Refugees from Iran

ROSS LAVER February 2 1987

Refugees from Iran

ROSS LAVER February 2 1987

Refugees from Iran


Most of them travel on foot, using remote mountain passes to avoid detection by security police and border guards. Only a few are fortunate enough to possess passports, which enable them to board regularly scheduled flights to Istanbul from Tehran’s Mehrabad airport. But whichever route they take, the thousands of Iranians who flood into Turkey each month have one thing in common: their opposition to the fundamentalist Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Said Javad Mehdi Rahnama, 24, who crossed the Turkish frontier three weeks ago after a brief

period as a member of Iran’s revolutionary guards: “At first I was a supporter of Khomeini, just like all of my friends. But the repression keeps getting worse. At last I could no longer bear to live in my homeland.”

Rahnama is one of an estimated 600,000 Iranians who have entered Turkey illegally since Islamic revolutionaries overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. According to Western diplomats in Ankara, many of the refugees are wealthy or middle-class Iranians who have been driven out of the country by political persecution and by the effects of the bloody, six-year war between Iran and Iraq. Most of them intended to stay in Turkey only temporarily while they obtained visas for Europe or North America, but they swiftly discovered that few other countries will accept them. Meanwhile,

Turkish authorities say that the presence of so many Iranians in the country could pose a threat to stability. Indeed, Turkish police claim that some of those entering the country across the mountainous 450-km border with Iran are agents of the Khomeini regime seeking to spread Iran’s revolution.

The journey out of Iran is often difficult and dangerous. The high mountain passes are covered with snow even in early summer, and guides sometimes rob their clients, leaving them stranded in the wilderness. But Iranians with enough money usually succeed. For one thing, the very rugged-

ness of the border territories makes them almost impossible to patrol, Maclean's London Bureau Chief Ross Laver reported from the area last week. A Western diplomat who toured the region last year added that most of the area is controlled by Kurdish separatists who for the past 25 years have waged a guerrilla war in adjoining areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. “The entire border zone is a smugglers’ paradise,” the envoy said. “Often the Kurds act as the smugglers. Whole areas are virtually autonomous.”

Muhammed Shoja, 20, is one of the many upper-class Iranians who have paid heavily to escape. Before the 1979 revolution, Shoja’s father was the chief accountant for a major U.S.owned corporation in Tehran. But Khomeini ordered the firm to shut down because of its U.S. connections. At

the same time, the family’s proWestern, secular values made it a target for harassment by Islamic fundamentalists. Shoja said that both he and his brother passed the entrance exams for Iran’s Esfahan University, but were refused admission by fundamentalist mullahs, religious leaders. Said Shoja: “When we protested [we were] put in jail for two months and ordered to be whipped every day. I still have nightmares about those days.” Finally, Shoja’s father paid smugglers $9,100 to provide Shoja and his brother with false documents and an eight-hour journey to Turkey.

“Just as we were setting off a policeman stopped and searched us,” said Shoja, who was carrying $1,300.

“Luckily he was so corrupt that when we gave him the money he let us go.”

Despite the resentment they encounter from some Turks, many refugees say that they are relieved to have left Iran. “I would have stayed with my family in Tehran if it had been possible,” said a 26-yearold man who would only give his first name, Morteza. “But if I go back home I will be shot.” Morteza said that he was a mechanic in Tehran until he lost his job in 1982 and joined Iran’s Mujahedin-e-Khalq movement, one of several groups opposing Khomeini. Fourteen months ago he boarded a bus to the northern city of Tabriz where he paid a mountain guide $3,900 to escort him across the border. He now lives with nine other Iranians in a three-bedroom apartment in Ankara, waiting for a Western country to accept him as an immigrant.

Morteza applied for refugee status at the Ankara office of the Genevabased United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), under guidelines established in 1951. But he, like most other Iranians, failed to qualify. Those guidelines state that applicants must have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Since 1981 only about 13,000 Iranians living in Turkey have been

granted refugee status, and more than half of those have already been resettled in other countries, according to the UNHCR. Said Morteza: “We thought that the United Nations would help us. Now we see that it is not true.”

Many young Iranians readily admit that they escaped because of the terrifying prospect of fighting in the war against Iraq. Faced with Iraq’s superior firepower, the Iranians have resorted to sending waves of lightly armed infantry, many of them teenagers, into the direct fire of Iraqi artillery and

machine guns. For some, the decision to flee from Iran was hastened by the sight of large numbers of amputees in the streets of Iranian towns and cities.

Groups that usually have no difficulty establishing a claim to refugee status include Bahais, as well as Jews, Kurds,

Zoroastrians and members of other religious or ethnic minorities in Iran.

Most Iranians are Shi’as—members of a breakaway Islamic sect—and the Khomeini regime treats many minorities as heretics. Said one envoy of the religious outcasts: “They are either converted or killed.” Thirty-year-old refugee Mahin Heydari said that her neighbors in Tehran taunted her and two young sons because she was a follower of the Bahai faith. “I was one of the lucky ones,” she said. “I knew some

Bahais who were stoned to death, and their children were taken away to be raised by Moslem families.”

But for those Iranian exiles who are under no immediate threat, a new home may be years away. Most countries, excluding Canada, put a limit on the number they will accept. Even Turkey, one of the few countries not to require that Iranians have visas, refuses to make them permanent residents. Instead, authorities issue them green visitors’ cards which must be renewed every three months.

In the past two years Canada has accepted only 96 Iranian refugees from Turkey. But government sources say that as many as 2,000 Iranians may have entered Canada illegally since the start of the Gulf war, often bearing false passports and visas purchased on the black market in Istanbul. Two weeks ago the Istanbul daily Milliyet reported that Turkish police had cracked a smuggling ring that had charged Iranians $13,000 each for false documents and airline tickets to Canada via Yugoslavia and Italy. But it is Turkey, Iran’s neighbor to the northwest and a close trading partner, that has the biggest refugee problem. Some Turks say that the influx of Iranians has led to overcrowding in parts of Istanbul and stirred resentment s among local residents. Turkish police also say that some of the recent arrivals may have been sent by Tehran to spread Islamic fundamentalism. They point out that two Iranian students were arrested last week in Istanbul after protesting against a law that forbids female university students to wear Islamic headscarves. The issue has important political overtones in Turkey, which regards itself as a secular Islamic republic with close ties to both Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Radio Tehran called on Turks last week to take up arms against their country’s secular government. Those messages are certain to add to the growing sense of unease surrounding Turkey’s Iranian community.

— ROSS LAVER in Ankara

The world section continues on page 55.