not been seen at his Marmaris villa recently, although someone had told him he might be in Iraq.

This was confirmed by another contact, who said he saw Scorpion at a currency exchange in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

If we can’t find Scorpion there, we decided we have to give up, the contact managed to contact him. At first he was very suspicious, worried that we would somehow capture him and take him back to Europe.

A flurry of text messages followed, first with Rob and then with Rob. Scorpio said he could meet us, but only if he had to choose a place. We ruled it out because we were afraid he might set us up.

And then a text message arrived that simply asked, “Where are you?”

We said we were on our way to a nearby mall. Scorpion told us to meet him there at the cafe on the first floor.

Finally we saw him.

Barzan Majeed looked like a rich golfer. He was smartly dressed in new jeans, a light blue shirt and a black scarf.

When he put his hands on the table, I saw his nails done.

Meanwhile three men were sitting at a nearby table. His security team, we thought.

Again he denied that he was a major player at the head of the criminal organization. He said other gang members tried to trick him.

“Some people, when they are caught, they say: ‘We work for him.’ They want less punishment.”

He also seemed bitter that other smugglers got British passports and traded.

“In three days one guy sent 170 or 180 people from Turkey to Italy who still had British passports. . ” he says. “I want to go to another country to do business. I can’t.”

When we told him about responsibility for the death of migrants, he repeated what he said on the phone – that he only took money and booked places.

To him, a smuggler was someone who loaded people onto boats and trucks and transported: “I will never put anyone in a boat or kill anyone.”

The conversation ended, but Scorpion invited Rob to watch him exchange money from Sulaymaniyah.

There was a small office – in the window was a text written in Arabic and some mobile phone numbers. People came here to pay to enter. Rob said that while there he saw a man carrying a box full of cash.

“No one forced them. They wanted to,” he said. “They asked the smugglers, ‘Please do it for us.’ that’s not true.”

“I did such things for them. Money, place, passengers, smugglers… I was among them all.”

Scorpio didn’t notice it, but as he scrolled through his cell phone, Rob noticed the reflection of the screen in a polished picture frame on the wall behind him.

Rob saw the lists of passport numbers. We later learned that the smugglers were sending them to the Iraqi authorities. They are then bribed to issue fake visas so that the migrants can travel to Turkey.

That was the last we saw of Scorpion.

We shared our findings with British and European authorities every step of the way.

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