For Iranian Christian refugees, limbo in Turkey can lead to danger

For Iranian Christian refugees, limbo in Turkey can lead to danger

This article was written by Mindy Belz, senior editor at WORLD Magazine. It was first published on the WORLD website on 11 March, under the headline “Waiting in a risky place”, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

Waiting in a risky place
Asylum-seekers wait behind razor wire in a buffer zone between border gates in March 2020 as they seek to leave Turkey and enter Greece. (Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Esmaeil Falahati is no stranger to police raids. Plainclothes intelligence agents arrested the Muslim convert to Christianity in 2015 while he was leading a house-church service in Iran in the garden of a fellow believer. The agents flattened to the ground the home’s owner and put a gun to his throat. They arrested Esmaeil and five others, searching his home and seizing his Bibles and other belongings.

For five years now, Esmaeil has lived as a refugee with his family in Turkey. They have settled into a residential apartment building in an ancient city outside Ankara. But they thought of it as a safe haven, not where Esmaeil expected to be arrested again by security officers.

Turkey throughout the winter months has been under a strict coronavirus lockdown, with dusk-to-dawn curfews nationwide, plus restrictions by age: Older residents are permitted outdoors only during morning hours, while those under age 20 may be outdoors in specified afternoon hours. Only grocery stores and essential businesses have been allowed to open with limits on public transport and gatherings.

Esmaeil, a 41-year-old who is part of a Farsi-speaking church operated by the International Protestant Church of Ankara, was spending most of his time at home with his family when immigration officers summoned him to appear before them and bring his family on 25 January. 

When he showed up at the immigration office with his wife Sara and two children—a 12-year-old son and six-year-old daughter—security officers arrested the whole family on the spot. The officers told Esmaeil his family would be deported. Esmaeil protested. He’d received no deportation letter, and he knew the sudden roundup was against Turkish law and international treaties. 

After two hours of wrangling and paperwork, the officers transported the family to one of dozens of migrant detention centres scattered throughout Turkey. Esmaeil’s children perhaps comprehended more from the tense discussion than their parents because they know Turkish better, and they began to cry. They were entering a camp for deportation processing, to be sent back to Iran, where their father would likely face more time in prison, or maybe even death.

Esmaeil Falahati in Turkey (Photo by Farivar Hamzeyi)

THE TURKISH government is the reluctant but opportunistic caretaker to the largest concentration of refugees in the world. More than 3.6 million people fleeing their own countries in search of asylum now live within Turkey’s borders. Esmaeil’s case shows how the fates of individual asylum-seekers—often Christians—have become subject to Turkish officials sometimes unsympathetic with their plight. More broadly, cases like his illustrate the repercussions of the United States and European Union largely closing their borders to refugees seeking safe harbour.

The rise of Islamic terror groups, wars in neighbouring countries, and a strategic location straddling Asia and Europe all make Turkey a likely first stopping point to seek asylum. That’s particularly true for fleeing Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, North Africans, and Iranians like Esmaeil. 

After Iranian agents arrested Esmaeil in 2015, officials charged him and others attending the garden service with “propaganda against the regime” and disrupting public security. Authorities sent him to Evin Prison, the well-known compound for political prisoners outside Tehran. For 33 days they held him in solitary confinement in Ward 209, a shadow ward within Evin that Iran’s intelligence ministry runs off the books, where many Christians have been jailed and many have disappeared. After a month, though, Esmaeil went free after posting bail set at $25,000. He and his family, along with other relatives, fled the country after his interrogators told him he would be harmed “in an irreversible way”. After he departed, the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Esmaeil “for taking action against national security”, a sentence that still hangs over him.

Reaching Turkey, Esmaeil followed the formal guidelines to request asylum for his family through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). But in 2018 the agency turned over all refugee vetting to Turkish immigration authorities. The processing, say lawyers and advocates I spoke to, has been uneven and opaque ever since. 

Local officers now handling cases like his look unfavourably on a Muslim convert to Christianity. His filings to be resettled in another country had gone nowhere, until he received notice he might be deported. 

En route to the camp, Esmaeil phoned relatives and friends who work in Turkey, asking them to pray for his family. At the detention centre, the family went through processing, including health checkups at the camp’s hospital. Then officials served Esmaeil and his wife deportation papers. They told them to sign the papers, which they did. Esmaeil explained they signed the documents to show they were challenging the deportation, and feared they could be deported without documents if they refused. Still, they worried a forced departure was imminent. The children, he said, were distraught, afraid of being separated from their parents.

Esmaeil and Sarah Falahati with their two children, Daniel and Hannah (Photo by Farivar Hamzeyi)

The next thing that happened, Esmaeil told me, was “a miracle”. An argument broke out among the officers about what to do with the family. When it ended, they ordered Esmaeil, with his stack of papers in hand, to take his family and return to his home in Turkey.

“Being released so soon was good news for all of us,” said Salih Efe, the lawyer representing Esmaeil in filing an appeal to the deportation orders. But his file “was closed based on some strange procedural rules”. The appeals process stops imminent removal. 

The family’s release has not ended their ordeal. Esmaeil continues to work with the community of Iranian Christians living in Ankara and elsewhere through the International Protestant Church. Every day, the prospect of being sent back to Iran weighs on him. His travels now even inside Turkey are restricted and monitored. He has to report to authorities regularly, and if he is stopped without identity papers, officials could deport him immediately. 

“There are many refugees in Turkey who face a similar situation,” Esmaeil told me by phone, “A lot of refugees have called to say, ‘We are all afraid. If they are treating you this way, then how might they treat us?’”

“The vast majority of refugees in recent years, 85 per cent, are hosted in developing regions and countries ill-equipped to handle them.”

THE 1951 REFUGEE Convention forms the legal foundation for protecting refugees. It established under international law the non-refoulement principle—that governments should not return refugees to countries where they face serious threats to life or freedom.

Working in the aftermath of World War II, the UN established its own agency under the convention (ratified by 145 countries) to register asylum-seekers in the first country outside their own that they reach. It’s up to individual nations to accept refugees and establish their own protocols for who qualifies for admission. 

Turkey has ratified the convention, but as its refugee crisis mounted, it resisted working with the UN, first blocking international access to refugee camps then refusing to cooperate in processing resettlement claims. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly demands funding and other concessions to manage refugees, threatening to release them to Europe, most recently as the COVID-19 crisis began a year ago.

As tensions mounted, the UNHCR in 2018 passed responsibility for vetting asylum-seekers to Turkey. Determining the status of cases like Esmaeil’s became the responsibility of local Turkish immigration authorities. Once deportation notices are issued, the only recourse a refugee has is to hire a lawyer and file a claim in court. 

“It’s really left up to the individual handling each case for personal assessment, even sometimes to the interpreter in each case,” said Rob Duncan, regional manager of Middle East Concern, a Christian advocacy group. “Lawyers say they are seeing immigration authorities rejecting 90 per cent of cases. They are not looking at the validity but responding on a personal basis.”

Mr Duncan said his group is tracking multiple cases like Esmaeil’s. Some end up with good outcomes, he said, but not all. There’s also a growing indication of cooperation between Turkish and Iranian intelligence officials, he said. The Iran regime’s harassment of Iranians who already have fled the country was highlighted by a UN representative along with other monitors at last year’s UN Human Rights Council gathering in Geneva.

“I want to come out of this dark tunnel and go somewhere safe,” said Esmaeil. “Turkey is not safe for me. Those who are ministers of the Lord here are not wanted.”

Akcakale tent camp in Turkey. (Mehmet Kacmaz/NarPhotos/Redux)

OF 80 MILLION people displaced from their homes worldwide, 1.4 million are classified by the UN as in “urgent need” of resettlement. 

Those cases should be prioritised, said Chris Boian, spokesman for the UNHCR. They include someone like Esmaeil, who has a demonstrated risk of imprisonment for his beliefs if he returns to Tehran, and now faces threats in Turkey.

The reality, though, said Mr Boian, is “there are far more refugees in the world at this moment who need resettlement than there are places being made available for them”.

European countries began turning away refugees soon after a migrant crisis—sparked largely by war in Syria—drove more than 1.3 million refugees to EU countries in 2015. By March 2016 the EU reached an agreement with Turkey aimed at stopping the flow. 

The Europeans agreed to pay Turkey millions of dollars in aid in exchange for its pledge to halt “irregular” migrants taking dangerous boat journeys to Greece. And it paid $3 billion toward Turkey building detention centres and camps like the one where the Falahati family was detained.

