Advocay on behalf of Iranian Asylum Seekers in Turkey

(from Iranian Refugees At Risk Fall95/Winter 96)

In Sept. 1995, Iranian Refugees' Alliance directly communicated to the UNHCR Geneva Headquarters its concern regarding fairness and accuracy in determinations made by the UNHCR Branch Office in Ankara-Turkey. We were initially pleased to find openness by Headquarters to discuss the procedure and the criteria being used to reach decisions in the Branch Office's system. Iranian Refugees' Alliance reiterated that the inadequacies it had identified in the Branch Office's refugee determination procedure would create a very real risk that rejected claimants be in fact bona fide refugees. These deficiencies were presented in a May 1995 report titled "Evading Scrutiny: Does UNHCR Determination System Measure Up to International Standards?". Since then Iranian Refugees Alliance has called on the UNHCR for improvements in the procedure.

With regard to the criteria used by the Branch Office, it has been impractical to make an assessment due to the secrecy surrounding the determinations. This is mainly due to the fact that findings related to the decisions on the claims have not been accessible for independent investigation. In order to have a meaningful dialogue on the criteria, the Headquarters agreed to provide grounds for rejection of two refugee claims. Iranian Refugees Alliance provided the Headquarters with details and supporting arguments for two cases. However, after investigation with the Branch, the Headquarters refused discussion of the cases. The excuse was declared to be resource constraints.

Another disappointment in these discussions was with regards to consideration of "sur place" status for sit-in participants. International law recognizes that, if while abroad, an individual expresses views or engages in activities which jeopardize the possibility of safe return to his or her country, he or she may be considered as a Convention refugee. The key issues in this consideration are whether such activities are likely to have come to the attention of the authorities in that person's country of origin and, if so, how they are likely to be viewed and responded to. In the case of the Iranian sit-in, the political manifestation of the action as well as the already exposed reactions of the Iranian government give rise to serious risk of persecution upon deportation of the participants.

In this connection, the Headquareters initially expressed that sur place status can be considered for at least some participants of the sit-in. However, the "clearly negative" assessment that was eventually declared by the Headquarters with respect to the refugee claims of all of the sit-in participants did not include an assessment of the new circumstances.

Finally, as expressed to Iranian Refugees' Alliance, the initial position of the Headquarters on granting of humanitarian leave by Turkish governmnet to the sit-in particpants seemed to be a positive one. Leave was considered as minimum protection for the paricipants and it was said that the UNHCR would make recommendations to the governmnet in this regard. Nevertheless, the official UNHCR position statement issued in November did not address the issue at all. Neither did UNHCR intervene when two sit-in participants were threatened with deportation.

Since Fall 1995, Iranian Refugees' Alliance has actively tried to provide accurate and up-to-date information and to share insights with several international organizations regarding the situation of Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey. The following are based on reports we have received from some of the organizations. A brief introduction of each organization's mandate is provided for better understanding of the impact of their work.

U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR)

USCR was founded 38 years ago and is a non-governmental organization based in Washington DC. USCR defends the rights of refugees to protection against refoulement (forcible return), to a fair and impartial hearing and to decent, humane treatment, as well as adequate protection and assistance. USCR's monthly publication Refugee Reports provides information and analysis on U.S. asylum policies. Its yearly publication World Refugee Survey documents the conditions faced by asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people all over the world.

Bill Frelick, senior policy analyst of the USCR, conducted a site visit to Ankara, Turkey in October 1995 in order to assess the impact of new asylum regulations in that country on refugee protection.

At the time of his visit, the group of 161 asylum seekers were in the tenth week of their sit-in to protest the rejection of their refugee claims by the UNHCR and to call upon the Turkish government to cancel their deportation orders. Frelick met with the group on several occasions during his visit at the site of the sit-in at the offices of the United Socialist Party of Turkey. He conducted lengthy interviews with many of the sit-in participants about their experiences before and after leaving Iran.

The sit-in was highly publicized and many of the participants were identified in Turkish newspapers and television. Frelick said, "The sit-in would have to be seen in Tehran at least implicitly as a protest directed at its regime, and the participants as being opponents claiming to be affiliated with outlawed political organizations."

During his visit, Frelick met with officials of the Turkish Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry as well as UNHCR officials, raising the situation of the Iranian sit-in and seeking humanitarian solutions. USCR referred to the principle of refugees "sur place" and referred to the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status which states that a person may become a refugee sur place "as a result of his own actions, such as associating with refugees already recognized, or expressing his political views in his country of residence."

In communications with relevant officials during and after the site visit, USCR recommended that the Turkish government give the 161 Iranian sit-in participants temporary residence permits, and allow them to pursue their asylum claims with the UNHCR authorities based, in part, on a case-by-case examination of the new circumstances arising from the sit-in.

"Reconsideration of their claims should take particular notice of new indications that the identities and affiliations of the sit-in participants could reasonably be believed to have come to the attention of the Iranian authorities and how deportees from the sit-in would likely be viewed by those authorities," said Frelick.

Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR)

CCR, founded in 1977, is a non-profit, umbrella organization, uniting more than 140 agencies working for protection of refugees across Canada. CCR is mandated to represent its members at the national and international levels. In its bi-annual conference of November 1995, a wide variety of national and international issues were discussed. The conference ended with the ratification of resolutions on refugee protection, one of which concerned Turkey and reads:


"1. Thousands of non-European refugees (i.e., Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds) have been left with critically inadequate protection in Turkey due to:

"a) the UNHCR's ineffective practices and policies in its refugee determination procedure (such as, lack of a meaningful appeal system and lack of legal counsel) which result in cases of genuine refugees being vulnerable to deportation by Turkish authorities;

"b) The Turkish government's unjust refugee determination system as well as its non-compliance with the Geneva refugee Convention and international human rights treaties which have resulted in the refoulement of many non-Europeans (including some holding UNHCR refugee status) to countries known iternationally for their gross human rights violations; "2. The CCR has continuing cocern about refugees in Turkey as expressed in its June 94 Resolution, #24;


"1. Write to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressing our concerns about the practices at the UNHCR office Ankara as well as Turkish government refugee policies.

"2. Write to relevant government representatives in Turkey urging them to fully comply with international refugee and human rights treaties and to immediately rescind its Exit Visa requirements for refugees accepted for resettlement abroad.

"3. Write to Canada's Ministers of Immigration and Foreign Affairs to call upon the Canadian government to use its influence through international meetings to urge Turkey to comply with international human rights and refugee standards."

Inter-Church Committee for Refugees (ICCR)

ICCR , founded in 1980, currently has 10 church members and 4 church related observers. ICCR is mandated to monitor the refugee situation around the world and in Canada, undertake analysis of refugee and immigration policies and prepare ecumenical briefs to government and relevant international agencies, help church members get involved in special refugee protection and resettlement cases.

In October 1995, ICCR's representative, Ann Woolgar, presented a brief on the situation of non-Europeans in Turkey to the NGO/UNHCR consultation in Geneva. Ms. Woolgar also met with three key persons at the Headquarters and raised the concern of ICCR with respect to Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers in Turkey.

In follow up, ICCR has written to the High Commissioner Sadako Ogata to express concern about the inadequate protection of Iranian and Iraqis in Turkey. ICCR has urged the High Commissioner to investigate the policies and practices of the Ankara Branch Office so as to ensure that asylum seekers are granted fair interviews and meaningful appeals. It has recommended the establishment of a mechanism linked to the United Nations Center for Human Rights to provide objective oversight for the practices of the Ankara Branch office and similar offices. ICCR's other recommendations are for UNHCR to take initiatives on revocation of deportation orders previously issued to asylum seekers, pressing the Turkish authorities to consider humanitarian leave for sit-in participants and engaging other governments to resettle sit-in participants, calling upon Turkey to revoke exit visa requirements for refugees and to urge this government to remove its geographical limitation on its application of the 1951 Convention.

Jesuit Refugee Service [JRS]

JRS is a Jesuit international network supporting refugees and displaced persons. Currently it has programs or representatives in over 40 countries. JRS often works side by side with the UNHCR and in at last half a dozen countries is an implementing partner. Every year JRS produces a paper in a consultative process among JRS personnel in all countries. In its Octobr 1995 paper titled, A REVIEW OF JRS RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES (UNHCR), JRS presented a critical review of its relationship with the UNHCR in various areas, including 1) Structure, Policy and Personnel; 2) Field Operation; and 3) Protection and Mandate. The opening paragraph reads:

"UNHCR is an intergovernmental body, giving its limitations, but also certain great strengths for its task of protecting refugees. JRS, which works as a non-governmental body [NGO] and has a church base, is pleased that in recent years UNHCR has declared its desire to collaborate with NGOs. We have found a remarkable openness among many UNHCR personnel.

"We want to support such personnel and the institution of UNHCR in implementing its mandate and its professed intention of collaboration. We have however, also found considerable inconsistencies in the quality of personnel, in the commitment on the ground to collaboration, and in the application of the UNHCR mandate. The criticism we make are intended to be constructive."

Paragraph 11a of the review reads:

"JRS is also disturbed by the lack of an effective appeal procedure within the UNHCR refugee determination system, and a general lack of outside scrutiny of the process. In countries such as Thailand and Turkey, the UNHCR system lacks the following requirements: UNHCR determinations do not give reasons for their conclusions, applicants do not have access to their files, there is no scrutiny of legal officer's perception of persecution, and little or no access to an appeal process in some countries [footnote 11: Specifically, JRS has noted that Iranian claimant's in Turkey have not had certain minimum safeguards in their hearings, including legal counsel, non-adversarial interviews, and competent interpreters.] UNHCR's lack of criticism of governments for their inconsistent application of the Geneva Convention and other International Agreements, is also disturbing. [footnote 12: In Turkey, where the geographical restriction of the 1951 Convention is maintained, Iranians and Iraqis (mostly Kurds) suffer greatly. Extradition of opposition members is a part of an implicit agreement between Turkey and Iran, and has become an explicit threat to asylum seekers in these two countries. Iran's September 6th decision to close its border with Afghanistan has greatly limited the ability of Afghani asylum-seekers to claim asylum from persecution. JRS is alarmed by UNHCR's lack of criticism for this move.]"