Iran and Turkey at odds over refugee crisis
Exactly 38 years ago — on April 1, 1979 — Iran officially became an Islamic republic. The change of the system in the country — which marked the creation of the world’s first Islamic Republic — upset all the balances in the Middle East.
According to those who established the Islamic Republic of Iran, previous governments appointed by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi were corrupt and responsible for atrocious human rights violations.
However, after many years have passed, today the human rights situation in Iran remains gruesome. As several reports indicate, the regime’s human rights violations do not solely target its own citizens but also those who fled there to seek asylum or refuge.
Flow of refugees into Turkey
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak, in a recent interview with private broadcaster CNN Turk, stated that he had received information that some 3 million refugees, whom he said were mostly Afghans, may have fled Iran to enter Turkey illegally.
This statement raised eyebrows in Tehran, which described the Turkish government official’s remarks as “incorrect” and “trouble-making.” Although Kaynak later stated that his remarks about a possible refugee flow from Iran to Turkey may have been mistranslated and taken out of context, Iran did not back off.
Bahram Ghasemi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that Iran has been hosting millions of refugees from its neighboring countries for more than 30 years, saying “Turkey should learn from Iran on how it has hosted refugees for years.”
Turkey’s open-door policy
Turkey is, however, the last country in need of advice on how to take care of refugees. At a time when some countries have closed their doors to Syrian refugees, Turkey was the only country in the region to pursue an open-door policy despite the economic, social and political burden. Turkey is appreciated for this policy and the conditions of the refugee camps. According to reports by the Crisis Group, Turkey has the “best refugee camps ever seen.”
Countries should be competing to provide the best conditions for refugees, rather than criticizing each other over the issue.
Turkey currently hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world, and has spent around $26 billion helping and sheltering refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
Secondly, if Iran’s standards in hosting refugees are indeed so great that countries need to learn from them, why are people fleeing the country? Why are these people, who fled their homelands due to gross human right violations, becoming refugees for a second time?
Lack of basic human rights
According to a report published by Al Jazeera, titled “Why are Afghan refugees leaving Iran?,” Afghan refugees are fleeing due to a lack of basic human rights. One Afghan refugee said: “There is no chance for a future in Iran. For the Iranian government, it wasn’t enough that we are Muslims like them. I had to pay bribes to work, and the police were always harassing me.” Another said: “We don’t want our children to face the same problems and racist treatment.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other watchdog organizations had accused the Iranian government of bad treatment of Afghans, including deportations, harassment by the security forces and poor living conditions.
Despite its poor record on refugees, Iran even accused Turkey of abusing the Syrian refugee issue for political gain, saying Iran has never exploited humanitarian issues for politically-motivated purposes.
Recruiting foreign fighters
However, reports by watchdog organizations say the opposite. According to the HRW report, Tehran has been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in pro-regime armed groups in Syria. Moreover, the report says that Afghan refugees are forced to join the regime ranks in order to take residency papers and financial incentives in Iran. Those who refuse to fight in Syria are deported as a punishment, the report adds.
Iran claims that Turkey plays the refugee card, but what is Tehran doing to those desperate people? Forcing them to fight for political and regional goals, it seems.
Whether 3 million Afghan refugees are leaving Iran or not is not my point of focus here. But their living conditions and the way Iran handles the refugee matter, as compared to Turkey, is the issue.
As time passes, the international community is unfortunately losing interest in the refugee issue. The point is to keep this issue always in the spotlight. Needless to say, no one chooses to be a refugee, yet everyone has the potential to become a refugee one day. Approaching this issue from any other angle than the humanitarian one is a grave shame. These people, who fled their homelands with just the clothes on their back, should not be considered as a tool for political gain.
When it comes to the issue of humanitarian assistance, countries should be competing to provide the best conditions for refugees, rather than criticizing each other over the issue. Being on the right side of the history is what counts.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.