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Geopolitics

How Tehran Hunts Down Iranian Refugees In Turkey

Iran's clerical regime is able to sabotage asylum applications, prompt deportations and, failing that, beat and murder Iranian political refugees in Turkey.

How Tehran Hunts Down Iranian Refugees In Turkey

A Turkish soldier on the Iranian-Turkish border

Negar Jokar

LONDON — After Iran's 1979 revolution, Iranians with different views to those of the new, clerical regime felt obliged to leave the country. Over the years, a range of events and factors included prison executions in the 1980s and the suppression of student protests in Tehran in 1999. The crushing of mass protests in 2009, then in late 2017, in mid-2018 and in late 2019 to 2020 prompted more Iranians to flee.

One place that has become a temporary refuge for them is Turkey. Currently, it hosts around 40,000 Iranian refugees, many of whom have spent years of their lives here, hoping in fact to move on and settle in another country as a safe haven.


In recent years, based on the proportion of Iranians who have duly been allowed to enter and settle in a third country, it is evident nations have a very low acceptance rate for Iranians. This is not entirely independent of decisions taken by politicians. Likewise, taking into account the civil war in Syria and recent events in Afghanistan, receptor countries have focused more on nationals of those two states, largely condemning Iranian applicants to a state of oblivion.

Vulnerability of political asylum seekers

Political dissidents are particularly vulnerable in such conditions, and their precarious conditions have also given the Islamic Republic and its agents a much freer hand in threatening them in Turkey. On the one hand, refugees must live and act with extreme caution to avoid being located, and on the other, the United Nations and related agencies have done almost nothing to support them.

In past years, the Islamic Republic has acted in a range of ways against Iranian political refugees in Turkey, including having them beaten, kidnapped or shot. An example was the journalist Arash Sho'a-Sharq, who was kidnapped in Van in eastern Turkey in 2017 and handed over to the Islamic Republic. He was then jailed for 10 years In Iran.

Likewise, suspected agents of the Iranian regime beat Shahram Eliasi, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee, and his family, also in Van. The former scientist Mas'ud Molavi was killed in Istanbul in November 2019. The case remains open, and his putative assassins are believed to have fled.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visiting the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader's Website via ZUMA

Silencing dissidents 

On another occasion, agents of the Islamic Republic sought to kidnap the Iranian pilot Mehrdad Abdarbashi, but were thwarted by Turkish police. Interestingly there, police detained a mix of both Iranian and Turkish nationals collaborating in that attempted kidnapping.

To silence activists and refugees in Turkey, Iran's agents use several methods. Given the scope and breadth of the Iranian regime's tentacles in Turkey, it is not very difficult to localize Iranian activists. Often Iran's agents engage in falsifying papers or documents to hinder Iranians' refugee application processes, ensuring they are finally deported.

They use a variety of covers.

The easiest way for the regime to threaten and silence these exiles is to hinder and obstruct their efforts to win asylum, as it no longer needs to kidnap and shoot them. This may be termed their silent assassination.

As the number of political refugees in Turkey is anything but small, one can understand the Iranian regime's decision to use so many spies and agents around the country. They use a variety of covers, including posing as political refugees working or running a local business, people traffickers or Christian missionaries or preachers of another faith. All these agents work together, and for their masters in Tehran, to ensure life for Iranian refugees in Turkey is even worse than it already is.

*Jokar is a refugees rights activist.

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