By Navid Fozi
A cursory survey of the scholarship and the media coverage on migrants and refugees reveals a curious absence of Iranians despite the fact that they have been leaving Iran on a continuous basis since the Revolution of 1979. Between 1999 and 2013, an annual average of roughly 69,000-138,000 Iranians have sought asylum, while 12,000-26,000 have been assisted by the UNHCR. Since 1979, there has been a steady flow of 15,000-30,000 annual Iranian asylum seekers through Turkey, the main transit country neighboring Iran. Data on Pakistan and the Independent Kurdish Region of Iraq, the two other neighboring transit states, are hard to come by. Combined with regular emigrants, the Iranian diaspora has reached a community of about six million, mostly residing in North America, Europe, and Australia.
While some statistics exist, research is extremely meager. Inquiries are mostly conducted by members of the Iranian community, focusing on specific political groups. The first fifteen years after the Revolution saw asylum seekers representing the former political system, as well as members of the Communist Tudeh Party, and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). Draft evaders followed during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. In addition to these violence-driven exoduses, members of the Baha’i religious community have been escaping persecution since those early years. The last two decades have witnessed a periodic addition of converts (Christian, Baha’i, and Zoroastrian), practitioners of Erfan-e Halgheh (Cosmic Mystics), Kurdish Yaresan (Ahl-e Haqq), and Sabians. Furthermore, groups identifying themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ), social activists; and political dissidents formerly belonging to the ruling elites have sought asylum outside of Iran.
It is important to note that none of these groups have picked up arms or resorted to violence, with the exception of the PMOI in the immediate years after the Revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War. Whereas malicious persecutions and summary executions characterized the extrajudicial revolutionary mood, violence subsided substantially in later years as the ruling class sought to reestablish Iran’s membership within the international community. Subsequently, soft modes of harassment without paper trails became a routine practice, for instance, denying documents such as subpoena and official sentences when summoning Cosmic Mystics and Christian converts to court, and preventing Baha’is admission to, and expelling activists from, universities. Brutal methods were reserved for those who contested presidential elections and collectively came to be known as Green Movement in 2009.
Provided the continuous state persecution of such diverse groups of Iranians, what are the reasons for the paucity of academic research on Iranian asylum seekers? A case in point is a recent volume on refugees in Austria that only addresses the Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees. Could it be that physical violence is perceived as an integral constituent of ‘refugee’ as a recognized legal category, implying that those not affected directly do not deserve academic inquiry either? Or, as one of the reviewers of this piece commented, the lack of academic research may be due to the “current visibility and sheer number” of Afghan, Syrian, and Iraqi refugees. Nevertheless, the oppression of religious minorities and political dissidents in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been discussed for forty years. Even if their cause is not as visible, western countries have been receiving Iranian asylum seekers and migrants since the Islamic Revolution and their existence is publicly known.
This lack of coverage could also be linked to an assumed categorical division between the so-called ‘fake’ and ’real’ asylum cases. Such an assumption, for instance, entails that, similar to many claimants from other countries, Iranian asylum seekers acquire certain religious, political, or gender identities in order to build an asylum case. Even if there exist questionable cases, shouldn’t such a phenomenon itself arouse a sense of academic inquiry instead of total dismissal? Those who promote such a division of cases could ask why Shiʿi Muslims are changing religion to escape a government that is founded upon Shiʿi traditions and jurisprudence. Those attacking claims of the LGBTQ communities should acknowledge the equally pressing question of why members of the traditional Iranian culture that frowns upon any sexual behavior violating principles of heterosexual relations would want to fake gender identity. Other inquires could explore why a country that is not involved in direct wars, has regular presidential and parliamentary elections, and is internationally engaged, produces such diverse and continuous flow of asylum seekers? How does the purging of minorities in Iran fit in and contribute to the historical homogenizing project of the Shi’i state?
