According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 10,000 Iranian Kurds are registered as refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Many are deprived of their most basic rights, including the right to social, political, and economic security. Though Iranian Kurds have lived in Iraqi Kurdistan for many years, most are still denied asylum and citizenship by the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Raza, his partner Malak, and their three children are Iranian Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan for almost twenty years, but they have yet to be granted citizenship or asylum. When asked about their struggles of not having citizenship, Raza said, “The lack of citizenship has created legal, economic, security, and political issues for us. Unfortunately, there is no law for asylum seekers in the KRG and the Iraqi Government, so, according to Iraqi law, we don’t exist in this country.”
Many Iranian Kurds like Raza and his family left their homeland to seek safety in neighbouring countries, including Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, to flee the unstable economic crisis in Iran, which began in 2006 when the U.S. Government, the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union imposed economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran for the continuation of its nuclear energy program. The country’s foreign exchange reserves crashed, and Iranian citizens have suffered the worst of this economic collapse since it began.
Parween is an asylum seeker from Iranian Kurdistan who fled the economic crisis in Iran. Eleven years ago, Parween sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan with her husband and daughter. Parween and her family now live in Erbil. “We left our country because of Iran’s chaotic economic and political situation,” Parween said. “But we face many financial obstacles here because we lack a residency card. We would live and work under any circumstances and will accept even a minimum wage. Nevertheless, no employer would give us work because they fear the legal consequences of breaking a rule.” In Parween’s experience, her family cannot access employment as Iraqi law requires workers to have residency cards.
This disparity between citizen and refugee rights is also evident in political participation and elections. While citizens of Iraq can vote, refugees like Raza cannot. “I am a journalist and an active political actor as well, but the issue is that we are not recognized as citizens,” Raza said. “That’s why we are unable to participate in the political process. We cannot vote or become candidates ourselves in elections. This reality prevents you from being active in the political stage of this country, and it will change you from an active political actor to a neutral actor in the political process of this country.”
Even though Raza faced persecution and discrimination as a Kurd in Iran, he now has even less of a voice in Iraqi Kurdistan politics. “If I wanted to be a neutral actor, I would have stayed in my own country. I have been deprived of the right to vote for more than eighteen years while I had the right to vote in my undemocratic country.”
Security concerns are another obstacle that threatens both Raza and Parween’s families in Iraqi Kurdistan. As refugees, both families are subjected to the bureaucratic whims of government officials in Iraqi Kurdistan. When Parween and her family moved to Iraqi Kurdistan, they settled in Sulaymaniyah. One year later, Parween’s husband, Fardin, was summoned to the residency office in Sulaymaniyah, where the government gave him an ultimatum to leave the city in twenty-four hours without reason or warning. If they did not, the family would be deported back to Iran. “That ultimatum had a significant impact on my family and me,” Fardin recounted. “First, we were unaware of the reason behind this injunction, and second, we didn’t know how to pack and leave in only twenty-four hours and move to a city where we didn’t know anyone. So we sold everything cheaply and moved to Erbil the next day. It has been a year since we moved to Erbil, but we still don’t have a residency card and cannot live without fear and stress.”
Living outside Iran’s borders and within reach of an international organization like the United Nations has not helped these families feel more secure. Iranian Kurdish families in Iraqi Kurdistan especially fear for their safety as Iran significantly interferes in the political system of both the Iraqi Government and the KRG. For this reason, the Islamic Republic of Iran has easily targeted its opponents in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Neither the Iraqi Government nor the KRG prevents Iran from conducting these clandestine operations within their borders, where Iran has assassinated and tortured dissenters, primarily Iranian Kurds.
Iran began infiltrating Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s, initially targeting members of its opposition political parties as well as activists and journalists who criticized the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to Raza, “these terrors continued until the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet, in 2005 when Iraq and the KRG faced a political revision, it gave a chance for more international organizations to work in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, which was why Iran decreased the terrors in Kurdistan.” But, in 2016, the Iranian Government began targeting Iranian Kurds again across Iraqi Kurdistan.
