Bangkok, 26 October 2012 — Increasing suppression of religious and political rights in Iran has caused thousands to flee persecution seeking safety and freedom of conscience. There are currently more than 89,121 Iranian asylum claims worldwide, as of 2012, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
One such refugee is Atash*, who first came into contact with JRS in January 2012 when legal aid advisors helped him to apply for refugee status determination from Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC).
“I fear for my life if I have to return,” saidAtash*, aged 45, who is Christian and first fled Iran for Dubai in 1996 when speaking out against the corruption of a prominent politician put his security at risk.
Stifled freedom of conscience. In Iran, intimidation and harassment of non-Muslims and political opponents are rife, creating a climate of fear for those holding opinions or religious beliefs outside of the military regime, according to human rights organisations.
“There is no space for people to think differently,” saidAtash*. “I felt I could not breathe there and had much spiritual struggle.”
Apostasy, or renunciation, of Islam may be punishable by execution under Sharia law. Christian converts are frequently charged with threatening state security, spreading propaganda, and insulting Islam, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2011, who document that between June 2010 and February 2011, more than 250 Christians were arrested.
From 2003-2006 the UN General Assembly passed a total of four resolutions expressing concern about religious persecution and restrictions on human rights. Since Atash* converted to Christianity in 2009, his safety would not be guaranteed if he were to return.
“Iranian laws continue to discriminate against religious minorities,” states the HRW report.
Concerned that conversion away from Shi’a Islam will lead to weakening support for the regime, many high-level Iranian government officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have called for an end to the growth of Christianity in Iran, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2010.
“Converts to Christianity, like Atash*, have been regularly detained and threatened with capital punishment,” said Saadia Aleem, a former legal officer with JRS Thailand.
Finding a way forward. JRS helpedAtash* to file an application for refugee status with the UN Refugee Agency in January 2012, after he had spent eight months in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC).
“I thought my only options were either to stay in detention forever, or go back to my country and risk my life,” Atash* said. “JRS changed that.”
Less than half of all Iranian asylum claims are recognised, according to the Iranian Refugees Alliance, a US- based humanitarian and advocacy organisation.
In Bangkok, only 14 out of the 54 asylum seekers have been officially recognised, according to the most recent UNHCR statistics from July 2012.
In the past ten years, forcible return of asylum seekers to Iran has resulted in their deaths, executions, torture, and other types of ill-treatment, confirms Amnesty International in 2012.
“I was so afraid of deportation,” saidAtash*. “I prayed in secret to hide my religion from the other Iranians in the IDC.”
Two months after submitting his application, Atash* became a verified refugee, and he now awaits resettlement.
“Now there is hope, and I can plan for my future,” Atash* said.
*Not his real name.