Finally, what about cases the veracity of which even the skeptics cannot deny? The Yaresan community consists mostly of ethnic Kurds who practice a religion different from Islam. While some of them are Shiʿatized and identified as Ahl-e Haqq, many, mostly concentrated in the westernmost regions of Iran, do not identify as Muslims. They follow the teachings of Sultan Sahak, who was a 14th-century religious leader. They have a distinct social structure, sacred literature, as well as music and musical instruments, and go on pilgrimage to their own local sites. The Yaresans have suffered since the formation of the Islamic Republic, not just for their religion, but also for their Kurdishness. They have been accused of treason and denied government jobs as well as higher education. As they are labeled as Satan-worshipers, their places of worship have been desecrated and their rituals have been banned. While they have used Turkey as a transit country to seek asylum, the Independent Kurdish Region of Iraq has been their main route to Europe.
The Baha’is are another minority group who follow an indigenous religion that began in 1844 in Iran. They come from diverse backgrounds, religiously and ethnically, and are mostly the descendants of early converts who followed Ali Muhammad Shirazi known as the Bab (1819-1850), a young prophet who challenged the Shiʿi religious hierarchy by claiming to be the Twelfth Shiʿi Imam. When he was killed by the Qajar dynasty in 1850, most of his followers turned to Mirza Hosayn Ali Nuri known as Baha’u’llah (1817-1892). Their suffering has been continuous since the inception and only increased in the post-Revolution period. Accused of being foreign elements and spies, many Baha’is were killed in summary courts and purged from jobs and schools. Their homes were burnt, their cemeteries are still bulldozed, and their religious practices are banned. Baha’i youth are deprived of higher education and Baha’i businesses are regularly shut down. As mentioned earlier, they have been leaving Iran since 1979.
Another relatively recent phenomenon is the growing number of adherents of contemporary Persian mysticism, Erfan-e Halgheh. The founder, Ali-Mohammad Taheri has received a death sentence that was later lifted as a result of domestic and international pressure. However, coinciding with the rising numbers of Christian and Baha’i converts and the decline of Shiʿi hierarchy, his followers, are abused and jailed. Their centers and classes are deemed illegal and shut down.
Iranian asylum seekers and refugees might not neatly fit within the scholarship on refugee camps and those fighting genocide, and there may exist questionable cases. Nevertheless, their flight poses important questions regarding the domestic Iranian context, engaging international refugee regimes, asylum processes, border crossings, as well as diaspora identity formation.
 Statistic Data on Iranian Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Updated 2014. http://www.irainc.org/iranref/statistics.php
 See, for example, Fathi, Asghar. Iranian refugees and exiles since Khomeini. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 1991; Ghorashi, Halleh. Ways to survive, battles to win: Iranian women exiles in the Netherlands and United States. Nova Publishers, 2003; Koser Akcapar, Sebnem. “Re‐Thinking Migrants’ Networks and Social Capital: A Case Study of Iranians in Turkey.” International migration 48.2 (2010): 161-196. Moallem, Minoo. “Iranian Immigrants, Exiles and Refugees: From National to Transnational Contexts.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 20.1 (2000): 161-164.
 Schiocchet, Leonardo and Kohlbacher Josef (Ed). From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna (2017).
 Hamzeh’ee, M. Reza. The Yaresan: A Sociological, Historical and Religio-Historical Studyof a Kurdish Community. Berlin: Klaus Schwarz (1990); In Persian: Safizádeh Borehkeii, Seddiq, Neveshteha-ye Parakandeh Darbareh-ye Yaresan: Ahl-e Haqq [Scattered Essays on Yaresan, Ahl-e Haqq. Khorrami Printing (1982).
