Monday, 14 December 2009

The Wall Street Journal: Thousands Flee Iran as Noose Tightens

NEVSEHIR, Turkey -- Sadegh Shojai fled Iran after government agents raided his Tehran apartment, seizing his computer and 700 copies of a book he published on staging revolutions.

Now, he and his wife spend their days in this isolated Turkish town in a cramped, coal-heated apartment that lacks a proper toilet. But Mr. Shojai, 28 years old, continues to churn out articles on antigovernment Web sites about Iranian political prisoners, and helps to link students in Tehran with fellow students in Europe.

"I feel very guilty that I have abandoned my friends and countrymen, so I make up for it by burying myself in activism here," he says.

He's part of a small but spreading refugee exodus of businesspeople, dissidents, college students, journalists, athletes and other elite Iranians that is transforming the global face of Iran's resistance movement.

"Because of new technology and the Internet, prominent figures of the opposition can be more effective outside of Iran and do things they wouldn't be able to do there," says Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University. People staying behind "are ridiculed and sidelined," or thrown in jail.

The United Nations says more than 4,200 Iranians world-wide have sought refugee status since Iran's controversial June presidential vote and bloody street violence. This provincial Turkish town -- near the famed carved-rock dwellings of Cappadocia that harbored outcasts in millennia past -- is home to 543 Iranians seeking asylum.

After sometimes spending weeks hiding in and hopping between safe houses, Iranians have turned up in countries as far away as Australia, Canada and Sweden. They typically seek refugee status.

"What good can a lawyer do in Iran if she is in jail?" says Nikahang Kousar, an Iranian political cartoonist in Toronto who formed an "underground railroad" of sorts to advise and assist other Iranians trying to leave Iran.

A spokesman with Iran's U.N. mission in New York declined to comment on the refugees or their claims of repression or violence.

Iran's refugee exodus is exacerbating a brain drain that has stunted the country's development for years. Mr. Dabashi, the Columbia professor, says he has fielded hundreds of inquiries from students in Iran wanting to study overseas -- more than 20 times the rate of previous years. "It's mind-boggling how many extremely accomplished young people are trying to come abroad," he says.

Not all defectors are necessarily politically active. Two athletes from the national

wrestling and karate teams, a well-known anchor on state television and a young film director have applied for political asylum in Europe in recent months.

The most popular destination remains neighboring Turkey, which shares a long border with Iran. Turkey is one of the few countries that doesn't require Iranians to obtain a visa in advance, making it a relatively easy escape.
But not everyone can openly cross the border. About 20 individuals (mostly journalists) have escaped Iran illegally since June because they had been jailed or been blocked from leaving, according to Omid Memarian, a human-rights activist in San Francisco who is another participant in the loose-knit global underground railroad.

Maryam Sabri fled Iran in September after being jailed.

Hanif Mazroui, the son of a reformist Iranian politician, says he snuck across the border, leaving behind a wife and newborn baby he hasn't met. Today Mr. Mazroui is in Belgium where he is working as a journalist for reformist Web sites.
No matter the route, many Iranians arrive abroad carrying pictures or videos of themselves participating in post-election demonstrations in Tehran. Some also continue their antigovernment activities by blogging or distributing photos, videos, articles and news to Iranians inside and outside the country.

Relations between Turkey and Iran have warmed in recent years. Just last month, the two sides announced a trade agreement, including construction of new power plants and establishment of a free-trade zone on the border. Turkey also relies on Iran as a major supplier of natural gas.

Turkey also opposes U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. Just this past Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Barack Obama at the White House. "We believe that the role of Iran can only be changed through diplomacy," Mr. Erdogan said afterward.

U.S. officials view Turkey as a central player in forging an international consensus on pressuring Iran, due to Ankara's expanding economic and diplomatic ties to Tehran and Mr. Erdogan's considerable influence across the Middle East. The Obama administration also sees Turkey as a crucial ally in addressing a range of regional security issues, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sadegh Shojai operates in Turkey as an online middleman between Iranians at home and abroad.

A State Department official says the U.S. is prepared to accept more Iranian refugees provided the U.N.'s refugee agency makes the referrals. The official said there is a refugee quota of about 35,000 this year for the Near East and South Asia, so "there's enough wiggle room that we could increase the number of people we take out of Turkey."

Turkey is one of the world's only countries that bans refugees from taking up permanent residence within its own borders. The U.N. has found no evidence that Turkey is treating Iranian political refugees any differently than other refugees.
Still, there is fear among Iranian refugees in Turkey of being caught or harassed by Iranian intelligence agents. Many say they are afraid to call their families back home, believing the phone lines in Iran are tapped and that relatives there will face reprisal.

