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Iranian activists choose exile over harassment and detention

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - 14 December 2012 – The space in Iran for civil society has been shrinking since the crackdown following the disputed presidential election in 2009, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Three-and-a-half years after government forces brutally suppressed largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations, hundreds of activists have sought temporary refuge and an uncertain future in neighboring Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in the face of harassment and detention at home.

The 62-page report, “Why They Left: Stories of Iranian Activists in Exile”, documents the experiences of dozens of rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and lawyers whom security and intelligence forces targeted because they spoke out against the government. Some who took part in anti-government protests after the 2009 election had never been politically active before, but suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of security and intelligence forces.

“The post-2009 crackdown has profoundly affected civil society in Iran,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The images of police beating protesters mercilessly may have faded from television and computer screens, but many Iranian activists continue to make the painful choice to abandon homes and families.”

No truly independent rights organizations can openly operate in Iran's current political climate. Many prominent human rights defenders and journalists are in prison or exile, and other activists face constant harassment and arbitrary arrest.

Since 2009, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of civil society activists who have applied for asylum and resettlement to third countries. According to statistics compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Iranians filed 11,537 new asylum applications to 44 countries in 2009; 15,185 in 2010; and 18,128 in 2011.

The largest number of new asylum applications was lodged in neighboring Turkey, where there was a 72 percent increase in the number of Iranian asylum seekers between 2009 and 2011. Due to its proximity to Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan is also a significant recipient of Iranian asylum seekers, especially those from the Kurdish minority. The testimony of these activists, many of whom remain politically active as refugees in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, shed light on the unprecedented pressures on civil society in Iran that began during the first term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Human Rights Watch said.

Many Iranian refugees and asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described difficult conditions and long processing times for their asylum applications during their stay in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. The main concerns of those in Turkey included restrictions on their freedom of movement, burdensome residency fees, their inability to acquire work permits, and lack of access to health services. Refugees and asylum seekers in Iraqi Kurdistan also expressed concern about restrictions on their movements, threats, harassment, and arbitrary regulations imposed on them by Kurdish Regional Government authorities, often because of their continued political activities.

The Turkish government has so far refused the request of Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, to visit the country in his official capacity to meet with and interview these asylum seekers and refugees. Dr. Shaheed's position was established under a UN Human Rights Council resolution in March 2011.

Human Rights Watch called on Ankara to immediately allow Shaheed access to the country so he can carry out his UN mandate. Human Rights Watch also called on the Turkish government to create conditions that will allow registered refugees and asylum seekers to live and work comfortably while they await resettlement to a third country.

Human Rights Watch urged the Kurdish Regional Government to protect the safety and welfare of Iranian refugees and refrain from threats or harassment against those who continue to pursue nonviolent political or rights activities during their time as refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The countries in the region need to protect the refugees from Iran and treat them with compassion and dignity,” Stork said. “Countries outside the region should offer generous resettlement opportunities for Iranian refugees who urgently need to leave the region and have no other options for durable asylum, and speedily process their claims.”

Watch Faraz Sanei, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, speak about the issue.

Read selected cases from the report.

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