The International Federation of Iranian Refugees and Immigrants Councils (IFIRIC)
IFIRIC Mission Statments

IRANIAN REFUGEES IN PERIL

IRANIAN REFUGEES IN PERIL

A Report by Maryam Namazie

THE REGULATION'S EFFECT

In order to better assess the Regulation's effect on Iranian refugees, fifty-two self-selected Iranian refugees and refugee claimants5 were surveyed in six towns: Ankara, Cankiri, Corum, Kaysari, Kostamonu and Nevsehir.6 Of the 52 Iranian refugees and refugee claimants surveyed, 79% were Kurds. 54% were 19-30 years of age; 36% were 31-40; and 10% were over 40 years of age. 66% were unskilled or skilled workers; 21% were homemakers and 13% were students when in Iran. 65% were male and 35% were female. 58% were married; 36% were single and 6% comprised women-headed households. 85% of those surveyed fled Iran due to persecution based on political opinion and 15% fled due to gender-based persecution. 8% of those surveyed had been in Turkey for less than three months; 50% for 3-9 months; 13% for 9-23 months and 29% for 1 year to four years.

Findings of the quantitative survey as well as first hand information collected by IFIRIC activists in Turkey provide ample evidence that the Regulation prevents refugees from enjoying their basic right to asylum. Many refugees are either unable to meet the stringent requirements of the Regulation or are unwilling to place themselves at peril. 63% of those surveyed had not applied for asylum with the Turkish authorities even though the Regulation requires that they do so. The reasons given for not applying for asylum were: they had missed the five-day limit; they did not want to go to the dangerous Iranian- or Iraqi -Turkish border; and they feared the police and deportation. They also stated that they believed the asylum interviews by the police were an attempt to collect information for the Iranian government.

One reason given by refugees for not applying for asylum with the Turkish authorities was that they had missed the five-day limit. The government's strict adherence to that deadline has ruled many asylum seekers ineligible and liable to immediate deportation. According to Amnesty International, "failure to comply with procedural requirements such as the five-day rule does not justify the expulsion or forcible return of an asylum seeker or refugee who may be at risk of serious human rights violations in the country to which he or she is forcibly returned. Conclusion No. 15 of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR states that: `While asylum seekers may be required to submit their asylum request within a certain time limit, failure to do so, or the non-fulfillment of other formal requirements, should not lead to an asylum request being excluded from consideration.'"7 Another reason given by undocumented refugees for not applying for asylum is their refusal to return to the perilous border areas. After reaching the UNHCR in Ankara, undocumented Iranians are told to return to southeastern Turkey (Agri, Hakkari, Silopi, or Van) - a trip that can take up to two days - to apply for asylum with local police officials. Southeastern Turkey is an area where a twelve-year war rages on between the government and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Examples of the perils are innumerable. On October 14, 1996, 28-30 Iraqi asylum seekers (Kurds and Christians) were massacred by Turkish para-military forces. The BBC reported that 28 bodies were found by Iranian border guards. The Turkish government denied responsibility but two survivors verified Turkey's culpability. Refugees report that Silopi is similar to a military encampment. Tanks, soldiers and police are everywhere. There is a curfew in place. In March 1997, refugees were unable to leave their houses for several days because of fighting between the government and the PKK. The situation has worsened when in May 1997, the Turkish government attacked PKK encampments in Iraq with a 5,000 military force.

The insecurity at the border area is not limited to fighting between the Turkish government and the PKK. In early May 1997, two Iranians recognized by the UNHCR were caught in a crossfire in Van and seriously wounded.

The majority of refugees surveyed, 73%, entered Turkey without passports. Though they were required by the Regulation to apply for asylum at the border, an overwhelming majority, 63%, refused to do so. Despite the fact that those fleeing persecution by the Islamic regime cannot obtain documentation from that government, Turkey penalizes those who enter illegally, thereby making them liable to prosecution and deportation.

Another reason given by refugees for not applying for asylum with the Turkish authorities is their fear of the police. IFIRIC has received countless reports of beatings, physical and mental torture and coercive measures. Refugees are often interrogated by armed members of the security police in which they are taken alone to deserted areas and threatened with deportation if they do not respond. IFIRIC has also received reports of bribing occurring at the border and in other towns in Turkey. Detention, beatings, slaps and other forms of humiliation by the police are commonplace. In January 1997, one refugee's wrist was broken as a result of police brutality. Refugees' homes are often raided, creating an environment of terror.

