Iranian canoeing champ and friend who paddled to Dover on inflatable

The migrants who came in by kayak: SUE REID on the astonishing story of the Iranian canoeing champ and his friend who paddled to Dover on a £220 inflatable in pitch darkness

  • Hadi Hossein Nejad, 28, and Masoud Mohammadifar, 39, succeeded in making the 21-mile journey to the Kent coast
  • They paddled across the world’s busiest shipping lane at night two weeks ago
  • The two men are alive and well staying at a Home Office hostel in South London

A rare August storm blew up and the kayak bringing two shivering migrants to Britain across the Channel filled with water. 

As the waves dragged the flimsy vessel downwards, the pair frantically bailed out with their bare hands.

One had never paddled a kayak before and couldn’t even swim. Earlier during the ten-hour crossing, he vomited seawater that he’d swallowed, and feared he would die.

And yet, huddled in their small £220 blow-up kayak with flimsy paddles, the two Iranians miraculously succeeded in making the 21-mile journey to the Kent coast.

Masoud Mohammadajir (right) who is an Iranian champion kayaker crossed the channel two weeks ago in a Decathlon purchased small kayak with his friend Hadi Nejad (left) who cannot swim

With only a cheap compass and the lights of ferries to guide them, they had paddled across the world’s busiest shipping lane one night two weeks ago.

Their voyage makes a mockery of the Government’s promise to halt the flow of migrants crossing the Channel to Britain.

News that two had reached Kent from Calais by kayak broke on national news earlier this month to disbelief. How could anyone survive such a crossing?

But despite their extraordinarily dangerous sea journey to the UK, the Mail has found the two men alive and well at a Home Office hostel in South London.

Masoud Mohammadifar (pictured) back when he was a kayaker, canoeist and dragon-boat racer for Iran’s national teams

On the morning of August 9 the migrants, barefoot and wearing shorts, were spotted by a coastguard helicopter nearing Dover. 

A Border Force cutter raced to the scene. They were pulled on board and told by an officer with a ‘perfect’ English accent: ‘Welcome to the UK.’

Incredibly, the non-swimmer, 28-year-old Hadi Hossein Nejad, had to learn how to paddle as they travelled. 

The other, Masoud Mohammadifar, 39, was an international kayaker for Iran until jailed as a suspected U.S. spy by the Islamic regime.

Now they have revealed their miraculous story for the first time.

Successful migrants rarely feel free to tell how they came to Britain — often because they fear it would hamper their asylum applications. 

But Masoud and Hadi agreed to talk to the Mail because they wanted to warn other migrants in France hoping to sail to Britain of the dangers.

‘I would never attempt it again,’ said Masoud. ‘But we were determined to leave Calais, which is over-run by African and Arab people-trafficking gangs, one of which tried to kill Hadi.’

The story behind their journey began in 2013 when Masoud, who lived in Iran’s capital Tehran with his widowed mother, five brothers and sister, was manager of Iran’s national boating team.

He excelled at kayaking, canoeing and dragon-boat racing (a popular sport in Asia, and in Iran, involving 22 rowers on a traditional Chinese craft). 

The playful photo of Masoud wearing a USA T-shirt that led the secret police to jail him

Because he represented his country, he was allowed to travel abroad and lived a good life. 

During a trip to Indonesia that year for a dragon boat contest, he celebrated by wearing a T-shirt with the logo ‘USA’.

It was not an entirely innocent gesture. Knowing photos of him would appear on social media, he wanted to send a message to Iranians back home that Iran and America could be friends.

But his country’s secret police saw the photo, too, and on his arrival home, they swooped at the airport and locked him in a detention centre for six months.

He was told to sign a confession saying he was a Western state spy. When he refused, he was beaten up. 

Meanwhile the secret police visited his mother and told her that her son was ‘in safe hands’, advising her not to try and find him.

‘I had no lawyer and there was no one to help,’ he says.

