By Dr Gill Gillespie
This article concerns what happens to refugees and their families when support from the UNHCR breaks down. The UNHCR is supposed to be the bough which supports refugees to keep them safe while their cases are being processed, but does it really do this, and what are the barriers it faces? The article is also a follow-up to Walton K Martin’s 2011 publication in The American Thinker, which asked ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran is Holding Hostages in Iraq. Does Anybody Care?’
The definition of a refugee, according to the UNHCR Conventions of 1951/1967 is:
“Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”
The duty of the UNHCR is to ensure non-discrimination, non-penalization and, most importantly of all, non-refoulement. This latter is largely what this article is concerned with, and, according to the UNHCR’s own convention, non-refoulement is so fundamental that it means no one shall expel or return (refoul) a refugee against his or her own will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom. It is argued that this is very far from the case for current refugees, all over the world, but with the particular focus here on Iranian refugees in Iraq. The dilemma usually centres around the difficulties faced by enforcing such a principle.
The Convention further stipulates that those seeking asylum must not be
arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum, even if they have arrived in a country without legal travel documentation, recognizing that refugees often have to forego this following the removal of such documents by their persecutors after imprisonment and torture.
It should be noted that the Islamic Republic of Iran signed up to the UNHCR Conventions on 28 July 1979. Although Iraq has not, the UNHCR claim that it:
“has been generous in extending hospitality to tens of thousands of refugees and others in need of international protection and assistance”
This article, which, in its extended form, will be reproduced in the Journal of Refugee Studies in due course, argues that the UNHCR’s claims over Iraq’s ‘protection and assistance’ are very far from being accurate.
The Iranian Refugees Action Network represents hundreds of refugees around the world, including Iranian refugees who have fled from persecution by the Islamic regime, due to all the reasons set out in the UNHCR Conventions. After men, women and children have been persecuted by the Iran regime, including being arrested, tortured and imprisoned in Iran, if they are finally released from prison, it is only after having been forced to sign a document. This document usually threatens them that if they reveal anything about the nature of their imprisonment/torture to anyone else, they will be returned to prison for immediate execution, and their families will also be at risk. In all but exceptional cases, those who are persecuted also have their travel documents removed from them, so they and their families cannot flee.
In order to flee Iran, the refugee must therefore, usually, obtain false documentation (at great expense), or undertake a perilous journey to be smuggled either into Turkey, Iraq or a number of other destinations. When refugees arrive in a ‘safe’ country, they are required to register with the UNHCR as soon as possible, who are supposed to then issue them with protective documentation, before pursuing their RSD (Refugee Status Determination) cases.
Most refugees who arrive in Iraq are prevented from reaching the UNHCR by the local Iraqi police, who patrol the Iran/Iraq borders, and arrest refugees, forcing them into local prisons. Unfortunately, many of these prisons are, in effect, controlled by Iran Consulates (we have previously published details elsewhere, such as in our 2011 article). Some of our refugees have been beaten, threatened with loaded guns, tortured, intimidated and, in several cases witness to murders whilst being held in these prisons. We aware of refugees being held in Iraq prisons for years without being given any access to the UNHCR whatsoever.
The UNHCR is therefore largely prevented by bureaucracy, political barriers and the manipulation of the Iraq/Iran authorities from gaining access to refugees, and it is getting worse. One of our refugees, who was beaten and tortured in such a facility in Markhazi Amarah, by an Iranian Consul named Kuhi, was recently moved three times in the space of two months around Iraq to prevent the RSD process from being progressed. His illegal refoulement/deportation has also been prevented three times in the past year, as the Iran regime continues to exercise their influence over these proceedings. His story, and that of others, was reported by our US Walton K Martin, in November, as referred to above. Instead of being in a safe country, the UNHCR process has completely failed this vulnerable refugee, who has now been held in prisons in Iraq since September 2010.
Should this man be forced, against the UNHCR Conventions, back to Iran, he will definitely be imprisoned and sentenced to death, by virtue only of his tenuous connections with a political group. The amount of time and effort that the UNHCR, NGO’s like ourselves and indeed family members have to spend on tracking one refugee down to ensure their safety is enormous.
Meanwhile, Iraq appears to be descending back into political chaos, with millions of people marching in the streets to protest against the Malaki Government and the interference of the Iranian regime. During the political instability, Al-Qaeda continue to claim responsibility for deaths including 50 in a car bomb in just one day this week
The questions for the international community must be these. How and why can a so-called powerful body like the UNHCR be refused access to asylum-seekers, in opposition to all international human rights conventions, even those ‘informally agreed’ with the UNHCR? How can the UN, as a multi-$bn organization, not be giving priority to assist UNHCR personnel, in danger and threatened themselves by Iranian Consulate staff should they wish to carry out their own job in helping refugees to safety? How can the wider political world stand by and watch while the Iran regime moves in to Iraq, not only for political reasons but to force their own people back to Iran to be imprisoned, tortured and murdered. If, as these matters were brought to the attention of the UNHCR and other state bodies, as early as 2011, refugees are still not safe nearly three years later, is the UNHCR really fit for purpose according to its own Conventions?
This article argues that a full investigation should be carried out into the extent of the collaboration between the Iran and Iraq authorities in preventing the UNHCR from effectively operating in Iraq. It further argues that all refugees should be handed over immediately into the protective custody of the UNHCR until such an investigation has been carried out. The findings of such an investigation should be made public. As we asked in 2011, and are asking again, does anybody care?