Ibrahim Vurgun, project coordinator for a Turkish nonprofit that is under contract with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, to assist refugees, says Iranian intelligence operatives have infiltrated the ranks of asylum seekers.
"It's very easy to get into Turkey, and you can't differentiate between an Iranian intelligence agent and a real refugee," he says.

Masoume Mohammadian is seeking work in Nevsehir.

Maryam Sabri, a 21-year-old refugee in Kayseri, an industrial city home to more than 1,000 fleeing Iranians, says two Iranian men she believes were security agents chased her in Ankara, but she ran into Turkish police and her assailants fled. She says her hope is that she can leave Turkey as soon as possible. "I am not safe here," she said.

Ms. Sabri came to Turkey in early September, shortly after spending two weeks in a Tehran prison, she says, after being arrested while protesting the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose videotaped shooting on the street in Iran became a rallying cry for the protest movement.

A miniaturist painter, Ms. Sabri says she had produced fliers for opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. In prison, Ms. Sabri says, her interrogator repeatedly raped her and warned her that she would be tracked after release. "If you do not do everything we want, we are going to finish you off somewhere, very easily," she says she was told.

The Iranian government has denied that any prisoners have been raped and has called the allegations propaganda by opposition groups.

The Turkish government requires refugees to live in remote locations far from big cities like Istanbul. This is how many wind up here in Nevsehir, about a five-hour bus ride south of Ankara. A community of Iranian asylum seekers has sprung up in a dusty hillside neighborhood of stone streets and cinder-block dwellings known as "350 Houses."

WSJ's Steve Stecklow tells Simon Constable why hundreds of Iranians are seeking asylum in a small town in Turkey.

That's where Mr. Shojai, the Iranian publisher of revolutionary materials, lives with his wife, Fateme Faneian, a 25-year-old blogger who worked at an opposition Web site in Iran before the government shut it down.

They arrived in Turkey in August after hiding in Iran for more than a month while participating in demonstrations. She says that during one protest in Iran, police kicked her in the stomach, causing her to have a miscarriage.

It's their first time outside Iran. They arrived by train with four suitcases of belongings, including several bags of rice.

Mr. Shojai says he now spends eight to 10 hours a day online, acting as an intermediary for a large network of student activists within Iran to get updates on arrests, interrogations and jailings back home. He then distributes what he learns globally on Facebook, Twitter and Balatarin, an Iranian news and social-networking site.

Because of Turkey's strict rules for refugees, Iranians can find themselves in a bureaucratic limbo that can last for years.

Once here, Iranians must wait for the U.N. to approve their status as refugees, which can take several months. If approved, they then next wait for assignment to another country (typically the U.S., Canada or Australia), which can take two years because of immigration quotas. If they're rejected as refugees, they can appeal, extending the process.

"Time can be the best torturer," says Kiumars Kamalinia, an Iranian Christian living in Nevsehir who says he was forced to flee Iran two years ago because of evangelical activities. He says the U.N. recognized him as a refugee a year ago but he's still awaiting resettlement.

An official with Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who declined to be named, said the refugee issue "is very complex and should be addressed by the international community." Noting that 67,000 people have sought refuge in Turkey since 1995 -- nearly half of them from Iran -- the official said Turkey wants to avoid a "mass influx" of additional refugees.

The 1,000 or so Iranians who have arrived in Turkey since the June elections joined more than 3,000 others already waiting to be declared refugees or to be resettled. They include Christians and members of the Bahai faith who say they fled to escape religious persecution. There also is a sizable community of gay and lesbian Iranians. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran.

UNHCR officials say the number of refugees in Turkey has increased in recent years, largely because of an influx of Iraqis. Waiting periods for resettlement have also grown.
Last year, there were only about 5,000 placements for 18,000 refugees. The U.S. accepted 1,099 Iranians from Turkey. An additional 486 went to six other countries.

While refugees wait, Turkey charges them the same residential-permit fees as any foreigner, about $200 per adult and $100 per child, every six months. The fees have stirred up resentment, since Turkey also prohibits refugees from finding legal employment if Turkish citizens are qualified to do the job. Many work illegal, $10-a-day jobs like housepainting.

Hossein Salman Zadeh, an Iranian news photographer who fled to Turkey in September to avoid arrest for taking pictures of demonstrations, says he was fined $50 for failing to pay the residential-permit fees on time, even though the office that collects the money was closed for a holiday.

"The fee itself is a serious burden, every six months having to come up with that money in a country where you cannot work legally," says Brenda Goddard, a refugee-status determination officer at UNHCR in Ankara.

The Turkish foreign-ministry official said the government is considering changes in the permit fees to benefit the refugees.

However, Turkish unemployment is fairly high at around 11%, and because of that, it's "not really an option to allow these applicants to work in Turkey," another government official said. The official added that Turkey is worried that if it allowed refugees to remain, the country would soon become "a huge warehouse for asylum seekers from European Union countries."

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