Most Kurdish families fled Iran for Iraqi Kurdistan to protect their lives from this violence and to access fundamental rights, including the right to freedom, religion, and their own culture. “Being unemployed and deprived of our rights was the main reason we left our country, but we are living with an ongoing burden here,” said Malak. “So, whenever I hear about the assassination of a journalist or a civil activist from Rojhalat [Iranian Kurdistan], I tell myself, when will it be our turn? I’m always thinking of preparing myself for the worst. Like the death or kidnapping of my husband or my children.”
As refugees, Malak and her family believe they are not protected by either the Iraqi Government or KRG, who allow Iran to carry out clandestine assassinations of Iranian Kurds who criticize the Iranian Government. These families are desperate for safety. In an effort to access protection and fundamental rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, thousands of Iranian Kurds have registered as refugees with the UNHCR, hoping that this organization would support them. But such hope has been left disappointed, especially following the death of Behzad Mahmoudi on 18 May 2021.
“Behzad Mahmoudi set himself on fire in front of the UN office in Erbil,” Raza recounted. “The UN employees told him to do it somewhere else and not close to their office. So, is it ethical for someone as a UN employee who is privileged to tell an unemployed, frustrated, hungry person who ran from a dictatorship and chose to seek support from the largest humanitarian organization, ‘It is up to you whether you set yourself on fire’? That is a clear sign of degradation of a human being.”
For Raza, such neglect mirrors his experience living under the Iranian Government. “What Iran couldn’t do against us within its borders, we are facing under the umbrella of a large humanitarian organization. And this is what the Islamic Republic of Iran has dreamed about. I can understand the bureaucracy in the United Nations. But should the bureaucracy parallel the policies and rules of the Islamic Republic of Iran?”
The United Nations also neglected Parween and her family after they were forced to relocate from their home in Sulaymaniyah. “The way we were forced to leave Sulaymaniyah put me in a dreadful mental situation,” said Parween. “So I asked the UN to provide me with mental health support to overcome the fear and anxiety I was experiencing at that time. But they called me six months later and asked if I still needed that support.”
Despite the inequity they face, these families still hope for a better future for themselves and their children, even while their children’s dreams are also crushed by government policy. A few years ago, Parween’s daughter, 19-year-old Elika, was forced to leave her school because she did not have a residency card. “I don’t have identification to prove that I am Elika, neither in Iran nor Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Elika. “So when I graduated from the 8th grade, the school authorities told me they could no longer let me study without a residency card. That’s why they wouldn’t let me go back to school. Nevertheless, I dream about having an ID one day in any part of this world. I am years behind in my studies and lacking many other rights which would be different if I held an ID.”
The government’s refusal to grant identification and asylum is a tremendous barrier for thousands of Iranian Kurdish families who chose Iraqi Kurdistan as their second home. The absence of any legal pathway for Iranian Kurdish asylum seekers to be recognized by the KRG and the Iraqi government has caused decades of neglect. At the same time, the United Nations has also not fulfilled its promises to protect and fulfill the fundamental rights of asylum seekers in Iraqi Kurdistan. The number of these families is significantly large to be neglected by the bureaucratic system upheld by the Iraqi Government, KRG, and the United Nations. Unfortunately, this continues to be a reality.
“Every nation hates its children1,” writes the poet Solmaz Sharif. “This is a requirement of statehood.” The same could be said for the experience of these Iranian-Kurdish families who left their country, hoping to find sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan. Not only were they targeted by the state occupying their homeland, but they are also now rejected by a government that claims to provide refuge to Kurds. Neither can they secure safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, nor can they return to Iran. For these families, home is nowhere.
1‘Dear Aleph,’ by Solmaz Sharif, Customs (Graywolf Press, 2022).