Iranian refugees tell story of escape from repression they face in Iran

Iranian refugees tell story of escape from repression they face in Iran

The eastern province of Van is home to thousands of refuges from eastern countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. In this 2002 file photo, Iranian refugees are seen protesting their conditions. (PHOTO AA)

June 24, 2012, Sunday/ 13:09:00/ AYDIN ALBAYRAK

The limitations that can be felt in almost every aspect of daily Life cause Iranians to flee their country. “I didn’t feel free. I felt as if I was being suffocated,” says S.A., identified only by his initials for security reasons.

Now aged 37, he left Iran 12 years ago, where he was working at a carpet store in Tehran. He entered Turkey illegally, got married to a Turkish woman and is now the father of two children.

You don’t enjoy freedom in Iran as you do in Turkey, he told Sunday’s Zaman. Of Azeri origin, he is one of the Iranians who answered questions from Sunday’s Zaman at the Kumkapı Migrant Center in İstanbul, where migrants from various countries are temporarily detained because of some type of illegal act that put them, while in Turkey, on the wrong side of the law. Alcohol, which is prohibited by the Islamic regime in Iran, doesn’t seem to be a major reason behind S.A.’s flight from the country. “It’s not that I’m a boozer or that I like going to places like bars. In everyday life, you can feel the repression in Iran,” he said.

But after trying to break up a fight, he ended up in custody for 20 days at a police station in Iran, which may have helped focus his intention to flee the country.

He believes it was because the person who was beaten in the fight was a member of the Basij -- a paramilitary force composed of volunteers and controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards -- that he was kept so long in custody. He was not beaten at the police station but said he was treated as if he had killed someone.

The total number of Iranians with an application to the United Nations refugee Agency in Turkey is 5,922. Iranians in Turkey are the largest group, after Iraqis, who seek asylum from a third country because Turkey, having placed a geographical restriction on the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, doesn’t recognize as refugees people coming from countries that are not members of the Council of Europe. Most of the Iranians are political and human rights activists, journalists, members of persecuted faiths like Bahaism, or ordinary people looking for a better life.

H.C., who is partly physically handicapped by birth, came to Turkey by legal means about a month ago. He was raised by a state institution that cares for children in Iran. After leaving the institution, he studied computer science at the university. He struggled to establish a life for himself, but it was hard. He was earning around $300 a month in Tehran. “It was very difficult to live on that,” he said. And there was no guarantee he would always have a job.

Life was really difficult in Tehran for a disabled person. “I struggled a lot in Iran. But there is nothing that makes life easier for disabled people in Iran,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. Aged 30, he wants to go to a Western country where disabled people live relatively comfortably. He has stressed he isn’t asking for political asylum, but once he was briefly detained by the Iranian police because he supported the Green Movement’s demonstrations that took place after the elections in 2009.

He underwent interrogation for four hours at the police station for exchanging messages with other protestors who had taken to the streets at the time. He believes his emails were monitored by the police, but he escaped lightly, receiving only a mild warning from the police that he should not be involved in activities of this type.

H.C., who doesn’t know his parents and whose grandfather died when he was 9 years old, has no contact with his relatives in Iran. He has been in the center for about two weeks because he was caught with a fake Algerian passport. He is hopeful that a Western country will accept him as a refugee, and said Turkey seems to be no different from Iran as regards comforts provided to disabled people.

Another refugee, S.L., an Azeri from Shiraz, came to Turkey legally with her 18-year-old sister about a year ago. In Iran, she studied child psychology at the university in English and Farsi, then taught at high school. Aged 35, she has no contact with her family in Iran. She has no political background, but she doesn’t have any good memories of Iran. “A single woman in Iran could not possibly feel free. Women are repressed in Iran,” she said.

She wanted to live with her sister in Istanbul, who had obtained right of residency in Turkey, but she risks being sent back to Iran. “So, I have no other choice than ask to be accepted as a refugee by a Western country,” she remarked. She left Iran because as a woman she didn’t feel comfortable there, and now she wants to live in a country where women feel safe.

S.L., who has been at the center in Kumkapı for about two weeks, is hopeful that, in some way, things will improve. “It’s always like this for me; things come right at the last minute,” she said, smiling.

In the Kumkapı center there are currently nearly 350 migrants, 18 of whom are from Iran. The total number of people of Iranian origin who stayed at the center for a time during 2011 and 2012 is 521 and 240, respectively. This year, 91 of them were deported from Turkey, while 79 Iranians were allowed to leave the center as they had applied for refugee status. Last year, 248 Iranians were deported and 167 were allowed to leave the center due to their applications for refugee status.

State provides migrants only two meals a day

Life in the Kumkapı center in İstanbul is not easy for migrants. The center, which has a 350-person capacity, is not only insufficient physically but there is also not enough staff to cater to the needs of the migrants. The facility has a small yard, with no green space. Migrants can only get out of the building into the yard on weekends for just one hour a day. On weekdays, they have to remain in the building.

At the center, where policemen are on duty around the clock, the number of staff is only 60. And the number of policewomen working at the center is three. More policewomen are needed because there are 114 women at the center, nearly one-third of all the migrants detained there. Last, but not least, the Turkish state provides only two meals a day for the migrants, with lunch being provided by the Zeytinburnu Municipality.


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