Children are Refugees Too:
Iranian Refugee Children in Turkey

(from Iranian Refugees At Risk Fall95/Winter 96)

Azadeh, a 13 year old Iranian national, fled to Turkey with her mother almost two years ago. Her father was executed by the Iranian government because of his political activities. She is subject to deportation by the Turkish authorities as her mother's refugee claim has been rejected by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She is unable to make a refugee claim as such right is non-existent in Turkey. "I don't understand," she says. "Why isn't it enough for the UN that my father was executed. I do not want to be sent back to Iran. I don't want my mother to be executed like my father."

Surur is 9 years old. She fled to Turkey with her family more than two years ago. Her father, a Kurd in Iran, has been a political prisoner during most of her lifetime. During his imprisonment, Surur had no visitation rights and suffered from poverty due to her mother's meager income. She faced systemic discrimination as a result of her father being a persona non grata in jail. At school, although in grade one, she was repeatedly admonished, beaten and incarcerated by school officials because of failure to cover her hair, to memorize the Scripture or to learn how to pray. Surur is currently threatened with deportation by the Turkish authorities as a result of her father's refugee claim being rejected by the UNHCR. Like Azadeh, during the time that she has been in Turkey, she has had no access to education, welfare and health system. Her life in Turkey has been constant anxiety, destitution and deprivation.

Loss of loved ones, economic and social deprivation because of parent's political opinion, forced indoctrination into religio-sexist dogmas, discrimination against girls, and harassment at schools suffered by Azadeh and Surur are typical experiences for Iranian children. The laws and practices of the Islamic government in today's Iran deny children access to fundamental freedoms and rights as articulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children the full range of economical, social, cultural, civil and political rights. As part of the larger population, children in Iran do not enjoy fundamental human rights. Rights such as freedom of expression, religion, association, assembly and privacy are non-existent in Iran for children, just as they are for adults. The over-riding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is "the best interests of the child". Instead, children's interests in Iran are governed by the interests of religion; children are taught to spy on their parents, boys of 10 or 12 years are led to join the military and marriages of 9 year old girls are sanctioned by the government. Clearly, such practices inflict irreparable damages to children's physical well being as well as disturb their psychological and emotional development.

The UN 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who is outside of his country and has a well founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Children whose rights, as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, are violated may qualify as refugees under any of the enumerated grounds.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child accords a special attention to child refugees and asylum seekers. Article 22 provides that, "a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or any other person, receive appropriate protection and assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present convention and other international human rights or humanitarian instruments." The reference to rights under other international instruments applies principally to 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which entitles refugees not to be returned to their country of origin. Thus, a main objective of Article 22 is to ensure that despite their status as children, the claims of children to refugee status are examined on their merits so that they receive protection from being returned to persecution.

Turkey is apparently a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under Article 2, State Parties are obliged to "respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind', and without regard to the child's status. State Parties not only are required to refrain from interference with the articulated rights, but also to take active measures to enable children to exercise these rights." They can not use resource constraints as an excuse to curtail rights such as freedom of expression, religion, association, assembly and privacy and with regard to economic, social and cultural rights, State Parties "shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation." (Article 4).

Despite clear obligations that Turkey has undertaken towards children, the government denies all non-European child asylum seekers the full range of their human rights. Turkey justifies this by a geographical limitation that it exercises on the application of the Refugee Convention. The government of Turkey officially denies the fundamental rights of the children of non-citizens such as the right to education, health care, association, etc. In determining applications for temporary asylum, Turkey's new determination procedure precludes children rights and the principle of their best interests.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also assigns a special role to the UNHCR, since it has an extensive involvement with the needs of children (Article 45). More than half of the worlds refugee population are children. Yet Azadeh and Surur and many other child asylum seekers in Turkey do not receive proper assistance from the UNHCR in Turkey.

Children's claims are not included in their parents' cases by the UNHCR Office in Turkey. Nor are children invited by the UNHCR to speak about their fears to return. Article 12 of the Convention says that children capable of forming their own views have the right to be heard in judicial or administrative procedures affecting them. This is, of course, regardless of whether or not their parents are in a position to make a claim on their behalf. Since it is also unreasonable to expect children to enter into such procedures on their own, in order to ensure their right, it is the onus of the examining authorities to make this possible for the children--for them to be heard and to lodge their claims.

Regarded as appendages to their parents, children have also been refused any form of material assistance by the UNHCR while their parents have been caught up in prolonged determination procedures. Fundamental needs such as pre-natal care, hospitalization for delivery and even assistance to handicapped or seriously ill children have been denied to those children whose parents have not been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR or have had their cases under consideration.

Iranian Refugees' Alliance first and foremost calls on the UNHCR, as the body entrusted a special role with regard to child refugees and asylum seekers to implement the Convention on the Rights of the child without discrimination. Iranian Refugees' Alliance recommends an immediate training program on relevant provisions of the Convention for UNHCR officials who conduct the interviews and determine claims of non-European asylum seekers. It calls on the UNHCR to re-evaluate refugee claims of family asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected previously and to include the views and experiences of children in the redetermination of the claims. Whenever necessary, children should be invited to talk about their fears of return to their homeland. Appropriate guidelines for interviewing children should be followed and information on general treatment of children in the country of their origin should be compiled. No child asylum seeker should be refused assistance based on his or her legal status or that of his or her parents'.

Iranian Refugees' Alliance is preparing a brief to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to examine the treatment of Iranian refugee children in Turkey by the government and the UNHCR. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child oversees the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and accepts reports from non-governmental organizations as well as governments. We invite interested organizations and individuals to join in this effort by sharing information on experiences of children before and after leaving Iran, documents on the laws and regulations concerning children in Iran, and related research and analysis.