29 January 2010
Iranians fleeing the Tehran government’s crackdown on its opponents are increasingly seeking refuge in Turkey. Months of continuing political instability in Iran and the lack of visa requirements in Turkey are turning the country into a sanctuary for those trying to escape Iran’s political crisis.
The twice weekly train from Tehran draws into Istanbul’s Haydarpasha station. Spilling from the passenger cars, a steady trickle of Iranians fleeing the sometimes violent crackdown by Iranian authorities. Whether its by plane, train or coach, Iranians are fleeing their country in growing numbers.
One of the latest arrivals is 29-year-old photo journalist Nima Ezapou. He escaped Tehran using pedal power.
I fled Tehran on my bicycle he says, after hearing that his friend had been taken into custody by authorities. He says he knew his friend would probably be tortured and given his name to authorities. So he fled, he says, and when he got close to the turkish frontier, took a train across the border.
Ezapou’s story is increasingly common, observers say.
Turkey shares a long border with Iran and doesn’t require Iranians to have a visa, a fact that has made Turkey the first port of call for those seeking sanctuary from what they describe as fear of persecution by Iran’s government.
But only a few find permanent sanctuary. Under Turkish law only Europeans can claim refugee status. Most Iranian exiles are now looking to other countries for help.
One woman who worked as a journalist in Iran, but was afraid to allow her name to be used, says she was part of the underground Iranian opposition media. Despite having to flee her country with her husband, she says she has no regrets.
We weren’t political journalists, she says, but after the elections the situation changed a lot. She says anyone with a conscience would have reflected on what’s happening. We saw this as our duty, she says. So the reports became political, and we started writing for web and blog sites, and that put us in great danger.
But for Iranians who support the opposition or oppose the Tehran government, being in Turkey who does not guarantee safety and some Turkish human right groups say Iranian agents are now intimidating the refugees. British journalist Robert Tait who covers Iran from Turkey for the British newspaper The Guardian, describes the allegations.
“There are numerous tales of Iranian refugees who’ve fled post election violence, having being harassed and assaulted here in Turkey,” said Robert Tait.
The Turkish government denies such accusations. But reports in the Turkish media, of Iranian refugees being attacked continue to grow, with no arrests so far.
But for photo journalist Ezapou such intimidation has done little to undermine his convictions. He says he is looking forward to going back to rejoin the struggle for democracy in Iran.
There is a continuity to this movement he says, whether fast or slow, it definitely will continue…I will go back to Iran, he says, I have a small role to play. He says it is his duty to he country, where people want freedom and peace.
Analysts say the growing number of Iranians seeking refuge in Turkey is an embarrassment to Turkish leaders, who have been courting the Iranian leadership. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate President Ahmadinejad on his controversial election victory last year. But, analysts point out there are other pressures, including the fact that Ankara wants closer ties and eventual membership in the European Union, which will be watching Turkey’s treatment of Iranians who flee repression at home.