The 2016 agreement fundamentally reshaped refugee resettlement. Just 10 months later, President Donald Trump suspended refugee resettlement to the United States. 

Both moves—made in response to fears that refugees posed economic and terrorist threats—left refugees in limbo in places like Turkey. The Istanbul Bar Association says it has received hundreds of complaints from Syrian refugees forced, like Esmaeil, to sign deportation papers.

“The vast majority of refugees in recent years, 85 per cent, are hosted in developing regions and countries ill-equipped to handle them,” said Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the Trump administration. 

Ms Neumann left DHS in 2020 because of what she describes as flaws in the Trump administration’s approach to refugees. She told a US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) hearing on 10 February that secure processing and resettlement of refugees is crucial to global stability and US national security. 

“Despite recent rhetoric, refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals who come to the United States, but we have to move faster,” Ms Neumann said at the hearing. “The sometimes decade-long wait for resettlement is not only inhumane, but it increases an individual’s susceptibility to being radicalised.”

A refugee camp site in Nizip district of Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey. (Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Starting with a 4 February executive order overturning many of Trump’s halts to refugee processing, the Biden administration has pledged to rebuild and expand the US programme. That includes enhanced vetting and fraud detection for individuals, along with broadening ties to communities, many of them church-based networks, that work with resettlement agencies.

Biden plans to “significantly increase” refugee resettlement in the United States over the next four years, and in February announced he would raise the refugee cap to 62,500 for the current fiscal year. That is still below the historic average of 95,000 per year, but it far surpasses the 11,814 refugees the Trump administration admitted in fiscal year 2020, a record low. Biden plans to raise the cap to 125,000 by 2022.

Biden will need Congress to approve those annual limits, along with the federal funding needed to expand the programme. Under Trump, more than one-third of US refugee resettlement offices closed, with hundreds of workers let go.

Persecuted religious minorities, meanwhile, have suffered from the US drop in resettlement, according to a report released last year by World Relief and Open Doors. Fewer than 950 Christians from 50 countries ranked for severe persecution were granted admission into the United States during the first six months of 2020—a 90 per cent drop from five years ago.

Those declines leave many in the same predicament as Esmaeil. Over time, Biden’s refugee policy announcement could help to open doors for him and others not only in the United States but in other countries who follow its lead, said UNHCR spokesman Chris Boian. “Those refugees already vetted by the US government will benefit in big ways, but addressing the refugee situation around the world is no single country’s responsibility.”

For now, refugees in Turkey fear no one is looking out for them outside Turkey. Esmaeil believes the UNHCR “has no concern for our case”, and Middle East Concern’s Rob Duncan said refugees fear the “UNHCR has more or less given up monitoring cases in Turkey”.

Chris Boian and others at the UNHCR did not respond to a question about whether they continue to monitor refugees in Turkey who are registered with the agency.

For Esmaeil’s children, the trip to the detention camp was traumatising, refreshing memories of their father being seized in Iran. His son has been locking the doors at their house before going to sleep, and his daughter has wet herself several times since the January incident.

COVID-19 restrictions are compounding Turkey’s own shutdown of refugee processing. Embassies in Turkey aren’t processing asylum claims, and consular services are restricted. Two church organisations in Turkey have written letters endorsing the family’s court claims, but Esmaeil knows it will require patience to resolve his status through the courts. 

A month after his family’s brief detention, I asked him how he felt about his future. It’s natural to worry, he responded, “but worries and stress can make us slow and cold and faithless. I can say I have worries, but what rules in me is the goodness of God, is hope in Jesus Christ, is knowing that the Lord wants what’s best for us—even if the results are scary, hard, and what I and my family don’t want.”

His refugee status does not allow him to work apart from ministry in the Ankara church, and his family has no income apart from donations. “We don’t have the power to do anything for ourselves,” he said. “We hope and pray and wait for the Lord to make a way for us.”

Esmaeil Falahati: In his own words

I am Esmaeil Falahati. I was born in Tehran, Iran. My father was a teacher, and my mother had home duties. I was the only son, and I have four sisters. My family was somewhat religious, but not strictly observant. We followed Shi’a Islam, but were not very strict. The five of us children were taught the main requirements of obedience to Islam, and two of my sisters later became more devoted.

