Expulsion of Iranian Asylum Seekers
from the Netherlands, is the Crisis Over?
by Deljou Abadi

(from Iranian Refugees At Risk Winter97/Spring 98)

An increasing number of Iranian asylum seekers have sought asylum in the Netherlands. Contrary to popular belief, this increased influx has not been accompanied by an increase in the refugee recognition rate of Iranians in this country. From 1990-1995, Netherlands received sixteen thousand Iranian asylum seekers. and made decisions on close to fifteen thousand of them. Only 17% were recognized as Convention refugees with the lowest rate of 6% in 1995. Another 23% received residence permits on humanitarian grounds1 and approximately 60% were rejected. Prior to 1994, the Netherlands maintained a non-expulsion policy for Iranians who were not given either refugee or humanitarian status. Instead of being deported, they were allowed to stay on a "tolerated status" (gedoogdenstatus).2














N. America











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Inception of the Expulsion Policy

Towards the end of 1994, however, Dutch authorities began to return non-recognized Iranian asylum seekers citing a report from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating that, in some cases, Iranians could be sent back to Iran without fear of persecution.3

In reality, this change of policy can be attributed to other reasons such as the significant increase in the number of Iranians seeking asylum in this country (accounting for 51% of all Iranian asylum seekers in 1994 in Europe), increasing restrictions, as in the rest of Europe, in asylum procedures to deter unwanted migration, and, finally the Dutch government's desire to improve ties with the Iranian government, if not by impressing the Iranian government, by impressing the public that human rights and the political situation in Iran are not that bad after all.

The expulsion ban was officially removed in January 1995. However, following an appeal to an Aliens Court in the Hague by two rejected Iranian asylum seekers, deportations were suspended once more for most of this year.4 On November 2, 1995, the Court turned down the appeal, setting a precedent for hundreds of similar cases pending in the Netherlands. The Court held that the political and human rights situation in Iran was not a sufficient reason in itself for Iranians to be granted refugee status.5

On February 15, 1996, the Dutch authorities returned the first Iranian to Iran since the November 1995 court ruling.6 In a confidential report issued in May 1996, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the court's assessment saying that although Iran was not a constitutional state by "Western criteria", the general situation in Iran was not bad enough that the repatriation of rejected asylum seekers could be termed "irresponsible".7 The Ministryıs report paved the way for more repatriations during the year.

Deportation Figures

Exact figures on the number of Iranians who were forcibly returned or were coerced to return is not available. However, in August 1997, the Dutch media reported that 73 Iranians were deported in 1995, 51 were ordered to leave and 122 returned voluntarily in 1996, and at least 33 were deported in 1997.8 At the same time another report by the Agence France said that between 1995 and 1996 the Netherlands sent back more than 500 Iranians, while 121 others returned voluntarily to their country after being refused asylum. In the first half of 1997 some 35 returned voluntarily while 20 were expelled.9

Protest and Criticism

The government's policy of returning non-recognized Iranians has incited sharp protest from the Iranian community, including mass sit-ins, demonstrations, and public criticism. Several Dutch refugee organizations have joined in the protests by lobbying to stop the policy and/or providing shelter, health services, and legal assistance to at-risk refugees.

A number of Iranians who faced the possibility of forced return to Iran also have held long-term hunger-strikes and have committed desperate acts of self-incineration and a series of other suicides. According to the refugee organization PRIME (Participating Refugees in Multicultural Europe), more than 100 asylum seekers have tried to commit suicide (excluding the hunger-strikers). More than twenty of these attempts have been successful.10

In some cases, even such desperate acts have not persuaded the Dutch authorities to review their decision or even postpone their return. In July 1996, an Iranian man was forcibly returned despite being unfit to travel after slashing his wrists. Earlier that year another Iranian died in the hospital from burns sustained in a suicide attempt to avoid deportation.11

One of the most unprecedented harsh punitive treatments was faced by an Iranian man of 27, Amir, when the authorities learned that he rather die than go back to Iran. Amir was arrested on May 17, 1996, at the Refugee Center a few hours after he failed to report for his removal to the Aliens Police. Thereafter, the Dutch authorities incarcerated him in a series of prisons/camps until they obtained a "laissez passer" from the Iranian embassy. On May 20th, Amir started a hunger strike (persons on hunger strike cannot be transported) and continued his strike until he went into a coma in the detention center in Zoetermeer. He was then force-fed in the Hospital unit of Scheveningen and subsequently transported to koning Willem II Internment Camp in Tilburg, where he spent many months. Willem II is known as the worse camp in the system. The director there has the reputation for "breaking" the will of those who do not cooperate with their deportations.12

The Dutch government's position on Iran also has drawn criticism from humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International and the US Committee for Refugees (USCR). USCR has urged the Dutch government to exercise "utmost care in assessing Iranian asylum cases," noting Iran's poor human rights record and the high recognition rates of Iranian nationals in refugee status determination procedures around the world.13

Ministry of Foreign Affairs'
official report on Iran

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs made public its assessment of the general situation in Iran in a report of June 5, 1997.14 The Ministry said that the report was largely based on information received from the Dutch embassy in Tehran. But, later on, it was revealed that important factual information directly attributed to the embassy in the report was false, calling into question the veracity of the rest of the factual claims made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in favor of deporting Iranians.

In order to draw the conclusion that rejected Iranian asylum seekers in the Netherlands can be safely returned, the report focused on certain events, which in its view had led to improvements in the democratization of the political system and were indicative of a decline in general repression in Iran. In addition, "monitoring" of the returnees by the Dutch embassy in Tehran was emphasized as an extra safeguard for the safety of returnees.

The report's evaluation of the human rights situation in Iran has no substantive value because it uses inappropriate standards to examine human rights infringements in Iran. The report is premised on the belief that peoples in the West and in Iran do not share a common humanity, which means that they are not equally deserving of rights and freedoms. It implies that international human rights are the sole prerogative of members of Western societies, thus nationality precludes Iranians from claiming the same rights and freedoms as people in the West -- fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of thought, conscience, privacy, religion (including the right not to have a religion), expression, assembly, sexual preference, and due process of law.

Although the report did not openly discuss the norms based on which it gave weight to certain facts and not to others, its relativist view was present in most of its factual claims concerning the human rights situation in Iran. An illustrative example is the report's examination of the situation of women in Iran. Among other "improvements" mentioned, the report noted that in Iran

"[t]he presence of women is more visible on the streets and at places of entertainment than in surrounding Islamic countries. While the dress code (the hair and the contours of the body having to be kept covered in public) is mandatory [in Iran] there are hardly any women (voluntarily) covering their face with a veil or wearing the traditional burqah to be seen on the streets in Iran, unlike Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia."15

There is no theory in international law that supports the notion that stricter repressive regulations in one country disqualifies people of another country from their right to fundamental human rights. The fact that some women may come from countries with Islamic governments does not justify limitations on their freedom to live and act in harmony with their conscience and beliefs. The restrictions mentioned above can be as fundamentally at odds with an Iranian woman's--and for that matter an Afghani or Saudi Arabian woman's--integrity and dignity as they can be with a western woman's.


As long as women in Iran are not forced to dress like the women on the left, this is freedom and democratization for them. The fact that they may find all of these restrictions abhorrent and against their conscience, dignity and integrity is irrelevant. This is the message from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In addition, the report is full of unsubstantiated, fabricated and contradictory information. For example: the Iranian Civil Code explicitly allows marriage of girls from age nine exclusively with the consent of the girl's father or paternal grandfather and, even before age nine, 'provided that the best interest of that child is taken into account'.16 However, the report absurdly said that marriage to young girls is regarded as un-Islamic by the Iranian authorities and in particular, it is the "the imposed nature of such marriages for girls" that is "fundamentally rejected" by Iranian authorities.17

Yet another gross oversight in the report is the failure to address impunity enjoyed by both governmental and non-governmental human rights violators in Iran. The report completely overlooks the wide-spread and serious human rights violations that are committed by unofficial agents of the Iranian government with the encouragement and/or toleration of the Iranian government.

