The mountains of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq are home to some of Europe’s most wanted people – smuggling gangs who help thousands of people make the dangerous and illegal journeys to Britain, France and other parts of the continent. We drove for many hours to the house of one of those men.
Wearing a headscarf and dark camouflage glasses, the smuggler lights a cigarette and insists on checking the framing of our picture to make sure nothing gives away his location. Next to the ashtray on the table in front of him is a gun.
This meeting took days of negotiation and we are here on his strict terms; we have to agree not to reveal anything about his identity – if we do and the police find him, he says he’ll take some of our team with him. It’s hard to tell if he’s joking or not.
He is wary, probably. So much so that he won’t even go outside with us if the neighbors see him and report him to the police.
A TV screen on the wall shows CCTV images of the property – it could be a lucrative business, he can make up to $100,000 in one year, but the price is paranoia and he is a pariah to many, even in his own town.
Nothing is off limits for the interview, so I ask him directly if he is a murderer.
“No,” is the expected answer. “I don’t force anyone to board boats and yachts. They themselves come, pay, beg a lot.
“Why do you want to go? You know it’s water, waves, drowning, death, thirst… a thousand things. Why do you want to go? I do not take you by force. Why do I want to kill you? No. This is your opinion, and you decide.”
I challenge him on who would win in the “war” between smugglers and European governments, and he not only boasts that nothing can stop his work, but then reveals that a new secret route is already operating this summer, unknown to the security services.
“No one can stop smuggling. If you close this route, I will try to open another one. This is smuggling.
“Smugglers will win because there is no authority in Britain or any other country that can eliminate smugglers. Another network will always be re-created.
“There are different routes, but I can’t say which ones [new] the route The way through Turkey is now difficult, water is causing problems. But now there are different ways that I can’t talk about, they are easier.
“Only about 100 people took another route this week, but I won’t talk about that.”
And I ask him about Britain’s relatively new policy of deporting illegal migrants to Rwanda, sincerely expecting that he knows little about the tussle between morality and politics at home.
I was wrong. Not only did he know, but he told us that the migrants he deals with were aware of the legal issues that successfully delayed the first deportation flights.
It is a surprising endorsement of a policy that has so divided opinion in the UK.