‘In the end, I just kept quiet and finally they let me go.’

Although freed, he had to report on his movements to a government office every week. 

Barred from the sporting world he loved by the authorities as a punishment, he worked as an estate agent.

‘Iran ruined my life at 33,’ he says. Desperate, in 2016, he decided to escape — even though his passport had been confiscated by the secret police.

He crossed the mountains to Turkey, reaching Istanbul, where he found a people-trafficking agent who gave him a false Israeli passport and arranged for him to fly to Romania and then to Glasgow.

But at 5am at Bucharest airport, the Romanian authorities discovered his false passport and he had little choice but to claim asylum in Romania.

Despite working as a sports coach and lifeguard for almost two years, he was refused asylum and threatened with deportation back to Iran.

Frightened, he went on the run. After travelling through Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, he reached Holland where his asylum claim was rejected, and in April last year, The Dutch authorities gave him a ticket to go back to Romania.

Terrified he might be forcibly deported, he took a train to Calais. He knew other Iranians were living near the port in charity tents, planning to take boats illegally across the Channel to England.

It was there, last autumn, he met Hadi, a former Tehran taxi-driver who had also fallen foul of the strictly religious Iranian regime for having a relationship with a married woman.

The scandal blew up (the woman’s husband had found out about the affair and reported him to the regime) just days after flying into Paris for a tour of Europe. 

His family immediately ‘disowned’ him for this ‘cardinal sin’ and, by now on the authorities’ ‘black list’, he applied for asylum in Germany.

But his claim was rejected and he, too, ended up at the Calais shanty camp, from where he claimed asylum in France.

Hadi tells me that conditions in the camp were horrific. He claims four Sudanese people-traffickers attacked an Algerian friend in the neck and chest with carpet cutters. 

The man nearly died, but recovered in hospital.

It was at this point that he and Masoud plotted their escape.

A few days later, on August 8, they walked to the Decathlon sports store in Calais. 

They had a little over €400 (£360) between them, saved by Hadi from an allowance given each week to him as an asylum-seeker by the French government.

Graphic shows the men’s journeys. Both are claiming asylum and hope to stay in Britain

Explains Masoud: ‘We had to choose the cheapest two-seat polyester kayak and bendy plastic paddles. We bought the most basic pump to blow up the kayak.

‘The boat cost €250 (£220) and we only had money left for one life-jacket, for Hadi who does not swim. The label said it was for a young teenager.’

It took them more than an hour to carry the equipment to the beach and they hid in the dunes, waiting to prepare their crossing.

Masoud says they checked the Channel weather, including wind speed, on the internet before setting out. It showed a low wind and no storm brewing. They did not check the tides.

Masoud explained that French police use drones to hunt down would-be migrants, adding that there were officers hiding in the sand dunes with torches.

When they felt safe, they quickly pumped up the kayak — which had a warning label saying it was suitable only for the beach and inland waters.

They jettisoned their shoes to reduce the weight but even then the craft was eight stone over the recommended safety limit. 

Undeterred by the dangers ahead, they discarded their mobile phones to avoid GPS tracking by the French and British authorities.

As the police continued to patrol nearby, the two Iranians threw stones several yards along the sand dunes as a diversionary tactic to make officers believe migrants were hiding there.

This allowed them to sprint 700 metres into the sea without being seen. However, non-swimmer Hadi fell in and swallowed water.

Masoud recalled: ‘I had to save his life, pulling him into the kayak. I had to teach him how to paddle, too. It’s a good thing he was a quick learner.’

They had only the compass on Masoud’s Casio G-shock watch, a present from his sister, to guide them. ‘We also followed the lights of the big ferries sailing from Calais to England.’

He says they had to paddle fast for at least half an hour to get out of inshore waters away from French police patrols looking for migrant boats.

‘At one point, we got six metres from a ferry, which turned off its engines to stop us being sucked in by the propellers.’