For such reasons, the reportıs conclusion that Iranian asylum seekers may in principle be sent back,18 is patently arbitrary. Similarly, the reportıs comment that despite improvements, "the human rights situation in Iran continues to give cause for concern"19 cannot be taken seriously in view of its unacceptable standards of analysis and many false factual claims. Although the conclusions made in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs report are explicitly in regard to the safety of returning rejected Iranians, in practice, the most fatal consequences of the report can be observed in the consideration of refugee applications resulting in the "rejected" status. Unreliable and fabricated findings of the Foreign Affairs' reports are heavily used in finding Iranian refugee claims to be manifestly unfounded.


Since the lifting of the ban on expulsion of Iranians, the Dutch Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice have continuously emphasized that none of the returnees have faced any problems with the Iranian authorities. The State Secretary of Justice, Mrs. Schmitz, even pointed out to the Members of the Dutch Parliament that the Iranian authorities were actively working to make life for returning asylum seekers as comfortable as possible.20

In this regard, the Foreign Affairs' report noted in explicit detail the existence of an effective monitoring system for the returnees whereby upon entrance to the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, returnees always find present a representative of the Dutch embassy in Tehran, who also would in most cases visit them later on at their address. Again, the report emphatically concluded that none of the expelled Iranians have encountered problems with the authorities on returning to Iran.21

The Dutch Parliament’s endorsement of the expulsion policy for Iranians was, in part, due to the assurances by the Ministries of Foreign Affairsı and Justice that additional safeguards are in place. However, five months later, following the public admission of an official of the Ministry of Justice who said that "monitoring is impracticable and is only professed to please the public",22 it was revealed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' professions were false.

In a Parliamentary hearing on the safety of the situation in Iran, which was held on October 20, 1997, following wide-spread and long-term public protest and criticism of the Dutch policy of returning Iranians, refugee advocates and some Members of the Parliament relentlessly questioned the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice on this matter. A joint report by the two State Secretaries to the Lower House of the Parliament, dated October 30, 1997, admitted that the Dutch embassy in Tehran had ceased monitoring the situation of Iranian returnees about a year ago. It also revealed that in December 1996, the Dutch embassy was officially threatened by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has said that monitoring is interference with Iranıs internal affairs.23

Temporary Suspension of Deportations

On October 30, 1997 the Dutch government suspended deportations pending a re-evaluation of the safety conditions in Iran for returnees. Debates in the Parliament still continue. While Members of the Parliament continue to insist that return of Iranians must carry additional safeguards, the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs seem to be trying to resume expulsions by persuading the Parliament that monitoring is not essential after all.24

Although the suspension of the deportations was a big victory for the at-risk asylum seekers and advocates, many are pessimistic and consider this act more of a transitory set-back than a sincere reform in the policy.

The Real Problem

Governmental debate on the issue of Iranian asylum seekers has remained focused on the justifiability of returning non-recognized Iranian asylum-seekers. Their ineligibility for asylum has been dealt with as a legitimate and irreversible fact.

However, statistics alone reveal that the inquest must be directed to the problems leading to such a grossly disproportionate approval rate for asylum in the Netherlands. During 1990-1995, the total recognition rate for the Netherlands which received 23% of Iranians seeking asylum in Europe was only 17% compared to, for example, 47% in Germany (receiving 43% of Iranians), and 36% and 79% for Europe and North America respectively.25

The refugee policy of the Netherlands towards Iranians is further suspect of bias because of a pattern of grossly unfair decisions on Iranian asylum applications. Several compelling claims have been brought to the attention of the Iranian Refugees' Alliance which have been unfairly rejected by the Dutch authorities. These cases invariably demonstrate use of an excessively strict interpretation of the Convention refugee definition. Overly stringent credibility tests are also used to reject refugee applicants' testimony. A common argument to reject Iranian claims seems to be based on the wrong assumption that a person who has not been persecuted in the recent past cannot have a well-founded fear of persecution in the future. For example, the claims of ex-political prisoners who have stayed in Iran for a period of time without major confrontations with the regime are judged in this context. However, if such persons claim to have remained politically active after their release from prison, they face a catch 22 situation. Their post-prison activities are found not to be credible because in view of the Dutch authorities a reasonable person who had been persecuted before would not risk it again.