 There is a lack of academic research on all aspects of Yaresans’ life in part due to their secretive practices. My information is based on fieldwork research that I have conducted in western Iran in 2005 among the Yaresan of Guran region (Fozi, Navid. “The hallowed summoning of tradition: Body techniques in construction of the sacred tanbur of western Iran.” Anthropological quarterly 80.1 (2007): 173-205), as well as in Turkey among the asylum seekers of the group. See, also, The Danish Immigration Services. Ministry of Immigration and Integration. Iran: The Yaresan. (2017); Kurdish news agencies have in recent years provided some reports: Rudaw. Kurdish Kakai flee state ‘discrimination’ in Iran. (2015). http://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/09092015
 Momen, Moojan. "The Babi and Baha'i community of Iran: A case of “suspended genocide”?." Journal of Genocide Research 7.2 (2005): 221-241. Affolter, Friedrich W. "The specter of ideological genocide: The Baha'is of Iran." War Crimes Genocide & Crimes against Human. 1 (2005): 75-114. Kazemzadeh, Firuz. "The Baha'is in Iran: Twenty years of repression." Social Research (2000): 537-558.
 Among many instances, there are several reports regarding the persecution of Erfan-e Halgheh membership listed on the Center for Human Rights in Iran: https://www.iranhumanrights.org/tag/erfan-e-halgheh/
Forced decisions? How a better understanding of displacement’s multiple push-factors may help to reform the global refugee regime
By Andreas Hackl
Refugee status implies that people were forcibly displaced from their home country, while migrants in search of work are often perceived to move primarily for economic reasons. Interviews conducted with Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan refugees in Austria reveal how refugees are not merely forced out by persecution and armed conflict: they are often forced to make informed decisions to flee for a combination of social, economic and political reasons (Hackl 2017). Focusing on these decisions and their diverse motivating factors can help us understand forced displacement as a more complex social process than the often-invoked binary opposition between political refugees and economic migrants.
This adds another element to recent calls for reforming the global refugee regime on the grounds that it tends to prevent the forcibly displaced from working, denies them a sense of autonomy, and bases humanitarian protection on an idea of direct “persecution” that was born out of the Second World War (The Guardian, March 22, 2017). Amid highly complex violent conflicts, mostly in failed states characterized by war economies and recurring instability, appeals for an adapted approach are gaining ground. What can we learn from refugees recollecting memories of their own “forced decisions”?
One lesson is that violence, state “dysfunctionality” and socio-economic problems often coincide. Not only guns and threats, but also sectarian clientelism, the deaths of family members, the inability to carry out one’s profession, or the refusal to comply with militias can lead to forced decisions. A lack of financial resources caused by war may drive women into situations where their only choice is to marry a Taliban affiliate, or they run the risk of falling into the hands of smugglers and into modern forms of slavery.
In the strict legal sense a refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This means that those who decide to leave a country because they can no longer maintain themselves without, for example, joining or supporting an armed militia, do not directly fall under this definition; neither do those who have simply lost all their property, belongings and family members. Recent cases have shown that there is flexibility in the refugee protection regime. As Syria has reached a general level of lethal violence, individuals receive general protection and refugee status quickly, or at the very least they cannot be returned home. At the same time, Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers have much higher rejection rates and are frequently sent back.
While certain cases conform to the pure concept of forced displacement, there are many other refugees who face insecurity because of economic problems and persecution. The book chapter this post is based on (Hackl 2017) covers stories of persons in Iraq, who simply were no longer able to do their job or remain where they had previously lived. Moving to other areas within Iraq often brought about new dangers. And especially for young men, the question was often: join militias, or flee? There was no alternative.
Some of the accounts also indicate that a simple sectarian explanation of persecution, e.g. Shia against Sunni Muslims, does not always make sense. Many members of the same group may be forced to leave because they do not want to put their skills at the disposal of related militias, who need engineers, doctors, or journalists.
The interviews with refugees in Austria also indicated that generalized violence often leads to specific vulnerabilities, which are different for women and men. What is more, violence and economic problems reinforce each other:
A Kurdish man from Tikrit in Iraq related how war and violence gradually made daily life impossible. He used to work for an Egyptian company in another Iraqi city, often welcoming visiting delegations and taking them across the border in and out of Erbil, Kurdish Iraq’s capital. He said, “With the rise of ISIS it became difficult for us. On the one hand, the bombings, on the other, ISIS demanding that young men fight for them.” He added that he tried to live with his family in Kirkuk, but one day the company he had worked for withdrew from Iraq. “So we sat there in Kirkuk, four young people without work, without anything.” They sold their cars to get by, but one day, he decided to move to Europe, citing the ongoing explosions and the lack of jobs.
