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Iran: Major Source Of Asylum Seekers

The tragic discovery early this week of 58 refugees who suffocated in the back of a truck while being smuggled into Britain underscores the desperate measures to which people will resort when they try to flee their country. Increasingly, Iranians are among those who seek asylum at any price. Regional Analyst Bill Samii looks at the trend.

Prague, 23 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "I would go to any Western country. It would be better than Iran," an Iranian asylum-seeker in Turkey told Reuters news agency.

The UN's refugee agency says Iran has been in the top 10 countries of origin for asylum-seekers in Europe for the last two years, with nearly 20,000 Iranian applicants last year alone. Many of those Iranians, the UN says, are Bahais fleeing religious persecution.

Soroush Javadi, a consultant on refugee affairs, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Europe has been facing an influx of refugees and asylum-seekers.

"With the creation of the common market, border controls are weaker."

Recent reports from this month alone testify to Iranians' eagerness to get out. Nine Iranians stowed away on a Belgian truck and were captured by British police. Another 16 illegal Iranians were arrested in Tuzla, Bosnia.

At the French Embassy in Tehran, the official responsible for issuing visas was sent back to France for improperly issuing more than 350 visas to middlemen. Iranian youth and minorities are desperate to leave the country, and some agencies represent themselves as intermediaries in the visa procurement process.

And 10 Iranian and four Iraqi stowaways hijacked an Italian ship bound from Bandar Abbas and demanded refuge in Europe. They eventually gave up, and the Indian government may turn the hijackers over to the UN refugee agency after determining their status.

Also this month, Russian security forces arrested six Iranians in the port of Nakhodka for trying to go to Japan illegally, and six other Iranians were arrested in the region earlier this year, and Russian sailors have made a lucrative business out of people smuggling.

Last month, four people drowned when a boat carrying 38 Iranians from Bosnia to Croatia capsized in the Sava River, and their bodies were recovered near Banja Luka. The survivors were transferred to a refugee center near Sarajevo. An Iranian citizen and a Serb are reportedly involved with the smuggling ring.

Even when they make it abroad, Iranian asylum seekers do not have an easy time of it. Australia is a case in point. Shahin Davitian, an immigration lawyer in Sydney, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that Iranians make up a large percentage of asylum seekers in Australia.

"It can be said that, altogether, about 20 to 25 percent of the people who seek refuge in Australia are Iranians."

The refugee centers they are housed in are usually based in remote locations, and there is little opportunity to leave the facilities. Many of the refugees become frustrated and angry. Davitian:

"Until a person's case comes before the tribunal, it could be three or more months. It could take several months. In Sydney itself, I have seen cases that take from four to 18 months."

This month, about 500 "boat people" from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan rioted and broke out of their detention center in Australia.

The flood of young people leaving Iran is having an adverse impact on the country's development. About 70 percent of the Iranians who competed in international science Olympiads in the last three years are now studying in the U.S., according to one Iranian paper ("Bayan," 20 June). These students complain that Iranian universities are poorly equipped and many of the instructors are poorly qualified. Furthermore, gaining a university place depends a great deal on connections and ideological commitment, rather than on any real qualifications.

Iran's former representative to the UN, Said Rajai-Khorasani, told an Iranian newspaper "Ham-Mihan" that young Iranians love their country, but they flee because they face poor political, cultural, economic, and professional security. To counter this brain drain and even encourage Iranians living abroad to return home, Rajai recommended systemic reforms that would guarantee opportunities for people with a higher education.