Hounded by employers, with limited opportunities for financial support, landlords who are recruiting to rent a flat or demanding a higher deposit than market prices. Freedom of movement restricted to the province of registration, special permits to travel elsewhere, threat of withdrawal of refugee status and international protection up to and including deportation.
Since the authorities in Ankara took over the task of assessing asylum claims and refugee status from the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2018, the situation for Iranian Christian immigrants has become even more complicated.
In addition to the drama of past persecution and exile from their homeland, they now find themselves in a situation of renewed difficulty, in a general condition of limbo from which they emerge in rare cases and with extreme difficulty, in the face of a lifestyle marked by survival.
This is what emerges from a recent report, according to which Christian refugees in Turkey “live in precarious conditions, without a job or a stable income, with the constant risk of being deported”.
Christians on the run
“I fled to Turkey,” says Mojtaba Golmohammadi, “because in Iran, I was under constant surveillance, threats, deprived of education, and because they put seals on my business and would not allow me to work”.
The government “exerted pressure on me and my family,” Amin Salmani adds, because of “the Christian faith” to the extent that ‘some members of our house church were arrested. We also fled in fear of being imprisoned.”
These are some of the many testimonies collected in the study published in June by international activist groups (Open Doors, Csw, Article18 and Middle East Concern), on the anti-Christian persecution in Iran and the difficulties of those who choose to flee abroad, first stop Turkey.
“We have no fixed employment,” confirms exile Mohsen Aliabady Ravari, “so any employer can easily kick us out. “In Turkey,” he is echoed by Shadi Noveiri Gilani, “I live in a condition of deep uncertainty, because I have no rights as a refugee,” so much so that after seven years he is still waiting for an interview at the specialised agencies to be granted asylum seeker status.
In Iran, the repression, arrests and condemnations of those who convert from Islam are part of a policy imposed by the authorities, who consider Christians – in a nation with a Shia majority – as ‘apostates’.
Protestant and evangelical groups are the main targets, but there is no shortage of abuses against Catholics, fuelling the flight of entire families across the border. The figures of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) do not specify how many Christians there are among the tens of thousands of Iranians who have requested protection from Ankara, but it is generally agreed that they are a “significant number”.
Turkey, a popular destination
Citizens of the Islamic Republic do not need a visa to enter Turkey, a country accessible both by land and by air. Moreover, travel and stay, at least initially, are relatively inexpensive and it is not uncommon to find Iranian Christian families visiting as tourists or to participate in conferences, training or recreational events.
Coupled with this is a good knowledge of the country and its culture, in some respects similar to that of Iran, and most major Turkish cities have one or more churches for Persian-speaking Christians, facilitating the practice of worship.
Then there are those who, lacking travel documents, try to enter Turkey illegally through mountain passes and use the services of smugglers. These operations in themselves are very risky, due to the dangers posed by the unscrupulous smugglers themselves and the quite remote possibility of running into border guards.
Nevertheless, many converts have taken this route, believing the risks faced at home to be far greater than those of the journey.
A source, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation against the family left in Iran, recounts the crossing: ‘At any moment, the Iranian or Turkish police could have opened the door of the truck and taken us, so it was a very stressful experience.
“After arriving in Turkey, we felt lost and exhausted. We felt insecure for a long time,” he recalls, “because of the difficult conditions we faced.”
Another Christian exile, Reza Mousavi, explains the difficulties once arrived: “We, who fled persecution, fled without organising a plan. We had no savings to take with us. We had no plan to learn the language, to work or anything else. The Turkish government, the UN, Asam [Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants], all these authorities do not help us financially in any way. During my first interview, I had to sign a document stating that I had no claim to receive help or support. They do not offer you any accommodation or a place to sleep and if you want to rent a house, the price is higher than for a Turkish citizen.”
Ending up in limbo
Christians apply for international reception and seek initial shelter in Turkey, registering as asylum seekers. Having processed their applications and recognised their refugee status, migrants should receive support under a plan to resettle them in a third country.
However, not all applications are accepted and, even if successful, resettlement takes years. Meanwhile, most survive in precarious conditions, without work or income, risking deportation if Ankara cancels their residence permits.
The report, edited by some of the NGOs most active in the defence of Christian refugees and persecuted minorities, shows how resettlement in the Turkey of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made ‘nationalism and Islam’ his trump cards, often takes a long time.
A large part of the study highlights the challenges faced: lack of work, exploitation and financial hardship, withdrawal of health insurance, discrimination, racism, social hostility and security threats, criticality in children’s education, psychological pressure. Finally, there are few opportunities for expatriation to the most popular destinations, which are Canada, Australia and the United States.
In the past, many refugees – Christian and non-Christian – in Turkey were relocated through the UN mechanism, which has recently slowed down considerably.
According to UNHCR, by mid-2022 there were 32.5 million refugees worldwide, 3.7 million of them hosted by Ankara; at the same time, only 42,300 refugees were resettled globally in the first six months of last year, with or without UN agency assistance.
If the programme continues at this rate, it will take almost 400 years to resettle refugees worldwide, in the face of increasing abuses and violations. ‘In Turkey, I experienced great trauma, without receiving any support,’ Mojtaba Hosseini concludes, ‘and the pain of being a migrant has added to the suffering of the past, perpetuating the dramas suffered and the suffering endured.”