This is thought to be common practice by ferry captains who see a constant stream of migrant boats leaving Calais and cannot halt their journey to rescue every one.

Astonishingly, he claims they were spotted by a French police launch which then backed off once it saw the danger of the ferry propellers to its own boat. 

Masoud and Hadi believe this is why it suddenly returned to shore.

After this scare, all went well and the Channel was calm.

But then, Hadi, a former amateur boxer, began vomiting the sea-water that he’d swallowed on the beach.

‘I was paddling alone,’ says Masoud. ‘Hadi was almost unconscious. I pulled his head back on my knees, distributing his weight evenly. He was breathing shallowly. For two hours he was silent.’

Then a huge storm started.

Amid 7ft high waves, the 11-ft kayak was tossed like a piece of flotsam.

Masoud struggled to stop it overturning. ‘If a wave had hit us sideways, we would have left this life.’

On they went, relentlessly, through the night.

Hadi recovered to share the paddling. The kayak was fast shipping water, which they scooped out with their bare hands. By now, it was 5.30am and nearing daylight, six long hours after leaving the French beach, the storm subsided.

They paddled on for two more hours and then finally spotted Dover’s town lights.

Masoud said: ‘We had five miles to go and I was sure we were going to make it. We were excited. Then we heard a helicopter from the British Coastguard. 

It was the most beautiful noise. It hovered over us for an hour, watching us paddling, then went away, before coming back.’

Within minutes, a British Border Force cutter, alerted by the helicopter crew, was at their side.

After their epic journey, they were safe.

The Mail cannot verify every detail of what the men have told about their life in Iran, the reasons they entered Europe or for fleeing Calais to Britain.

However, in Masoud’s case we have photos of him competing for Iran in kayaking and other water-sporting competitions, and a dated photo of him in the controversial USA T-shirt with his team-mates in Indonesia.

As for Hadi, we have seen Home Office letters to him which confirm that he arrived in Europe on a holiday visa allowing him to travel throughout the EU, and last year claimed asylum in Germany and France.

I first heard of the two kayakers from an Iranian living in Germany whom I have known for nearly two years. 

He mentioned that two friends had recently paddled on a kayak to the UK from France and offered to put me in touch with them.

I checked with Border Force reports which confirmed that two Iranian kayakers had, indeed, been found in the sea near Dover the previous Friday. 

They were among at least 40 migrants who had sailed to Britain overnight, the others in small boats unconnected to the kayakers.

Tragically, an Iranian woman fell from a boat and was drowned.

Such are the huge risks that migrants are taking to cross on tiny boats to Britain that the MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke this week warned: ‘It’s rapidly heading to a summer of chaos.’

On Thursday, more than 60 migrants were rescued on small boats off the coast of Kent and Sussex after they had sailed from the French coast.

Sussex Police said it was ‘very concerned’ for another group, which it described as ‘possibly a family including children’, who may have escaped from the beach to avoid the British authorities.

More than 1,000 boat migrants have reached Britain from France since last October.

Yesterday by midday, another eleven had arrived at Dover on a small boat.

All this makes a mockery of the Government’s pledge to halt the flow of illegal boat arrivals.

No wonder Home Secretary Priti Patel is to hold urgent talks with her French counterpart and her officials have said the criminal people-trafficking gangs who perpetuate this ‘are ruthless and do not care about loss of life’.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned illegal boat migrants that they face being returned.

So as the two Iranian kayakers now recover at their hostel, what are their plans?

Both are claiming asylum and hope to stay in Britain.

Masoud nonetheless dreams of eventually being able to return to ‘beautiful’ Iran and his career in water-sports.

For his part, Hadi wants to make his life in the UK and ‘contribute to society’.

Whether they get their wishes is now up to the Home Office.

But whatever the men’s future, their remarkable tale leaves no doubt about the astonishing lengths that migrants continue to go in order to come to Britain.

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