SYDNEY — Three days after being released from a week’s detention for attending a pro-democracy rally last March in his native Iran, Ahmad made up his mind to flee. A close friend who had taken part in the same demonstration had disappeared into Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, and a phone call from someone claiming to be from the security services led Ahmad to believe he might be next.
Ahmad, 23, who asked that his full name not be used to protect relatives in Iran, said he knew what such attention from the security services could mean. He said his brother, while a student, had been executed in 1996 as a suspected member of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, an organization that has advocated the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
And so Ahmad took his other brother’s passport and hopped on a plane for Malaysia. Three days and $12,000 later, he was on a boat heading toward Australia.
And that, he said, is where the trouble really started.
“I thought I would die,” he said, recounting being shoved into the hull of a rickety boat pitching and yawing in the rough sea between Indonesia and northern Australia — a route favored by human smugglers. More than 150 people were packed so tightly that they could barely move, even when sleeping.
Ahmad is part of a recent upsurge in Iranian refugees who have braved that crossing in the past couple of years, often in rickety fishing boats, in hopes of receiving asylum. And like so many other migrants, he was met not with open arms but with a lengthy detention — in his case 214 days at a camp in the parched Western Australian desert — while the Australian authorities tried to figure out what to do with him.
It is no secret that Australia has an immigration problem. Successive governments going back to Prime Minister John Howard in the 1990s have struggled to deter asylum seekers flocking to its shores. In October, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that she was abandoning her government’s controversial plans to ship asylum seekers to Malaysia as part of a refugee swap deal meant to discourage human smugglers like the ones who brought Ahmad when it became clear that she lacked the parliamentary votes to override a High Court decision ruling the deal illegal.
Less clear, however, is why Iranians have suddenly become the No. 1 nationality seeking asylum in Australia after arriving by boat. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 953 Iranian migrants arrived by boat this year by Oct. 17 — pulling ahead of refugees from conflict-ridden Afghanistan and Iraq. More than a thousand Iranians arrived last year, a steep jump from just 72 in 2009.
The journey for migrants from Iran to Australia is long, expensive and dangerous. Officials said this month that all eight people who drowned when an Australia-bound boat of asylum seekers capsized in Indonesian waters were Iranian.
Unlike Afghans, who until recently made up the largest group of asylum seekers and are mostly rural villagers, the recent Iranian arrivals tend to be well-educated, often secular or Christian and uncomfortable in a politically restrictive, theocratic Muslim state.
“The only reason they are putting their lives in such a huge danger to come through the boats or through the ocean or whatever is just because of the shocking situation in Iran,” said Nicky Danesh, a refugee and women’s rights activist who fled Iran for Europe with her family shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Siamak Ghahreman, the chairman of the Iranian Community Association in Sydney, who walked out of Iran through the mountains into Turkey more than 30 years ago said: “It’s out of desperation, not luxury. It’s not like ‘Let’s go live in Australia for a change.’ It’s so dangerous that they will take the risk of coming to Australia by boat instead of living in Iran.”
Australia’s numbers reflect an international increase in Iranians seeking refugee status. This year, for the first time since 2006, they have ranked in the top five countries producing asylum globally, according to a recent report by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“As the asylum trends report notes, there has been a large increase in Iranian asylum-seekers looking for protection in industrialized countries around the world, and the increase in Iranian arrivals in Australia is broadly in line with this trend,” the U.N. agency’s Canberra spokesman, Ben Farrell, said in an e-mail.
Australia’s distance and the associated hazards of trying to reach it by boat might seem to make it an odd place to seek asylum. Indeed, more Iranian refugees head for the United States and the European Union.
Ali Azari, a former professional weightlifter from Tehran and member of the 1992 Iranian Olympic team, made the boat journey to Australia with his infant daughter and wife in 2000. The three spent 10 months in the same detention center as Ahmad before being granted refugee status.
Although he says he could “write a book about everything that’s wrong with Iran,” he would not recommend that other Iranians take the journey he did. He says he has told friends back in Iran that it’s too dangerous, and he does not know why so many more people are now taking the risk.
The Australian government seems to be wondering the same thing.
Without that answer it has struggled to cope with asylum seekers who, unlike many of the other migrants they have dealt with, often are English-speaking professionals with a strong sense of their rights.
Some immigration officials have accused Iranians whose asylum applications were rejected of instigating riots this year at the Christmas Island and Villawood detention centers. During a recent parliamentary inquiry, Andrew Metcalfe, the Immigration and Citizenship Department secretary, accused Iranian detainees of “contumacious behavior, willful disobedience.”
A spokesman for Chris Bowen, the immigration minister, wrote in an e-mail, on customary condition of anonymity, that “there are a large number of people from Iran in our immigration detention centers, and the overwhelming majority of them are well-behaved.”
Still, the spokesman said in a later interview, there is little consensus on how to deal with this particular refugee population. Not all the Iranians can document a case for refugee status, like a well-substantiated fear of persecution. But they cannot be forcibly returned to Iran, which has notified the Australian government that it will not accept the involuntary repatriation of its citizens who have sought asylum elsewhere.
“The Afghan people, we see why they are leaving — because of the war,” said Ahmad, who has been granted permanent residency. “It is the same for the Iraqis. But in Iran it is a silent war that the people are living under. A silent war between the people and the government, and no one understands what it is like to live in Iran.”
Would he still leave Iran if he had it to do over again? Yes, he said after a long pause.
But would he recommend coming to Australia?
“No,” he said. “I would tell them to go to Europe. It is much safer.”
By MATT SIEGEL
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