WASHINGTON - The overnight arrest of an outspoken Iranian women’s rights activist by Turkish authorities earlier this month has sparked concerns about the precarious lives of Iranian refugees and the alleged surveillance of them by Iranian intelligence in Turkey.
Maryam Shariatmadari was one of the “Girls of Enghelab [revolution] Street” who participated in protests against Iran’s compulsory hijab in 2017. She fled Iran and sought refuge in Turkey in 2018, a year after she was sentenced to a year in prison for “encouraging corruption by discarding her hijab in public.”
Shariatmadari was detained September 7 by the Turkish police in Denizli because of an expired residency permit, and she was transferred to migration authority officials for deportation.
Her detention caused a widespread social media campaign by several Iranian and Turkish activists who emphasized that Shariatmadari could face persecution in Iran if she were deported.
The next day, she was released on the condition that she would leave the country within 30 days.
Shariatmadari told Radio Farda that, "if there was no [social media] support, I would have been forced to sign the deportation letter, and my fate would have been unclear."
Turkey is home to Iranian political refugees who fled the regime’s repression, according to National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), a Maryland-based pro-democracy organization of Iranian Americans.
As of November 2019, about 39,000 Iranian refugees live in Turkey, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Turkey is a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees known as the Geneva Convention.
However, Turkey maintains a geographical limitation to the convention that requires it to grant refugee status only to individuals from the Council of Europe member states. By that measure, non-Europeans are not protected under international refugee law.
“Regardless of the country of origin, foreigners seeking international protection in Turkey are registered as international protection applicants,” wrote Selin Unal, the spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Turkey, in an email to VOA.
UNHCR facilitated the asylum process of Iranian applicants and their transfer to third countries until September 2018. Since then, those applications have been examined by the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM).
According to the DGMM figures, 3,588 Iranians applied for international protection in Turkey last year.
Some experts point out that Turkey’s geographical limitation to the Geneva Convention makes Iranian refugees, who are regarded as other non-Europeans seeking refuge in the country, vulnerable to living in precarious conditions.
“Lacking legal protections conferred by the refugee status, Iranians live under constant fear of deportation as their fate depends on the ups and downs of bilateral relations between Tehran and Ankara,” Aykan Erdemir, director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Turkish parliament member, told VOA.
Mentioning this month’s Turkey-Iran High-Level Cooperation Council meeting, Erdemir argues that the deepening relations between these two countries often means “greater pressure on Iranian dissidents who reside in Turkey.”
Iranian intelligence in Turkey
Besides the growing fear of deportation by Turkish authorities, Iranian refugees are deeply concerned about the regime’s alleged surveillance activities abroad via the Revolutionary Guard’s long reach.
Some analysts argue that because Iranians can travel in Turkey for 90 days without a visa, Iranian intelligence could enter Turkey to spy on the dissidents in exile.
“The lack of a visa requirement permits members of Iranian intelligence to enter Turkey using their ordinary passports instead of having to show their official ones. This enables the Quds Force, an elite foreign operations unit of the Revolutionary Guards to increase their activities in Turkey,” Savash Porgham, an Istanbul-based journalist specializing in Iranian politics, told VOA.
Raha, who declined to give her last name out of concern for her security, believes Iranian agents are spying on political refugees like her in Van, a border city with Iran.
“The fear and insecurity are growing day by day, and I can feel the shadow of plain-clothed Iranian agents over my head who wander among us in the gloomy streets of Van and do whatever they want to us from harassing to kidnapping,” Raha said.
“The strange kidnapping of [Arash] Shoa-Shargh in broad daylight is a clear proof,” she added.
Arash Shoa-Shargh is an Iranian journalist who fled Iran for Turkey after being convicted for “spreading lies and publishing without permission” in 2017.
In 2018, Shoa-Shargh was arrested in Van by Turkish intelligence agents and extradited to Iran, according to Committee to Protect Journalists reports. As of late 2019, he was detained in Lakan prison in Rasht.
In 2010, Turkey and Iran signed an agreement on legal cooperation that enables both to request extraditions.
However, many Iranian refugees in Van, like Raha, fear that Iranian intelligence was involved in Shoa-Shargh’s arrest.
Omar Minaei, 59, an Iranian Kurdish refugee from Bukan residing in Adana, shares Raha’s fears and says Iranian agents are freely operating in Turkey, intimidating, terrorizing and putting pressure on refugees without intervention from Turkish authorities.
“Turkish officials turn a blind eye usually to their presence and pretend that refugees are lying no matter what they claim. I am a victim of these threats myself, including threat phone calls and documented invasion to my residence while none of my complaints were taken serious by Turkish officials,” Minaei told VOA.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry has not responded to VOA’s request for comment on these allegations.
Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, a U.S.-based human rights activist who monitors Iranian refugees’ cases in Turkey, believes Iranian agents conduct operations aimed at refugees based on her observations.
"It is well known among Iranians that the Islamic Republic's security apparatuses have a strong presence in neighboring countries and have a pattern of interfering in the affairs of other countries, including Turkey and Syria," she said.
Vahid Yucesoy, a researcher on Iran and Turkey at the University of Montreal, also claims that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been active on Turkish soil and even have plans to kidnap Iranian activists in exile, referring to the case of Masih Alinejad, who alleged that Iran's Revolutionary Guards forces plotted her kidnap from Turkey.
In July, Masih Alinejad, a New York-based human rights activist and host of VOA Persian’s Tablet show, alleged that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were trying to exert pressure on her family to lure her to Turkey in order to kidnap and return her to Iran.
“So, for the Revolutionary Guards to make a plan of that sort as if things will go swimmingly, I think it is testimony to the fact that they are not scared of Turkish authorities. On the contrary, they believe that there will be no obstacle to their idea of kidnapping Iranian nationals to Iran,” Yucesoy told VOA.