Often it is not only the potential of persecution that matters, but the fact that running a normal business can become dangerous. Economic life becomes impossible. A 50 year-old Yezidi woman witnessed the gradual implosion of all aspects of her everyday life before she left Iraq. She had run her own business as a professional cosmetician in the centre of Baghdad for over ten years. She said: “I had a house. I had a car. My life situation was excellent. But recently our life began to worsen.” Militias in Baghdad threatened and persecuted her, and the arrival of ISIS made things even more difficult. At the time when ISIS-followers began to threaten her because of the cosmetic salon, she discovered that she had cancer and moved to Lebanon for medical treatment. Remembering the last years of her time in Iraq, she summarised the carnage:
“We didn’t really live. We were like machines. We fought for our life every day (…) so that we could continue somehow. I went to work and something blew up close by, there were attacks and explosions. It meant that I might have died any moment. (…) When I arrived at my cosmetic studio, I had to reckon that militias might attack and kill me any moment. At home, I locked the door and prayed to the prophets of all religions that they protect me and help me to survive until the next day. Psychologically, we reached the breaking point. We were already destroyed.”
Against this backdrop, what can one learn from the many intertwined layers of displacement explored throughout this analysis?
The first insight is that the reasons for displacement and seeking refuge are rarely one-dimensional. Second, economic and political reasons cannot be sufficiently isolated from other factors in many cases. In some instances, political violence makes work and public life impossible. In other cases, the nature of one’s work triggers violence, and in yet other situations, one’s profession is in demand by violent actors who put pressure on individuals to comply. Third, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration is important; but it is equally important to acknowledge that sometimes people take forced decisions based on multiple intersecting push-factors.
Gaining a better understanding of how these different dimensions of displacement intersect will underpin future efforts to reform the global refugee regime. Here, the focus should not solely be on the support of refugees after their arrival in Europe or elsewhere. The points of departure are equally important. We should not only ask how refugees can get access to work, but also how exactly they lost access to work, security and a meaningful life in their home countries, as a consequence of pervasive violence, or of one of its side-effects.
Hackl, Andreas. 2017. “The Many Faces of Displacement. Pervasive Violence and the Dissolution of a Liveable Life in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan,” in Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo (Eds.), From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian And Iraqi Refugees in Vienna (ISR-Forschungsberichte, Heft 47). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
The Guardian. March 22, 2017. Available at [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/22/why-denying-refugees-the-right-to-work-is-a-catastrophic-error]
By Noura Kamal
People need much effort to cope with unstable social environments and to get used to changes in their surroundings. But what if individuals were forced to leave their homeland? How will they be able to adapt to the circumstances they face in societies in which they may not even know the language?
War is among the main causes of displacement world-wide. As Edna Lomsky-Feder explains, “The personal memory of war is not homogeneous but, rather, multicolored: Some remember the war as a traumatic experience and others as a heroic event; some recall it as an experience that obstructs personal development, and others as an empowering and fortifying one” (Lomsky-Feder 2004, p. 82). That is, each individual has his/her own way of dealing with crises, and of telling their story. Particularly among refugees, these diverse expressions, or narratives, can provide us with countless aspects of human behavior during crises and in their aftermath. How asylum seekers cope with distress in their new place of living features prominently in the responses of a sample of Syrian interviewees.
As researchers, we must be careful when we reflect upon their stories. However, trying to look deeper into their narratives, highlighting certain aspects in detriment of others, can reveal important aspects of human lives, not least about how people confront the challenges of a journey in search of peace and dignity. But how do asylum seekers cope with war and flight?
