x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iranian asylum-seekers find a reluctant berth in Turkey

Presence of refugees fleeing the regime in Tehran creates a delicate situation for Ankara, which has improved ties with its neighbour.

ISTANBUL // Having become a major destination for dissidents fleeing the regime in Iran, Turkey has been warned by a top human rights court in Europe not to send the refugees back to their country. But Ankara is determined to keep the issue from turning into a problem for recently improved ties with Tehran, refugee activists and observers say.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 Iranians have sought refuge in neighbouring Turkey since last year's disputed presidential elections and the subsequent crackdown on the opposition in Tehran, according to Recep Korkut from the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Refugees, a non-governmental organisation in Turkey. "There are people from all walks of life, but most of them are students and journalists," Mr Korkut said in an interview this week.

All in all, there were about 6,000 Iranian refugees in Turkey at the start of the year, according to Turkish officials. Because Turkey's laws deny asylum to refugees from countries outside Europe, Iranians have to apply to the Turkey office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, to gain international refugee status in the hope of finding a third country that will take them in.

While the requests are being processed, which can take up to three years, Turkish authorities send asylum-seekers to one of several provincial towns earmarked as temporary places of residence for refugees. Most are in central and eastern Anatolia. During that time, refugees are in a state of legal limbo, barred from getting a job on the official labour market of the city where they are staying. Many work illegally to keep themselves afloat.

Although a refugee "doesn't have a work permit, he has to pay [local] taxes, and is responsible for his housing and food expenses", an Iranian asylum-seeker, whose name was withheld, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a pressure group based in the United States. While the Iranians wait to travel on to western countries from Turkey, they are being watched by agents from Iran's secret services, said Mr Korkut, who works with Iranian refugees in the central Anatolian city of Nigde. "They are following them."

One refugee, identified only as Ali, told Agence France-Presse that he had been threatened by three suspected Iranian agents after he gave an interview to foreign reporters. He said the men "put a knife to my throat and told me it would be my last interview". Still, some refugees are active politically. Last week, a group of Iranian refugees staged a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in Ankara. The demonstrators called for comprehensive sanctions against the regime in Tehran and the release of all political prisoners in Iran, Turkish media reported.

Ties between Turkey and Iran have improved considerably in recent years. Turkey's government was one of the first to recognise the validity of the controversial presidential elections in Iran last year, and Ankara voted against fresh sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council last month. A foreign ministry official in Ankara said improved relations did not mean that Turkey would be repatriating Iranians. "There has been no pressure from Iran to send them back and none have ever been sent back," the official said.

But some deportations were halted only after the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, stepped in. The court, whose decisions are binding for Turkey as a member of the Council of Europe, has warned Ankara several times not to return Iranian refugees to their home country because they could face harassment or even the death penalty. In January, the court awarded ?20,000 (Dh 92,300) in damages to an Iranian woman who converted to Christianity after entering Turkey illegally in 2005 and who was detained by Turkish authorities. The court said Turkey had planned her deportation without considering her statement that she had come to Turkey to apply to the UNHCR for refugee status.

Last year, Strasbourg ruled against Turkey in the case of two other Iranians whose deportations to Iran failed only because the Iranian authorities refused to accept the men. In April, the court issued a fresh verdict against an expulsion of refugees from Turkey, in a case that included 10 Iranians. Sinan Ogan, the head of the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, or Turksam, a think-tank in Ankara, said Turkey and Iran were determined not to let the refugee issue become a burden for their relationship. "They have become used to this," he said.

Mr Ogan said that although Iran asks Turkey to hand over or arrest some dissidents every now and then, it was only "going through the formalities" without expecting the Turks to comply. "Iran does not want to burden other areas of the relationship," he said. "The Iranians need Turkey." For its part, Turkey has placed limits on its tolerance towards political activities by Iranian dissidents on Turkish territory, Mr Ogan said. "It allows them to engage in some democratic activities, like forming associations, but it will not tolerate action against the regime [in Tehran]."