Fear of deportation was another reason given by Iranians for not applying for asylum to the Turkish authorities. Of those surveyed, 81% had heard of deportations occurring in their town. 96% did not feel secure in Turkey.

IFIRIC has received reports that refugees applying for asylum at the border have been deported in violation of the Regulation despite having applied within the five-day limit. A well-known example of this was the case of 21 Iranian asylum seekers (20 of whom were Baha'is) who went to Agri (a town bordering Iran) in early August 1996 to apply for asylum with the police after registering with the UNHCR in Ankara. They were deported even though they were well within the five-day limit. One eyewitness stated that his "attention was drawn to the incident as the women and children were crying, screaming and begging officers not to deport them."8 According to Turkish press reports broadcast on August 9, the deportations were ordered as a gesture of goodwill to Iran on the eve of the visit to Tehran of Turkey's Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan.9 This incident is a clear example of the arbitrary practices of the Turkish police even toward those who do observe the Regulation. The international standard of non-refoulement - a prohibition of expulsion or return - states that "no contracting state shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his [her] life or freedom would be threatened..." The concept of non-refoulement is explicitly protected in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Punishment; and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Turkish government is party to all three conventions. More importantly, non-refoulement is considered customary international law, making it binding on all states, in all cases, irrespective of whether that state is a party to any international instrument. Nonetheless, hundreds of Iranian refugees have been refouled every year to Iran and Iraq. In March 1997 alone, subsequent to a Turkish government order that all "illegal" refugees be rounded up and deported, the police made sweeping house searches in Nevsehir and Kaysari, towns with the largest refugee populations. Nearly 80 refugees, most of whom were recognized by the UNHCR and many of whom were awaiting travel to a safe country (the United States, Finland, and Australia), including some with visas in hand, were refouled to Zakho, Iraq. One of them was Shuresh, a twelve-year-old boy who was deported unaccompanied to Iraq, after being held hostage for several days in an effort to force his father's surrender. Many others barely escaped from refoulement by jumping out of windows when the police came for them or by going into hiding.

IFIRIC believes the refoulement of these Iranians to Iraq is clearly an attempt by the Turkish government to escape international scrutiny by not deporting refugees directly back to Iran while still fulfilling its end of the agreement with the Iranian government to exchange their respective political opponents. Deportations of Iranians to Iraq, however, are nonetheless in violation of international refugee standards and demand as serious scrutiny and condemnation than if the refugees were forcibly returned to Iran.10 Despite the overwhelming evidence that most refugees are not given the opportunity to object to their refoulement nor given any notice, and that deportations are involuntary, the Turkish Embassy states:

"Those individuals who are found non-eligible or those who act against the provisions of the Regulation are asked, via a written notification, to leave Turkey within 15 days. This is not a forcible deportation; they are asked to leave on their own accord.... Those individuals who fail to leave the country after 15 days and who have exhausted their options are considered illegal aliens in Turkey. Nonetheless, these people are never forcibly returned to their home countries. Instead during the process of departing Turkey, Turkish authorities extend every assistance to them to make sure that they do not face personal harm or jeopardy in their home countries."11

According to Article 29 of the Regulation,12 even those considered asylum seekers, and therefore "legal," by the Turkish government can be refouled under certain circumstances. Furthermore, Article 28 of the Regulation states that the temporary residence permit issued only to those recognized will not be extended "if after given reasonable time the foreigners are still not able to go to a third country." Since Turkey will not allow Iranians to remain permanently, recognition as an asylum seeker only means receiving temporary residence, and not permanent settlement or protection from refoulement - although by such a recognition, the government concedes that the person has a well-founded fear of persecution. The Regulation, therefore, makes its possible for the Turkish government to deport those who have been rejected, have failed to comply with the Regulation and even those who have been recognized as asylum seekers by the government. Contrary to the belief that Article 29 is an "unequivocal acceptance of the applicability of the principle of non-refoulement,"13 IFIRIC asserts that the provision is in fact an affront to the very concept.

