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/
6/29/2018 11:29:01 pm
As an Iranian who has relatives all over Europe and North America, I can testify to the veracity of Dr Fozi observation that Iranian diaspora has been growing nonstop since 1979. All aspects of this phenomenon deserves much closer scrutiny, the reasons behind it, the perilous journey many families undertake, the long lasting impact on Iran and host countries, ... I hope to see more from Dr Fozi on this topic.
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