Mystery identity of asylum seeker who died trying to swim the Channel unveiled by ITV News

  • Investigation by ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers and Foreign News Editor Jonathan Wald

This report contains images and descriptions some people may find upsetting.

His death made few headlines in Britain in August - another migrant who died trying to cross the Channel.

A photo emerged in the Belgian media, starkly showing the body lying face down having been pulled from the sea.

It was black and white but still harrowing in its portrayal of the man who was wearing a flipper and a homemade buoyancy aid; made from 12 plastic bottles and some crude netting.

He was found in a wind farm 28km off the Beligan coast - but authorities had little else information to work with. Papers he carried suggested his name was Masoud Niknam.

His body was found off the Belgian coast - wrapped in netting and plastic bottles. Credit: ITV News

That led police to think perhaps he was from Iraq.

Weeks later, we filmed his lonely burial near Bruges.

A handful of strangers watched a coffin being lowered into the ground. We were determined to investigate this tragedy, but there was little to go on.

This week all that changed when the man who presided over the funeral told us the police had handed back Masoud’s few possessions.

He entrusted them to ITV News in the hope we could find out more about the man who drowned trying to swim to these shores.

The books Masoud carried were still wet from the sea.

His possessions were few, but led to clues about his life. Credit: ITV News

They included a Koran, a Bible and some other religious texts.

It appeared the books had not been thoroughly searched - wedged into some pages were notes from a life now extinguished.

There was also Masoud’s phone.

The handset itself was ruined by the corrosive sea water - but the memory card inside was intact.

As we put it into my laptop, we thought it unlikely it would work.

We were wrong.

Hundreds of photos were on Masoud's photo which gave clues about his life. Credit: ITV News

Straight away there were dozens of photos of the same man, clearly the owner of the phone.

It was Masoud Niknam.

Until now a faceless victim, photos on his phone suddenly restored him to a human being.

His was a face impossible to forget. Tattooed with five Shia stars across his forehead. But as well as numerous selfies there were clues about his journey through Europe. Shots of Masoud in the Alps at great altitude and hundreds of documents and letters.

ITV News has spent hours poring over these fragments of a life.

We’ve learnt Masoud had a daughter and sons and was from Iran - not Iraq as previously thought.

Mr Niknam had several photos of himself on his mobile phone. Credit: ITV News

We’ve managed to track down an aid worker and priest who both tried to help him. It’s clear Masoud was in a fragile state of mind.

His letters to the Queen and George Bush were perhaps designed to give the impression he was an Anglophile who had survived Saddam’s regime.

Aid workers told us it’s common for Iranian refugees to give the impression they are from Iraq, knowing it will strengthen their asylum claim.

The sad truth was that Masoud had been wandering Europe for 15 years, looking for sanctuary.

He briefly found peace in Marseilles at a church where he was offered a place to stay.

The statues carved by Mr Niknam at the French church where he took refuge. Credit: ITV News

In return, he insisted on working on beautiful wooden sculptures of Mary, a sign of his skill as an artist and his generosity of spirit.

We hope one day we could trace his family in Iran and return his possessions.

Their father left a strong impression on those who met him, as kind, honest, and hard working. There is no doubt he was troubled even by Europe’s refusal to offer him asylum and the prospect of returning to repression in Iran.

His swim seemed to be the last act of a man who felt he had run out of options.