Twelve Iranian journalists and citizen-journalists who fled Iran to escape violence and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment are currently in an extremely difficult situation in Turkey.
As Turkey neighbours Iran, these refugees and their families continue to be exposed to the possibility of persecution by the Iranian intelligence agencies. At the same time, the Turkish immigration services are extremely reluctant to provide them with the administrative cooperation they need to complete their applications for asylum and resettlement in safer countries. And the coronavirus crisis is compounding all of their problems.
Intractable red tape
Until the end of 2018, refugees arriving in Turkey applied directly to UNHCR for asylum. But this is no longer the case, as UNHCR says on its website: “The State of Turkey is the principal provider of protection in Turkey. Registration with the Turkish authorities is therefore the most important way of securing your rights in Turkey.”
This change has had a big impact on refugees. The applications of Iranian journalists now have to be examined by the Turkish immigration authorities and police, who take their time. The waiting time is now even longer because the United States, which used to accept asylum and resettlement applications under President Obama, has ceased to do so on President Trump’s orders.
Resettlement proposals are no longer being submitted to the United States. At the same time, many Iranian refugees have ceased to benefit from the various forms of assistance accorded to asylum seekers, including the health card that significantly reduced their medical expenses. Its loss makes them more vulnerable if they catch Covid-19.
The plight of Iranian journalists trapped in Turkey is all the more urgent and worrying because they continue to be exposed to danger from neighbouring Iran. The various Iranian intelligences services, including the Revolutionary Guards, continue to directly threaten these journalists and the families they have left behind.
“Turkey must provide refugee journalists with effective protection and, together with UNHCR, must provide them with all the assistance they need so that their asylum applications can be completed within a reasonable period of time,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran desk. “We remind the Turkish authorities and UNHCR of the urgent need to speed up resettlement procedures or to establish a mechanism for evacuating them to third countries where their safety can be guaranteed.”
Living “in the shadow of fear”
“I have always been threatened by the Iranian regime in Turkey,” the journalist, blogger and satirical writer Sharagim Zand said in a recent email to RSF. Threatened with arrest in Iran, Zand fled to Turkey in 2014 and applied for asylum, while continuing to work for various media outlets such as IranWire and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and often posting on social media.
After living “in the shadow of fear” for the past five and a half years, Zand says he has seen a recent increase in the Iranian regime’s threats. “They are now threatening to find me and kill me,” he says, with the result that he is “more and more afraid” to leave his home.
Recent cases of abduction and murder within the Iranian exile community have shown that such threats must be taken seriously because Iran has the ability to carry them out.
Kidnapped or murdered by Iranian agents
Gilan Noo news website editor Arash Shoa-e Shargh, who fled Iran after being convicted of “spreading false news” and “publishing without permission,” was abducted outside his home in Van, in eastern Turkey, on 5 February 2018 and resurfaced 25 days later in a prison in Iran. One of his relatives told RSF: “He was arrested outside his home by armed men who identified themselves as police officers” and was taken, handcuffed and blindfolded, to an underground car park with three cells, where he was held for the next three weeks.
One of the men who spoke Persian told him that the Turkish police had decided to protect him because he was threatened with being kidnapped by Iranians. At the same time, he was repeatedly interrogated about his journalistic activities and his family in Iran. He was finally told that he was in danger and that “either you cooperate and you will be transferred to Ankara, or you will be sent back to Iran.”
When he refused to cooperate, he was immediately driven across the border into the northern Iran and was handed over to Revolutionary Guards in the city of Tabriz that same evening. This outcome showed that his abductors had been Iranians all along.
Iranian journalists in Turkey are also familiar with the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, the controversial editor of The Black Box website, who had worked for the Revolutionary Guards before fleeing Iran and who had published allegations about corruption within the Revolutionary Guards and in Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s family, including his son Mojtaba. He was gunned down on an Istanbul street in November 2019, a year after his arrival in Turkey. Reuters quoted two senior Turkish officials as saying the murder was instigated by two intelligence officers stationed in Iran’s consulate in Turkey.
Coronavirus, a new threat
The fear and anxiety of Iranian refugees in Turkey has grown since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic. Alireza Roshan, a poet, writer and journalist with the Majzoban Noor website who fled to Turkey with his wife and son in March 2018, said the epidemic has made his future much more uncertain, especially as “the immigration services have stopped all processing and UNHCR is powerless.”
The situation for some exiles began deteriorating long before the epidemic. An Iranian journalist who has been in Turkey since 2014 and who asked not to be identified said his application for resettlement in the United States was initially accepted, only to be suspended, like the refugee reception programme, by the Trump administration in 2017.
No agency has taken on his case since then, with the result that the only certainties left to him are extremely sombre. He is no longer able to enjoy the benefits accorded to asylum seekers, while he faces both the threats the Iranian authorities are making against him on social media and the threat of catching the coronavirus.
Iran is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, while Turkey is ranked 154th.