In May, 25-year-old Ako sat in a hospital room next to his friend Behzad Mahmoudi, who was wrapped head to toe in bandages.
Behzad, an Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker, had set himself on fire outside the United Nations’ headquarters in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq. He was protesting his desperate living conditions and what he saw as neglect by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.
“Behzad was crying,” Ako – also an Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker – recalled in Erbil last week, speaking under a pseudonym. “He said, ‘I really didn’t want to end my life like this. I wanted to live, but it just happened’.”
Behzad died days later. Soon afterwards, Ako sewed his mouth shut for four days, in another protest over the conditions endured by Iranian Kurds in the Kurdistan Region. Unable to return to Iran after taking part in anti-government demonstrations, he cannot find enough work to afford rent.
“I just want to leave Iraqi Kurdistan,” he says. “I don’t care where I go, I just want to get away from this risky life.”
Behzad’s harrowing act – and Ako’s ongoing despair – draw attention to the longstanding marginalisation of Iranian Kurds in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Ignored by their hosts and the international community amid other displacements in Iraq and Syria over the past decade, they are never far from the long arm of Tehran.
In a series of interviews with 20 Iranian Kurdish asylum seekers and migrants, Iranian Kurdish opposition party officials and human rights activists, two Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers, and representatives of stakeholder agencies like UNHCR, The Independent uncovered a limbo-like status quo for people fleeing Iran into the Kurdistan Region, where they eke out tenuous existences. Poverty, ill-treatment and deportation are constant threats.
Of around 40 million Kurds living in the Middle East, an estimated 10 million live in Iran. Most are in the mountainous areas of the country’s western provinces, known to Kurds as “Rojhelat”.
Fleeing political threats and worsening economic conditions in Iran, more than 10,000 Iranian Kurds are registered as refugees in the Kurdistan Region, according to UNHCR statistics. There are more without any legal status. They live mainly in refugee camps or the major cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, where they enjoy few rights, and have trouble finding stable jobs and housing. With little hope of either gaining Iraqi citizenship or being resettled in a third country, many are rendered effectively stateless. They often fear leaving their homes, frightened of arrest or harassment by the local security forces.
Despite these challenges, more arrive all the time.
“People [in Iran] are all hungry, have no jobs and no money,” says 28-year-old Azad, sitting on the floor of his brother’s house in a poor district of Erbil. He crossed from Iran into the Kurdistan Region illegally in April last year. “I was thinking that the situation would get better [in Iran], but it did not, so I had no other choice and came here.”
When he can find work, Azad – not his real name – now earns 15,000-20,000 Iraqi dinars (£7.40-£9.90) for 12 hours of manual labour. He says the money is not much better than what he might earn in Iran. But he clings to hopes of building a better life for his five-year-old daughter. “I really want to make a future for her, so she does not remain in Iran and have the same future as mine.”
While Azad has been in the Kurdistan Region for just a short time, Husein Karimi, 52, fled Iran the year after the 1979 revolution. He has been in Iraq ever since. His situation is not unusual. Many Iranian Kurds have spent decades displaced from their homeland. Because the Kurdistan Region does not have the powers of a state, it cannot grant citizenship. Instead, Iranian Kurds here rely on residency permits that must be renewed in a drawn-out and bureaucratic process every 6 to 12 months. The permits do not allow travel outside the semi-autonomous region nor do they guarantee unhindered passage through internal checkpoints. They cannot register businesses, cars, or mobile phone numbers under their own names.
“Now our children question us about their future: ‘How many years should we wait for change? What about our future?’,” Karimi says from his home in the Barika refugee camp outside Sulaymaniyah. “It’s very scary. Why were they born into this condition?”
Some of them, like Behzad, are driven to despair by financial woes. There are other dangers too. In Iraq’s southern governorates, Iran-backed militias are suspected of responsibility for dozens of kidnappings and assassinations of activists. But very real threats exist for Tehran’s critics in the Kurdistan Region as well.
Over the past year alone, multiple political activists have been killed in suspicious circumstances. This month, Musa Babakhani, a senior official in an Iranian Kurdish political party that opposes the government in Tehran, was found dead in an Erbil hotel. “Musa was very active in contact with civil society in Kermanshah [in Iran] – the most sensitive region for the regime,” a former associate of Babakhani tells The Independent on condition of anonymity. In a separate incident, a member of another Iranian Kurdish opposition party was shot dead outside Sulaymaniyah a few weeks earlier. Tehran describes Iranian opposition groups based in the Kurdistan Region as terrorist organisations. The groups have armed wings, with fighters who sometimes operate in Iranian territory.
Other Iranian Kurds in the Kurdistan Region have no connection with the opposition parties, but still feel Tehran’s influence on this side of the border. A journalist and human rights advocate, Mohammed Amini, 38, was forced to flee Iran in 2007 after receiving threats from the security forces, and settled in Sulaymaniyah.
“Here we are at risk. The security forces of Iran pressure us, threaten us, and [Iraqi] Kurdistan is not a safe place for us. When we go to a third country, we can live in a safe place,” he adds.
He does not have an Iranian passport, so his main form of identification is his UNHCR card. It is currently expired because the local UNHCR office suspended renewals during the Covid-19 pandemic and is only now slowly beginning to wade through the backlog. Like others, renewal of his residency permit is never guaranteed, mostly dependent on whether he can find stable work in a faltering economy.
“It’s really stressful. We’re stressed all the time,” he says. “We cannot go anywhere. We cannot register anything under our names. The future of our children here is not clear. We fear for their future.”
Many Iranian Kurdish asylum seekers say they feel abandoned. They see the relevant governments and international agencies as uninterested and unwilling to meet their responsibilities, either because of pressure from Tehran or bureaucratic inertia.
In an interview in Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdish MP Rezan Sheikh Dler says that “neither the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] nor the [Iraqi] federal government cares.” Several pieces of draft legislation related to refugees have been proposed since 2014, but stalled before they reached a vote in parliament.
She sees pressure from Iran on Erbil and Baghdad as a major obstacle. “The [KRG] was afraid of Iran and was unable to do anything for the refugees due to [them] being political,” Sheikh Dler says. “After 2003, the Iraqi government had more political affiliations with Iran, even worse than Kurdistan, which is why we could never make a law for them.” The KRG and the Ministry of Displacement and Migration in Baghdad did not reply to requests for comment.
With local governments turning a blind eye, interviewees widely report receiving little UNHCR support, either. “UNHCR just says, ‘Take care of yourself, be careful’,” says Ako, the man who sewed his lips together in protest. He has not been given any food or money by the UN agency, he says, although has received some medical treatment.
The Kurdistan Region currently also hosts nearly a million other internally displaced Iraqis and refugees, including Syrians, Turks, and Palestinians, according to the latest government figures.
A UNHCR Iraq spokesperson says that pandemic-related restrictions had caused “unavoidable delays” to ID registration and renewal processes, and that the global economic downturn had impacted donor countries’ ability to provide funding worldwide, including to Iraq.
After the self-immolation earlier this year, “the UNHCR has strengthened its dialogue with representatives of the community on substantive issues and our door remains open for all refugees and asylum-seekers in Iraq,” the spokesperson adds.
Like many others, Zolaikha Mohamadi, a 44-year-old who has been in the Kurdistan Region since 2002, hoped to settle in a third country. But the dream had tragic results for her family. Her husband, Mehdi Mawali, attempted to travel to Europe as an irregular migrant in 2018. But was arrested at the Turkish border with Greece and deported back to Iran, where he was imprisoned for nine months because of his affiliation with a Kurdish opposition party.
Released from custody, he died of a stroke six months later. Zolaikha has not been able to return to visit his grave.
“If you filled all your notebooks, it wouldn’t be enough to document our problems,” she says.
If he can make enough money to survive, Azad, the day labourer, will bring his wife and daughter to the Kurdistan Region. But he is also homesick. “I was very happy that I could get out of there and come here,” he says. “But we miss our homeland. I truly miss Iran now.”
Translations by Khushgul Sultani, Kanyaw Abubakr, and an anonymous interpreter in Erbil
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies