Iranian Refugees At-Risk
Iranian Refugees' Alliance Quarterly Newsletter
(Winter 97/Spring 98)

Iranian Kurdish Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan (Part II)


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

Suspicious Death of Iranian Returnee
Must Stop
Further Deportations

European Commission of Human Rights:
Friendly Settlement in the case of M.A.R. v. United Kingdom

UN Committee Against Torture Challenges Stringent Credibility Tests,
The cases of T. v. Sweden and A. v. Switzerland

Recent Reports Designate Turkey an "Unsafe Third Country"

Iranian Kurdish Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

The first part of this report described the perilous situation of Iranian Kurdish refugees in Northern Iraq. The general instability and chaos of the region, intra-Kurdish politics, external aggressions, and the increased activities of Iran's agents have all contributed to the increasingly dismal outlook for Iranian Kurdish refugees in Iraq.

The second part of this report, presented here, discusses what little assistance and protection are available to these refugees through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [hereinafter UNHCR] activities in Northern Iraq. The third part will discuss the abusive and unfair treatment Iranian Kurdish refugees from Northern Iraq have been receiving after fleeing to Turkey

III. Illusory Asylum

Under international law refugees have a fundamental right to safe asylum. At the heart of which lies the right to physical security in the country where they are granted asylum. Refugees also have the right of non-refoulement. This means that they should not be forced back from their country of asylum to a place where they may be persecuted. Refugees also deserve to have their other basic human rights adequately respected.

The protection of refugees is the responsibility of the authority that exercises sovereign jurisdiction in a given territory. Most governments have obligated themselves to protect refugees by becoming parties to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Convention) and the 1967 Protocol (Protocol).

However, Iraq is not a party to the Convention or the Protocol and has no international treaty obligations to refugees. Consequently, conditions for Iranian refugees in Iraq have always been precarious.

Because Iraq is not a signatory to the Convention, the Office of the UNHCR plays an active role in protecting refugees in Iraq.1 UNHCRs assistance to Iranian Kurds seeking refuge in Iraq is mainly directed toward two groups. One group is the estimated 4,000 Iranian Kurdish refugees scattered throughout the Erbil and Sulaymanieh governorates in Northern Iraq. The other group consists of 21,000 Iranian Kurds in the Al-tash refugee camp, west of Baghdad.2 Assistance to these groups has consisted of only the most basic care and maintenance, efforts toward the voluntary repatriation of these groups, and for those who are unable or unwilling to repatriate, efforts, generally unsuccessful, to resettle them.3 Implementation of UNHCR programs in Iraq has been complicated and difficult. The vast numbers of refugees,4 the ongoing UN embargo against Iraq, inflation, general economic disarray, and internal and external political turmoil have all hampered UNHCR’s efforts. While these problems have had a devastating impact throughout Iraq, they have hit the refugee population harder than the general population. As one UNHCR staffer noted, Northern-Iraq is one of the most difficult places in which UNHCR is currently operating.5 The significance of such a statement can only be fully appreciated when one considers the fact that UNHCR operates in some of the harshest, poorest and most conflict-ridden regions of the world.

An overview of UNHCR’s assistance to Iranian Kurdish refugees in Iraq reveals that the levels of assistance are woefully inadequate. Refugees in government controlled areas have been languishing under deteriorating living conditions for over a decade. Their prospects for improvement or resettlement in a third country are slim to non-existent. In Northern Iraq similarly dismal conditions are compounded by a lack of security for refugees which leaves them living in constant fear.

Care and Maintenance

There are no independent reports on living conditions and levels of assistance for refugees in Northern-Iraq. However, reports from Iranian refugees suggest that only a portion of them receive food rations through the UNHCR. The ration itself--9 kg flour, 900 gr. cooking oil, 300 gr. sugar, 500 gr. lentils, per month per person-- does not even provide half caloric needs of a person. All other items must be purchased on the open market where prices are several thousand times what they were in early 1990.6 Employment remains severely restricted even for the local population7 and the nutrition situation has remained critical.8 The uncertainties of the future continue to take their toll on Iranian refugees too.