Another reason given by refugees for non-compliance with the Regulation is that during asylum interviews, Iranians must give reasons for their flight to the Turkish police. Having fled government-instigated persecution in Iran, refugees fear and distrust government figures, especially the Turkish police, who have been responsible for beatings, intimidations, and deportations. Even when some Iranians do present themselves to the Turkish police, it is highly unlikely that they will be confident that their claims will be treated confidentially and fairly. Many Iranians surveyed expressed the belief that the purpose of the asylum interview was to collect information which will be divulged to the Iranian authorities upon deportation, making the asylum interview synonymous with the admission of "guilt." During asylum interviews, many refugees report that the police often link Iranians Kurds with the PKK, and threaten claimants with deportation or tell them to return to Iran. IFIRIC has also received reports from refugees who state that the Turkish police have forcibly taken them to the Iranian embassy in Ankara where they have been interrogated and threatened.

The asylum interviews do not meet basic international standards for asylum status determination. According to the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, an application should be "examined within the framework of specially established procedures by qualified personnel having the necessary knowledge and experience, and an understanding of the applicant's particular difficulties and needs."14 The police do not have adequate training in international and refugee laws nor on the situation in Iran. During the asylum interviews, applicants do not have legal advice and representation or professional translators. Of the 36% who had introduced themselves to the police, 31% did not have a translator during the interview. Many times, the translator is another refugee - breaching the applicant's right to confidentiality. According to the UNHCR, "the applicant should be given the necessary facilities, including the services of a competent interpreter."15 Given the existing situation, refugees are overwhelmingly justified in their non-compliance with the Regulation, especially in light of the many pledges between the Iranian and Turkish governments to exchange members of each other's opposition. Ongoing meetings between the two countries' officials, especially most recently, point to a new phase of "understanding" between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamicist government of Turkey. Over a dozen assassinations by Iranian government agents in Turkey since the mid-80s add to the refugees' insecurity.

According to Payman Mohammadi, an IFIRIC refugee activist in Turkey: "Refugees reject the Turkish government's claim that they have failed to respect Turkish laws. Iranian refugees fleeing the fascist government of Iran have not come to Turkey to ignore that country's laws. It is the inhumane and intolerable violations refugees face upon arrival that force their non-compliance. The refusal to acquiesce will continue until Turkish laws guarantee the lives and security of refugees and respect international standards."

The situation has created a two-tier system in which many have applied only to the UNHCR and not to the Turkish government despite the Regulation. Of those surveyed, 12% had not applied for refugee status even to the UNHCR. An obvious consequence of the deteriorating situation is the astoundingly growing number of Iranians and Iraqis attempting to bypass the refugee determination procedure altogether and find refuge in a safer country. In March 1997, 18 Iranian and Iraqi refugees drowned while attempting to cross into Greece from Turkey. In early May, the bodies of another 15 to 20 drowned Iraqi refugees who had also attempted to find refuge in Greece, were found by the Turkish coast guard.

Iran is a principle source of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.16 Despite the fact that Turkey is most accessible to them, the negligible numbers actually registering as asylum seekers confirm that Turkish government practices and policies of deterrence, abuse and bias discourage Iranians from enjoying their right to asylum. It has been stated that the Regulation is "an effort on the part of Turkish authorities to replace the previous practice, which they have come to consider as too liberal and threatening to Turkish security, with one that they believe will enhance their control over asylum in Turkey."17 It has been further stated that the authorities issued the Regulation because they "became particularly disturbed by the growing number of individual asylum seekers entering the country illegally, remaining inside the country illegally and often trying to leave the country illegally. For the Turkish authorities, a very disturbing aspect of these uncontrolled movements was that they often discovered the existence of UNHCR-recognized refugees in Turkey only when they arrived at Ankara and Istanbul international airports to depart to their respective countries of resettlement."18 In fact, prior to the issuance of the Regulation, all Iranian refugees who introduced themselves to the UNHCR were referred by that office to the Turkish police. Only after proof of registration with the police were they given a refugee status determination interview with the UNHCR. As a result, all refugees who had applied to the UNHCR were known to the police and would sign in at police stations in Ankara or their towns of residence on a regular basis (sometimes twice daily).19 Only those who had been in Turkey for a long period, whose cases were closed with the UNHCR and who had received deportation writs were generally living "illegally." Prior to the issuance of the Regulation, therefore, most Iranian refugees were "legal" and known to the authorities. Given that most UNHCR-recognized refugees are now "illegal" and unknown to the authorities, the Regulation has had the opposite of its intended result - that is, if the Turkish government's real intent is as it states - to "control" asylum seekers. In practice, the Regulation has increased insecurity for asylum seekers and facilitated refoulement under the guise of [il]legalities.


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