UK markets closed
  • FTSE 100

    7,129.71
    +53.54 (+0.76%)
     
  • FTSE 250

    22,775.28
    +283.92 (+1.26%)
     
  • AIM

    1,262.60
    +9.91 (+0.79%)
     
  • GBP/EUR

    1.1496
    -0.0014 (-0.12%)
     
  • GBP/USD

    1.3990
    +0.0097 (+0.70%)
     
  • BTC-GBP

    40,891.05
    +408.04 (+1.01%)
     
  • CMC Crypto 200

    1,480.07
    +44.28 (+3.08%)
     
  • S&P 500

    4,232.60
    +30.98 (+0.74%)
     
  • DOW

    34,777.76
    +229.23 (+0.66%)
     
  • CRUDE OIL

    64.82
    +0.11 (+0.17%)
     
  • GOLD FUTURES

    1,832.00
    +16.30 (+0.90%)
     
  • NIKKEI 225

    29,357.82
    +26.45 (+0.09%)
     
  • HANG SENG

    28,610.65
    -26.81 (-0.09%)
     
  • DAX

    15,399.65
    +202.91 (+1.34%)
     
  • CAC 40

    6,385.51
    +28.42 (+0.45%)
     

Iranian activists at increasing risk in former haven Turkey

Bethan McKernan in Istanbul
·4-min read

Iranian dissidents in Turkey are unsure whether the country is still a refuge after what appears to be a new wave of arrests and deportation orders targeting asylum seekers from the Islamic Republic.

Afshin Sohrabzadeh, 31, a Kurdish political activist, faced torture and solitary confinement during seven years in prison in Iran before he managed to escape during a hospital visit and flee across the border to Turkey in 2016, followed by his wife the following year.

This month Sohrabzadeh was detained after a routine visit to his local police station in the city of Eskişehir to obtain travel papers, and charged with being a threat to Turkey’s national security.

The activist is now being held in a repatriation centre, and his lawyer, Mahmut Kaçan, say his protected status under international and Turkish law as a refugee is being ignored. Sohrabzadeh is likely to face the death penalty if returned to Iran.

On the same day as Sohrabzadeh’s arrest, four more Iranian asylum seekers – Lily Faraji, Zeinab Sahafi, Ismail Fattahi and Mohammad Pourakbari – were detained in Denizli over their apparent involvement in recent protests against Turkey’s withdrawal from an international convention protecting women from domestic violence.

There are 67,000 Iranians, among them 39,000 refugees, living in Turkey, where millions of Iranian tourists a year enjoy visa-free travel. While Turkish dissidents face an ever-escalating crackdown, hundreds of thousands of Iranians, Uyghurs, Saudis and Arab spring activists have sought shelter here over the last decade from brutal regimes at home.

Turkey’s reputation as a haven for exiles has been challenged, however, by a recent spate of deportations of Uyghurs to Kazakhstan and then China, and a looming extradition treaty between Ankara and Beijing. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have also been sent back to Egypt.

Iranians here say they too are living in an increasing state of fear owing to the close, if complex, relationship between Ankara and Tehran: the two countries have strong trade and security ties.

Sohrabzadeh’s wife, FereshtehKangavari, 28, said the couple had been repeatedly harassed by men they believe are agents of the Iranian government during their time in Turkey. Attacks on their home had forced them to change address several times.

“We lived a quiet life in Turkey, we had no desire to draw attention to ourselves and we were careful to follow the rules of our host country,” she said. “All we want is a normal life in a safe place. I am desperately afraid for my husband and the future for us and our son.”

The Times reported last year that a group of 33 Iranians were deported home from Turkey, including two friends, Saeed Tamjidi and Mohammad Rajabi, who were then sentenced to death over their involvement in 2019 protests. At least seven more Iranian nationals deported in the last three years are now believed to be in jails in their home country.

At least four Iranians have been killed or kidnapped on Turkish soil since 2017, allegedly at the command of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard.

When asked about the five Iranian nationals currently in detention, a senior Turkish official said: “Turkey does not intend to deport any of the aforementioned individuals to Iran. It is possible, however, for them be sent to a third country.” The third country was not disclosed.

Buse Bergamali, a lawyer for the four arrested in connection with the protests, said: “No third country has been determined in the deportation decision, and the judicial proceedings continue. Regardless of the country, deportation would be unlawful. It is also unlawful that my clients stay in the removal centre during this whole process.”

Kaçan, Sohrabzadeh’s lawyer, said deportations to Iran were potentially a breach of a principle of international human rights law known as non-refoulement, but Turkey and Iran “have agreements to exchange people who are a political or security threat, especially anyone who is accused of links to Kurdish groups.”

He added: “I have represented many refugees and asylum seekers from Iran and their treatment is often terrible. There is supposed to be rule of law in Turkey but the truth is increasingly Iranians can be deported without warning or following due process.”

Turkish authorities took over the registering of refugees and asylum seekers in the country from the UN in 2018. Deportation statistics are no longer publicly available on the ministry of migration management’s website.

But after a wave of high-profile arrests, deportations and assassinations, Turkey is in danger of losing its reputation as a place where dissidents from the rest of the Muslim world can live freely.

Kangavari, Sohrabzadeh’s wife, is not sure where else her family could go. “I don’t feel safe here: it’s a constant feeling of insecurity, wherever I go, whatever I do, I might get arrested,” she said. “The way I feel about Turkey has changed.”