Another outrageously unfair practice by the Dutch refugee adjudicators is the use of false country condition information, which to a large part is attributed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For example, Dutch authorities contend that acts of leafleting and attending clandestine meetings by activists other than Mujahedin are not grounds for fear of persecution. They cite the Foreign Affairs' report which falsely states that such activities only carry a light sentence and do not seem to cause repression.

Obviously, general shortcomings and flaws of the refugee processing system in the Netherlands further increase the odds against Iranian refugee claimants in the Netherlands. These include the adversarial nature of the interviews26 and lack of a suspensive effect on expulsion at the review and appeal stages.27 The Netherlands also seems to be distinguishably lacking a developing refugee jurisprudence. For example, it is mind boggling that a country which has received such a large number of Iranian applications, still does not have any guidelines for the assessment of gender-persecution claims.28 Gender persecution has most commonly been encountered in the refugee applications by women from Iran. Canada which received half as many applications as the Netherlands in the first half of this decade developed such guidelines in 1993. Similar guidelines have been developed in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Necessary Actions

As Iran remains one of the most chronically abusive governments that is also unresponsive to international monitoring, asylum seekers from Iran overwhelmingly have genuine personal fears of persecution in the sense of the Geneva Convention on Refugees or have grounds to fear inhuman treatment in the sense of Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Accordingly, they must be given refugee status or in the alternative humanitarian status. In this regard the extremely low rate of refugee recognition in the Netherlands and the high number of grossly unfair negative decisions are most alarming.

In order to effectively challenge the original cause of the crisis of expulsion of Iranians from the Netherlands, the practice and pattern of prejudicial adjudication of refugee applications must be thoroughly examined and revealed. This requires mobilization and active participation of both the refugee applicants and the legal defense organizations. It is also crucial for each refugee and her/his advocates to actively and promptly intervene at early stages of the process when such unfair decisions are issued. Finally, if all domestic remedies are unsuccessfully exhausted recourse should be made to International remedies. Netherlands is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights as well as to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture, all of which provide mechanisms for review of complaints in relation to violations of rights of non-citizens facing deportation.

Resort to domestic and international legal avenues will not, alone, ensure that Iranian asylum seekers in the Netherlands receive the protection they are unjustly denied under the Dutch administrative and judicial system. The ongoing work of promoting public awareness on human rights violations in Iran and actively contributing to public protest for reform in the refugee policies of the Dutch government remains with the local communities.


1. Humanitarian status will be granted where a person cannot reasonably be expected to return to his country of origin given the general living conditions (as distinct from the political situation) there. This status may also be granted where a person has suffered traumatic experiences in his country of origin, for example if he has been tortured or if close relatives or friends have been killed. The grounds may also be related to purely personal circumstances, such as a mental condition which renders the person unable to survive in the country of origin. However, In practice, it is not always clear which criteria are being applied in the granting of humanitarian residence permits. See LEGAL AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS AND REFUGEES IN WESTERN EUROPEAN COUNTRIES, Danish Refugee Council, January 1997.

2. Migration News Sheet, October 1995. Following the January 1994 amendments to the Aliens Act, the "tolerated status" was replaced by a new provisional residence permit ("voorwaardelijke vergunning totverblijf"). A provisional residence permit may be granted if "enforced removal to the country of origin would bring unusual hardship to the alien in connection with the general situation in the country". In order for a provisional residence permit to be granted, the original application for asylum must be irrevocably withdrawn from the determination procedure. Provisional residence permits are granted on a yearly basis and are renewable. If the obstacles to expulsion cease to exist during the first 3 years, the provisional residence permit will be withdrawn. After 3 years of continuous principal residence in the Netherlands, the holder of a provisional residence permit is entitled to an ordinary residence permit. At present, provisional residence permits are granted mainly to Bosnians, Iraqis, Afghans and some Sudanese. See source of above note 1, Danish Refugee Council, Jan. 1997.

3. Migration News Sheet, November 1994.

4. Migration News Sheet, December 1995.

5. Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau, ANP English News Bulletin, November 7, 1995.

6. US Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 1997.

7. ANP English News Bulletin, May 29, 1996.

8. N.R.C., 18 August 1997 (Farsi translation by PRIME).

9. Agence France-Press, August 15, 1997.

10. Ahmad Pouri, PRIME, Give asylum seekers the opportunity to organize.

11. ANP English News Bulletin, July 19, 1996.

12. Willem II camp is known for endorsing slave labor, excessive use without substantiated grounds, of punishment isolation and isolation cells and cages, incommunicado detention and continuous acts of discrimination against refugees and undocumented immigrants, as reported widely in publications such as The European, April 1996, The Guardian, April 1996, Al Hayat International, May 1996, US Industrial Workers Journal, September 1996 and many Dutch periodicals such as the Brabants Dagblad and Vrij Nederland, noted in Request for Humanitarian Assistance, IRANIAN ASYLUM APPLICANT -- PROTRACTED INTERNMENT IN PUNISHMENT/ISOLATION UNIT IN THE NETHERLANDS IS NOW A SUICIDE RISK, E. G. Schwienbacher, The Hague, 12 October 1996, via e-mail.

13. above note 6.

14. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate for Movements of Persons, Migration and Consular Affairs, to State Secretary for Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Subject: General situation in Iran, June 5, 1997. All references are from the English translation obtained through the US Committee for Refugees.

15. above note 14, p. 17.

16. see Sima Pakzad, The Legal Status of Women in Iran, In the Eye of Storm, ed. Afkhami & Friedl.

17. above note 14, p. 19.

18. above note 14, p. 23.

19. above note 14, p. 13.

20. above note 7.

21. above note 15, p. 22.

22. This was first revealed in a meeting organized by two refugee organizationßs, PRIME and SKIA, on Sept. 29, 1997. In that meeting a high ranking representative of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (IND), P. Van Krieken, expressed to a crowd of a hundred that monitoring of returnees is impractical and is professed only to influence public opinion and the media, as noted in De Volkskrant, 18 Oct., 1997, and in TROUW, 4 Nov., 1997 (Farsi translation by PRIME).

23. Aan de Voorzitter van de Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Monitoring van teruggekeerde uitgeprocedeerde Iraanse asielzoeker, 30 oktober 1997, 070-3484794, DPC/AM-386/97.

24. ibid.

25. UNHCR, June 3, 1997. REFWORLD 1998 CD ROM.

26. In December 1996, an investigation into a range of asylum seekers' complaints resulted in a national ombudsman report that was particularly critical of IND staff. The ombudsman's scrutiny focused on the interview process, finding that asylum seekers were not always informed of the purpose of the hearing or given the chance to properly relate their persecution claim. US Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 1997. This is also confirmed by the Dutch Refugee Council, as noted in Linburgs Dagblad, 15 July 1997 (Farsi translation by PRIME).

27. The lodging of an appeal or an application for review does not automatically suspend the execution of the Secretary of State's negative decision. If the Secretary of State denies suspensive effect during the review and/or appeal, the applicant may request the President of the District Court for a preliminary stay of execution. No appeal can be lodged against the President's ruling on this issue. See above note 1, Danish Refugee Council, Jan. 1997.

28. As noted by the Dutch representative in the Symposium on Gender-Based Persecution, Geneva, 22-23 Feb. 1996, the only development in the Netherlands in regard to gender-persecution claims is the use of female interviewers and interpreters. IJRL, Special Issue--Autumn 1997.