Few Iranian Kurds live in refugee camps run by Iraqi Kurdish authorities (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and the UNHCR. However, the appalling conditions reported from inside some of these camps indicate that these refugees have no alternatives that would allow them to live a better life in Northern Iraq. [see box]

The Conditions of Refugee Camps in N. Iraq

Life in refugee camps in Northern Iraq is even less hospitable and more insecure than in urban areas.

According to reports received from refugees who resided in two camps in Northern Iraq for several months in 1997. The camps, Balguz (families) and Zawita (singles), are run by the Kurdish Democratic Party forces and the UNHCR. Refugees in these camps suffer from insufficient food, water, heat, sanitation, medicine and doctors. Most camp residents are members of the Iraqi Shi'a Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, which is a group in Iraq controlled by Iran. As a result, Iranian refugees who live in these camps constantly fear that they will be killed, poisoned or abducted with the help of the members of the SCIR. At night Iranians have to stand guard in turns to watch the activities of SCIR members. The camp in Zawita is reported to have accommodated crime fugitives from the government controlled areas, suspected by the refugees to also be potential collaborators of the Iranian government in exchange for money. Turkish troops have regularly launched military attacks in that areas, injuring and killing many civilians. In fact, it is reported that in spring 1997, Turkish troops set up a base in a yard adjacent to the camp site in Zawita, further exposing the refugees of being caught in the middle of the conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdish rebels from Turkey. Source: Three refugees who were deported from Turkey to Northern Iraq in March 1997 and resided in these camps for 6 to 12 months until they were resettled in western countries by the UNHCR Office in Turkey.

In summer 1997, a group of human rights activists from various European countries visited two other refugee camps, Ninova and Sumail, in the KDP territory which accommodated Kurdish refugees from Turkey. Their report describes Ninova to be a prison Camp, administered by the UNHCR where according to the camp committee, more than 40 children had died as a result of infectious diseases. The report adds that Malaria, typhus, and dysentery were spreading among the refugees while the camp lacked doctors and medicine and refugees were prohibited from attending the hospitals in neighboring Dohuk. Three quarters of the inhabitants of the camp were undernourished due to the insufficient monthly food rations provided by the UNHCR and the drinking water was contaminated. The KDP had stolen the little that the refugees have had and those who have tried to leave the camp have been shot at by armed KDP men or have disappeared without a trace. In another camp, the report says, typhus epidemic was raging and nearly all the children were malnourished. There was no doctor to treat the sick and the hospital refused to treat the refugees. Anyone who left the camp and ran into a KDP checkpoint risked prison and torture.

Source: Refugees In The Ninova Camp ,Kurdish Red Crescent, 1997, Germany

Reports from the Al-tash camp, which is located outside Iraqi Kurdistan and controlled by the Baghdad government, further indicate the general gravity of living conditions for refugees anywhere in Iraq. Independent reporters who visited the Al-tash camp in 1996 found the refugees living in squalor in a slum-like conditions.9 In the summer of 1995 UNHCR’s representative in Iraq, Abdallah Saied, told Reuters: With U.N.s food stocks in Iraq running out UNHCR could no longer provide them [Al-tash refugees] with a full food basket. World Food Programme representative in Iraq, Lucielo Ramirez, added that The situation of the refugees is getting bad. Because of our supply shortages, they are not getting enough.10 In Al-tash, refugees are not permitted to work, and their movement is also severely restricted.11 The outlook for these refugees is so grim that in June 1996 some 150 Al-Tash refugees, mostly women and children, who could not stand it any more, fled to Kurdish-held Northern Iraq because there was hardly any water, food or health care. Some of them were offered dilapidated houses by Iraqi Kurdish villagers, but many sought shelter in abandoned poultry shacks and sought help from relief organizations.12


No repatriation efforts have been reported for refugees in Northern Iraq. However, according to refugees who have approached the UNHCR offices in Northern-Iraq to seek resettlement in a third country, UNHCR officers encourage refugees to return to Iran voluntarily. It is estimated that 10,000 of the Al-tash refugees have registered their names for voluntary repatriation since 1995.13 To date, no progress has been made in repatriating them due to bilateral problems.14 Regardless of the levels of success, the refugees austere living conditions for more than a decade without any prospects for resettlement call into serious question the true voluntariness of their requests for repatriation.


Resettlement has been the bedrock of protection for Iranian Kurd refugees in Iraq due to the unacceptable conditions of asylum in this country. For refugees in Northern Iraq resettlement has also been the only means of protection against immediate and long-term security threats. As noted by the UNHCR, in theory, any refugee in Al-tash or Northern Iraq who is unable or unwilling to repatriate is eligible for resettlement in a third country. However, lack of resettlement opportunities, undervaluing of resettlement by the UNHCR itself, as well as problems in the processing of cases has made this only durable solution impossible for most of the approximately 25,000 eligible refugees in Iraq.

A very limited number of countries provide annual resettlement quotas for refugees. Within these annual government quotas, limited places are available for UNHCR requirements given the percentage of places reserved for special interest groups admitted by governments independent of UNHCR. Additionally, of the places available to UNHCR, many countries prefer to admit persons with potential for rapid integration. In the past several years, while UNHCR’s annual resettlement needs have consisted of only 1%-2% of the worlds refugee population, only between 30%-40% of the targeted caseload was actually resettled.

Another is that there are elements within UNHCR that undervalue resettlement as a legitimate solution to the refugee crisis. In 1995, a consultant to UNHCR commented that there are strong forces in Geneva, and in several European capitals, that would like to see resettlement collect dust in the bins of history.15

Among the problems that particularly hinder UNHCRs ability to resettle refugees from Iraq are the following: none of the principal resettlement countries has an embassy in Iraq; the Baghdad International Airport is closed; and there are many obstacles to obtaining permission to exit Iraq. In addition, until 1996, government missions from potential resettlement countries were not even able to travel to Iraq. Thus, UNHCR officers had to hand carry case files to Amman, Jordan, where some governments had agreed to examine cases there.16

Resettlement of refugees from Northern Iraq is even more complicated. Refugees who were recently resettled had to first be moved to the government controlled area. Then, from Baghdad, special permits were required for travel to Jordan. After that arrangements were made for them to transfer from Jordan to the country of resettlement. In addition, intra-Kurdish fighting continues to threaten peace and stability.

As shown in the Table below, until 1996, the overall resettlement of Iranians from Iraq has been infinitesimal. In 1996, for the first time missions from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark traveled to Iraq to interview refugees. As a result, the number of resettled cases doubled to a little more than 500 persons, the majority of whom were Kurds in the Al-Tash Camp. This, however, was still only a fifth of UNHCR's minimal need assessment for that year (2,400), which in turn was less than one-tenth of the actual number of refugees in need of resettlement.17 In 1997, UNHCR made further progress in resettling Iranian Kurd refugees from Iraq. However, only 6% of the actual resettlement need were resettled. Also, a considerable number of refugees in the backlog from previous years still remained without resettlement opportunities.


Total number of Iranian Kurds in Iraq (N. Iraq)

Volunteered to repatriate

UNHCR Ressettlement




28,500 (6,000)





26,500 (4,000)





27,000 (4,000)





23,762 (3,682)





24,487 (3,700)




According to the UNHCR an estimated 2,000 refugees will be processed for resettlement from Iraq in 1998 (it is not stated how many of this estimate will be from Northern Iraq).18 However, as in previous years, successful processing of even this finite caseload remains precarious due to the aforementioned problems. It is further important to note that for those refugees in Northern Iraq who are selected for resettlement, whether or not they can actually take advantage of the opportunity depends on their ability to protect themselves from aggression during the period necessary for processing of their applications.

Finally, what remains a matter of compelling concern is that the overwhelming majority of the refugees will remain in precarious conditions due to lack of resettlement opportunities. The prioritization system that the UNHCR has been resorting to should not be seen as an indication of a lack of a compelling need for resettlement for the remaining group, but rather as a mandatory response to a limited resettlement quota.

In fact, under the prevailing conditions of general insecurity in Northern Iraq, where all Iranians with a history of opposition to the Iranian regime are targeted by agents of Iran, any criteria used for this prioritization is highly prone to erroneous decisions. A significant number of refugees have already paid the price with their lives because of the prioritization system. [see box]

Timely Resettlement:

A Matter of Life and Death

The following refugees were determined by the UNHCR offices in Northern Iraq not to have "priority" for resettlement to a third country or, as it is also termed, "not to be security cases". The fates of these refugees challenge UNHCR's conclusions about their security.

n Ebrahim Gageli's body was discovered on August 13, 1997. near Panjwin after his disappearance for several days. [KDPI-Iran, Kurdistan, No. 248, August 1997, p11]

  • Mansur Mohammadpour's body was discovered between Dukan and Sulaymania on October 4, 1997. He was kidnapped on his way from his home in Koy Sanjagh to Sulaymania by agents of Iran. There were two bullet holes in his body and his legs, arms and neck were broken [Kurdistan, No. 250, October 1997, p11].
  • Hossein Zinati was shot to death on November 12, 1997 in Sulaymanieh. [KDPI-Iran, Kurdistan, No. 251, November 1997, p15]
  • Khalid Abbasi, another refugee, was shot to death on 6 June 1997 in "Huze Vashke", a Bazaar in Sulaymania in front of the eyes of hundreds of residents of Sulaymania. [KDPI-Iran, Kurdistan, No. 246, July 1997, p7]
  • Ahmad Sharifi, an Iranian refugee in Northern Iraq "disappeared" in 1997 after he was arrested in his home in Sulaymania, reportedly by members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan security forces. Sharifi was a former member of the Iranian opposition Organization of Iranian People's Fedaii Guerrillas (Minority). According to Amnesty International, his fate remained unknown at the end of the year. [AI Report 1998]. However, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran reported that Sharifi was handed over to Iranian authorities on January 23, 1997 after he was arrested in Sulaymania. [KDPI-Iran, Kurdistan, No. 242, February 1997, p.13]
  • Salim Karimzadeh, a former member of KDPI-Iran, sought the assistance of UNHCR¹s Erbil Office for resettlement in 1996. In March 1997, while his request was still under consideration by the UNHCR, he was shot in front of his residence in a village near Erbil. His colleagues who fled to Turkey earlier say that even as a former member of the KDPI-Iran in Northern-Iraq, Mr. Karimzadeh was threatened by agents of Iran. He was an anchor man in the KDPI-Iran radio until 1996.
  • When Mohammad Hakimzadeh and his family were finally resettled in late 1996, his 16-year-old son, Kaveh, did not accompany them. He was brutalized and then killed in August 1996 reportedly by agents of the Iranian government who were assisted by local Patriotic Union of Kurdistan security forces. As reported by Kaveh¹s friends, Mr. Hakimzadeh, a former member of the KDPI-Iran, registered with the UNHCR in 1991. Before Kaveh's assassination, however, repeated pleas by him for resettlement, were turned down by the UNHCR.
  • Rahman Shabani and Haji Abdullah Mohammadi, two other refugees who were assassinated in Sulaymania in January 1996, were also reported to have been found ineligible for resettlement by the UNHCR for several years prior to their murder. Survivors of Rahman Shabani¹s family were eventually resettled in 1997. Survivors of Mohammadi's family are still in Northern Iraq awaiting resettlement.

This is not an exhaustive list. More than 200 disappearances, refoulements and killings of Iranian dissidents in Northern Iraq have been reported in the past several years. A number of them have been active members of the political parties who did not register with the UNHCR and thus were not formally recognized as refugees. However, a significant number have been refugees who registered with the UNHCR and requested resettlement in a third country.

Although the UNHCR continues to express that the agency remains preoccupied by the security situation in Northern Iraq18 and that resettlement remains the principal instrument of protection in this region, the reality is that, due to insurmountable constraints, UNHCR will continue to be unable to respond to the protection needs of the great majority of refugees. Thus, asylum and protection continue to be denied to thousands of Iranian refugees in Northern Iraq. They will continue to be left on their own devices to figure out how to avoid aggression and to protect their lives.

For those refugees who find the means to seek the only available solution, which is to flee to the neighboring country of Turkey in order to seek the assistance of the UNHCR office in Turkey, there is yet another gauntlet to run. Upon crossing the southern borders of Turkey, Iranian refugees have continuously found themselves in a hostile and precarious situation. During the past several years, Turkish authorities have been subjecting many ex-Northern-Iraq Iranian refugees to summary deportation at the borders. Those who have managed to approach the UNHCR Branch Office in Turkey have been refused assistance for resettlement and instructed to return to Northern-Iraq and request assistance from the UNHCR offices in that region.

