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On the trail of human traffickers

Radio 4’s To Catch a Scorpion takes us inside the brutal illegal immigration industry.

By Rachel Cunliffe

On 23 April, five migrants died when trying to cross the Channel on a small inflatable boat. One was a seven-year-old girl. The news broke hours after parliament passed controversial legislation to send people who arrive in the UK illegally to Rwanda for processing, regardless of the legitimacy of their asylum claims. But how did 112 migrants end up on the tiny dinghy in the first place?

To Catch a Scorpion takes listeners into the dark world of the illegal migration industry. And it is an industry, as BBC journalist Sue Mitchell and soldier-turned-aid-worker Rob Lawrie soon find out. They are on the hunt for Barzan Majeed, AKA Scorpion, a smuggler on the international most-wanted list. Originally from Iraq, Majeed, identified in WhatsApp messages by a Scorpion emoji, has been on the run since a sting operation took down most of his network – but even that hasn’t stopped him.

Mitchell and Lawrie start out at a car wash in Nottingham where undocumented migrants work to pay off their debt. We follow them to a corner shop used as a trafficking hub, to the Calais camps where traffickers compete for business, and then to a 2am stakeout at an industrial estate in France. “A rare snapshot of the day-to-day business of organising illegal migration,” this eight-part series makes for tense and disturbing listening. The sums of money are staggering: £6,000 for a place in a dinghy, £9,000 for one in a lorry, £18,000 for the so-called VIP service. Staggering too is the disregard for human life.

The Rwanda plan is supposed to provide a deterrent to this trade, but it’s hard to see how it can be effective when people feel forced into such desperate measures. One family Mitchell speaks to were granted asylum after making the perilous crossing – they paid thousands and risked their lives because there were no legal routes for them to take. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether the police find Scorpion or not. If they did track down and arrest Majeed, someone else would quickly take his place.

To Catch a Scorpion
BBC Radio 4,15 May, 9.30am;
available on catch-up

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll