|1994 in Review|
Two years ago when a few of us in New York started a financial assistance project to ten refugees in Turkey, we had no idea how much more and in what other ways a community like us--activists, professionals, academics and concerned individuals -- could offer toward embetterment and empowerment of an at-risk community so far from us.
Our small financial assistance project is now a multi-aspect assistance and advocacy program carried on by volunteers in several states. Our focus remained on the situation of Iranian refugees in Turkey, due to limited resources. Through close contacts with the refugees, research on legal and international issues, and efforts to reach the refugee-concerned community in the US, we have been able to address some of the areas of refugees' needs.
The range of assistance provided has varied. On some occasions we have been able to respond immediately, for example, preparing 72 applications for the 1995 Diversity Visa Lottery Program. Assistance on matters such as legal needs have required preliminary efforts to familiarize ourselves with the issues involved. Major areas that have been addressed in 1994 included, financial assistance, legal help, and urgent action to prevent deportations.
The urgency and importance of having a source of reliable and regular financial assistance remained a major issue of concern. The staggering inflation rate in Turkey, lack of employment rights for Iranian refugees, constant threats of deportation were significantly disempowering to allow effective individual or collective action on the part of refugees. The best narrative of these conditions is provided by one refugee who has been in Turkey for more than two years:
"When the refugee has to strand around food bazaars until dark to collect rotten fruits and vegetables, just to combat hunger; when her/his mind is always preoccupied with rent, water and electricity bills, clothing and food; when s/he has to split 6 eggs and 4 potatoes for three meals; how can one expect such an energyless and vulnerable refugee to become active in affecting her/his fate or the fate of the community. I, in my own turn, despite my acute economic and emotional problems find the solution in the collective and aimful efforts, in which we are all engaged. However, one must first understand the real conditions that would make this engagement meaningful and possible."
In response to this unquestionable necessity we tried to expand our financial sponsorship project--The Support Fund for At-Risk Iranian Refugees in Turkey -- to the best of our abilities. The Fund was promoted by hundreds of letters sent from refugees in Turkey to their sponsors in the US, as well as regular bi-monthly mailings to at least 150 concerned individuals each time, and through in-person contacts and public speeches by our volunteers. The International Federation of Iranian Refugees and Immigrants Councils - Branch in Turkey (formerly The Council of Iranian Refugees in Turkey) has closely cooperated with us in transfering the funds to the refugees. More than 140 individuals and groups* in the US raised a total of $22,265. We were able to support more than hundred refugee families for short- or long-term periods.
From the very first refugee application that was brought to our attention the problems facing refugees in obtaining refugee status from the Turkey Branch of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) both dismayed and bewildered us. The Branch Office has so far been responsible for assessing refugee applications of Iranians and resettling them in a third country if they are granted refugee status by the Office.
We were dismayed because people who have fled apparent danger from Iran were denied even the most elementary procedural protections by the Branch Office in Turkey while these protections were granted automatically in determination systems of many other countries and in every other area of law. We were bewildered because basic safeguards were denied by the instrument which is mandated to supervise and promote fair and generous determination procedures.
The need to conduct an intensive, empirical investigation into this system became an essential part of our efforts in 1994. The investigation was a difficult one since confidentiality rules adopted by the Office prevented open scrutiny of the procedure. In summer 1994, during a visit by an IRA representative to Turkey, UNHCR officers stated that case materials are considered confidential and not investigable in any manner. Nor was an independent monitoring of the procedure possible. Nonetheless what was confirmed in converstaions with the staff raise serious concern over the quality of treatment. Furthermore, ample evidence was adduced from numerous reports received from refugees, a dedicated questionnare to further investigate the procedure as well as in-person interviews with dozens of refugees in Turkey to show serious departure from fair standards.
The principal conclusion of this study was that the determination procedure adopted by the UNHCR Branch Office in Turkey remains an extra-legal system. Refugee applicants are denied the right to a full and fair hearing, including the right to acknowledge the accuracy of their statements recorded during interviews, the right to know the case they had to meet, access to counsel, a meaningful appeal, and an explanation of the reasons for a judgment against them.
The practice not only falls short of UNHCR's own guidelines for fair and evenhanded treatment of asylum claims, but also sets a poor precedent for the new refugee screening system established by Turkish authorities. The Turkish system is reported to eventually exclude UNHCR from determining refugee claims of Iranians in Turkey. Although UNHCR has so far been too timid to assume any role in establishment of this new system, the force of any petition, if ever lodged with the Turkish authorities, will be undercut. How forcefully can such a petition ensure safeguards for a fair procedure if UNHCR itself continues to refuse the same safeguards to refugee applications that it determines?
The results of this study will be published in 1995. It intends to bring in line with international standards the practices of the UNHCR in regard to determining the refugee application of Iranians whether alone or in cooperation with the Turkish authorities.
In the meantime, we have tried to provide legal advice and representation to as many refugees as our resources have allowed. Other efforts to improve the quality of refugee applications submitted to the UNHCR included providing documents in support of individual claims, contacting related organizations to obtain corroboration or support letters on behalf of refugees and setting up a service to translate related documents submitted by refugees. We have investigated the elements necessary in better presenting refugee claims, which will be compiled in a handbook for use by refugees.
Under Article 33 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Turkey is obliged not to return any person against her or his will to a territory where he or she may be exposed to persecution. Yet hundreds of Iranian asylum seekers, including those recognized by the UNHCR have faced actual or attempted deportation.
In some instances, asylum seekers were arrested and immediately taken to the border, without access to a court of law to appeal the decision. This is despite the fact that Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and has accepted the right of individuals to take cases to the European Commission. (The Convention applies not only to the nationals of members of the Council of Europe, but also to non-nationals in the territory or subject to the jurisdiction of contracting state). The office of the UNHCR has intervened on behalf of only those who, at the time, have been recognized as refugees or have had "active" cases with the office. In at least two cases even these interventions have failed and refugees have been forcibly sent back to Iran. In other instances refugees have managed to evade deportation.
In 1994, more than 30 instances of actual and attempted deportations were reported. We were involved in urgent actions on behalf of 24 refugees who were reported to be in imminent danger of deportation. Most of these cases were reported to us by IFIRIC-Branch in Turkey. Reports of these threats were communicated to us at all times of the day and the week. Frequently, refugees were arrested or would receive deportation orders at the end of the week. By the time the incident was revealed to local groups or other refugees, no human rights organization would be accessible to take action. In one instance, on a Friday noon, we were informed of the case of 5 refugees facing imminent deportation. The time difference between Europe and US gave us the opportunity to reach one major human rights organization in the US, which immediately related its concern to the Turkish ambassador in the US before a holiday weekend.
In retrospect, although we have done more than we expected we could do, 1994 has been a year of learning, investigation and significant education for us. Refugees have patiently and steadfastly contacted us, explained their situation and needs, communicated their grievances, guided us into solutions and expressed appreciation for what we were able to do. We hope that in 1995 we can do our part in providing the Iranian refugee community a deserving, strong and effective stand worldwide.