In the next part of this report, we will discuss the Turkish governments unjust and arbitrary asylum practices concerning ex-Northern Iraq refugees. We will also criticize the UNHCRs discriminatory policy of considering Northern Iraq as a reasonable protection option for these refugees once they flee to Turkey -- a policy that is only aimed to protect the resources of that Office at the expense of compromising irreparably the protection of refugees.

This presents part of a report under publication by Iranian Refugees Alliance, describing the latest of the unending threats to the safety and well-being of Iranian Kurdish refugees in Northern Iraq.


1. The mandate for international protection of refugees has been given to the Office of the UNHCR by the international community through the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Office has been charged with the duty to seek durable solutions for the problems of refugees, to supervise the application of international conventions for the protection of refugees by governments, and to promote the implementation of any measures calculated to improve the situation of refugees. (Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, adopted by United Nations General Assembly, 14 Dec. 1950).

2. The refugees in Al-tash were transferred in 1982 by the Baghdad government from Northern Iraq.


4. Iraq is situated in a volatile region and as a result has accommodated tens of thousands of refugees, including Iranians of all ethnic groups, Kurds from Turkey, Palestinians, refugees from various African countries and also thousands stateless persons who were expelled from Kuwait in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war. In addition to these groups, UNHCR has been in charge of assisting thousands of Iraqi nationals, namely Kurds and Shia Iraqis, who have been returning from Iran and Turkey after the establishment of the safe haven, or who have been expelled from regions under Iraqi government control, and those who have been displaced in the North as a result of the intra-Kurdish fighting. EC/47/SC/CRP.6, 6 January 1997.

5. More Turmoil in Northern Iraq, Rupert Colville, Refugees, IV - 1996, p12.

6. An Iraqi 100 dinar note which was worth $320 in 1989, was worth less than five cents in 1996.

7. For example, high levels of unemployment have led to deadly attempts to make a living. Farmers have been reported to engage in defusing and dismantling live mines to sell the aluminum, because there is no other way to make a living. The Independent, October 20, 1996, Sunday, HEADLINE: The most dangerous harvest in the world; Patrick Cockburn in Penjwin, Northern Iraq on the farmers who defuse live mines so their families can eat.

8. In 1994, the Agence France reported that Kurdish children have not been drinking any milk for a whole year, because there is no fresh milk available and a can of milk powder costs 4 times the monthly salary of for example some one who is lucky to have a job at the Arbil water department. Agence France Presse, March 17, 1994, Angry Kurds turn against international aid groups

9. Reuters World Service, July 13, 1995, UNHCR urges Iran to take back its Iraq refugees.

10. ibid.

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

12. Agence France Presse, June 13, 1996, Iranian Kurd refugees flee to Northern Iraq.

13. US Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 1996.

14. A year later, several thousand of Al-tash refugees submitted a petition to the Iranian embassy in Baghdad to allow them to return home. But the Iranian embassy in Baghdad said the refugees lacked right documents to prove they were Iranian. Reuters, July 25, 1996, Thursday, HEADLINE: Iran refugees in Iraq ask to go home - diplomat

15. see Revitalizing Resettlement as a Durable Solution, John Fredriksson, Washington representative of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in World Refugee Survey 1997. As a dramatic illustration of how unimportant resettlement has become for UNHCR, the author points out the personnel and budget resource allocations:

"According to the publicly released Evaluation Summary of an internal 1994 report, Resettlement in the 1990s: A Review of Policy and Practice, UNHCR allocated only $7.2 million to its resettlement program budget, out of a total agency budget of $1.4 billion. This represents a minuscule one half of one percent of the UNHCR budget. That same evaluation summary noted that out of about 1,700 staff positions worldwide, the resettlement program included a meager 25 designated staff positions. Only five of these were professional, international civil service staff, and four of these five were based in Geneva."

Another recent example is the comments made by Nicholas Morris, director of UNHCRs Division of Operational Support, arguing against the use of resettlement for most urban refugee caseloads. See UNHCR and Refugees, US Committee For Refugees, Refugee Reports, November 30, 1997.

16. Assessment of Global Resettlement needs for Refugees in 1995, p. 22.

17. UNHCR Resettlement Section, UNHCR REPORT ON 1997 RESETTLEMENT ACTIVITIES, Resettlement and Special Cases Section, Division of International Protection, January 1998.

18. ibid.