Esmaeil Falahati (Photo by Farivar Hamzeyi)

I received a diploma in electronics and used to have an electronics shop. I was involved in competitive bodybuilding, and took drugs and dietary supplements that damaged my liver. I was very ill for a long time and lost a lot of weight. I had to close the electronics shop and stayed home for a year due to sickness. I was also diagnosed with clinical depression.

In the summer of 2002 as I was about to be hospitalised, one of my former customers asked for my help. She asked me what had happened, and I began to explain. She said I looked like I was dying, and I needed to be brought back to life. She told me she was a Christian and shared the gospel with me. She explained that I need to accept God’s free gift of forgiveness and His salvation. She said God has shown His love for me in Christ’s death on the cross. I said I was not a sinner and did not need to repent. I argued with her and told her I was OK.

But in the hospital under psychiatric treatment, I could see my situation getting worse. I had terrible nightmares. Night after night I saw myself naked in my dreams, and many people were looking at and mocking me because I had no clothes. I contacted the Christian woman again. She invited me to church. 

It was a Christmas service. I prayed to Jesus and said, “Jesus, if you are real, heal me and give me life. If you are the Son of God, bring me back to life or kill me.” Then I went home.

For a while I had no more contact with that woman, but my terrible nightmares stopped. My hatred left me, and I was filled with love for my family and others around me. I was changed. I was able to restart my business and my customers came back. I got my life back. It felt like all the lights had been switched on after being in darkness for a long time. 

I was in awe of the power of God and decided to give my life to Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. I knew this meant that I was choosing to reject Islam, my inherited religion. At 3am I called the Christian woman who had witnessed to me and told her I wanted to join her church. I began to attend the Assemblies of God Jama’at-e Rabbani Church in Tehran. 

When my family found out that I had become a Christian, my father told me to leave home. He said I could accept anything except Jesus. Three years later, one of my sisters, a strict follower of Islam, gave her life to Jesus after having dreams about Him. She was the first of the members of my family to follow me into the Christian faith. Three of my four sisters and my mother became Christians. My mother has since passed away. My father has also passed away, and I believe he accepted Christ as his Saviour and Lord before he died.

But I needed to learn more about Jesus, so I started studying Christian theology at a Bible institute from 2002 to 2005. I was baptised in October 2005. I was serving young people at a house-church when I met my wife and we got married. Now we have been married for 15 years and we have two children.

After our marriage, my wife and I started teaching full-time at house-churches in Iran. I became a house-church leader. This was from 2006 to 2015. I was responsible for many disciples. 

On 7 August 2015, we were praying in a garden of a home in western Tehran: I was with my family and also 30 other believers. Suddenly we were attacked by plainclothes men from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). We were all arrested and questioned for three hours. Our house was searched, our Bibles and other Christian items were seized. I, together with the owner of the garden and two other older believers, were transferred to Evin Prison where I spent 33 days in solitary confinement. I was tortured and questioned about my Christian activities and Bible preaching. In prison I did not betray any of my Christian contacts. Almost all of our fellow believers cut off contact with me and my wife. They were afraid.

While I was in prison, my family was questioned and subjected to incredible pressure to provide evidence against me. During my 33 days in prison, I lost 35 kilos (77 pounds) and suffered many physical problems, such as bleeding, a urinary infection, and a tooth infection.

Forty days after being released from prison I fled to Armenia and about one month later came to Turkey. We felt very isolated and alone. All of those who had been with me in the garden at the time of arrest had cut themselves off from me. It took me about eight months to recover mentally and physically from the time in prison. 

In Turkey I got to know an Iranian-Canadian pastor who was in charge of the Persian language department of a foreign university. My wife and I studied Christian theology and apologetics there for one year. It was as if the Lord was reviving us for a new season in our lives. 

I was able to reconnect with believers back in Iran. Seeing that Jesus was being glorified again in my life and through my faith in prison encouraged those who had abandoned me. Like the Great Shepherd Jesus, with open arms I accepted back the flock which was being entrusted to me again. Their numbers in Iran were increasing every day. Underground services in Iran began again through Skype and later through Zoom. 

When I was released from prison in Iran, at first I thought that my ministry was over. The authorities took from us our lives, business, and our money. They made us flee from our country. But Jesus had a greater plan for me: a wider service and a deeper knowledge of His grace.

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