In my contribution to the book entitled “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna”, I analyzed fifteen narrations by Syrians of different generations and affiliations to reflect upon the asylum seekers’ experiences of exile. While these narratives vary in expression, they also feature common themes. Most importantly, they express how hard the interviewed Syrians tried to be part of Viennese society and adapt to the obstacles they face in this new context. For many, voluntary work was the first step to overcome the idea that they are asylum seekers and prove for themselves that they can integrate and be part of the local Viennese society. Nonetheless, trying to be independent financially or achieving their personal satisfaction by continuing their education was also a vital aim for many in the sample. For many asylum seekers their self-confidence hinges on their ability to control their own lives and to contribute to the new environment. They much preferred to be productive members of their new society rather than being passive individuals. However, the income generated by regular work means they would lose the social welfare money. Sometimes this is not doable for members of large families, since the working family members’ salary cannot not provide for the whole family. If a man, for example, starts working, his wife and children at working age will stop receiving social benefits. Given this obstacle, they decided to contribute to their integration by engaging in social voluntary work. Many assisted in taking care of new asylum seekers arriving at the main stations in Vienna, such as Hauptbahnhof and Westbahnhof. But there were other forms of engagement as well. Thus a man in his mid-forties explained that during the process of looking for a job he had worked carrying wood for two months.
Despite the Syrian asylum seekers’ efforts to integrate into the new society, their experience of flight and exile affected their well-being. As Allen Feldman states: “There is no doubt that memories of the past say a great deal about people’s attitudes in and towards the present” (Feldman 2006, p. 15). Both men and women tried to find their way to a future that could give them hope and peace. The individual narratives showed that the personal relations and the background of each individual had a strong influence on how they adapted. Their political inclinations likewise affected their ability to cope with their suffering. The narratives reflected the impact of their social and political situation. Not all the asylum seekers from Syria faced the same hardships, whether during the war, or through their journey to Europe. It was easier for an individual with a wide range of relations beyond Syria to come to Vienna than it was for those who had no relations outside of Syria. In addition, political affiliations influenced the amount of support an asylum seeker received in adapting to the new circumstances. Finally, wealthy individuals found their way to Europe faster and easier than those who had a precarious income. It was noticeable from the interviews that traumatic experiences influenced how the Syrian asylum seekers communicated with strangers. Apparently, fear of others belonging to another religion made it harder for them to develop new relations.
The brief answers a married woman with five daughters gave during the interview reflect her fear of being open. This especially came to light at the end of the interview, when she said that, even in Austria, she was afraid of telling others that she is Yezidi. Her brief answers may be understood in the light of David Morris’ words that: “the silence of suffering also points to very practical breakdowns of speech (…) the voicelessness of suffering often resembles the quiet retreat of people who live with chronic pain” (Morris 1997, p. 28).
However, in spite of their fears, the persons interviewed asserted strong agency. They were dealing with their experiences and reflecting upon them with a positive attitude. Regardless of their different affiliations, social belongings and social standing, Syrians asylum seekers found in Austria a good place to start over, especially the members of the younger generation, who hope to continue their education or to be part of the labor force, and thus want to contribute to their new society. But the members of the older generation found it hard to move forward. An elderly woman said that if the war in Syria came to an end she would definitely return. At the same time, she emphasized that her children would be free to choose their own path.
Feldman A. (2006), Home as a Refrain: Remembering and Living Displacement in Gaza. In: History and Memory, Special Issue: Home and Beyond, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 10-47.
Lomsky-Feder E. (2004), Life Stories, War, and Veterans: On the Social Distribution of Memories. In: Ethos, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 82-109.
Morris D. (1997), About Suffering: Voice, Genre, and Moral Community. In: Kleinman, A., Das V. and Lock M. (eds.): Social Suffering, Berkeley, University of California Press, pp. 25-45.
Noura Kamal is a social anthropologist and researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences Institute for Social Anthropology. She is a doctor in social and cultural anthropology (University of Vienna). Her thesis discusses the scope of agency in Nablus/Palestine under immediate siege and under regular Israeli occupation. Her current research focuses on the Yemeni post-1962 intellectual discourse regarding changes in the perception and understanding of tribes and tribalism in northern Yemen.