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The UK government’s support for Iranians is just lip service

The foreign secretary recently expressed concern for Iranian protestors following the murder of Mahsa Amini – but the Tories have always oppressed Iranian refugees

Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody has caused widespread outrage across Iran. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest since her death on September 16, and there are no signs of the situation quietening down.

Amnesty International report that Iranian authorities have been using tear gas, water cannons, and beatings with batons to disperse protesters, and nine people have reportedly been killed during the protests. One of the fatalities was a 16-year-old boy, who was shot dead when security forces opened fire on protesters.

UK foreign secretary James Cleverley has called for Iran to “stop the repression of voices within their own country” – the latest instalment of a long tradition of UK politicians expressing (or feigning, depending on your stance) concern for Iranians’ human rights. But any government interested in Iranians’ human rights while simultaneously building borders to keep Iranian refugees out and deporting them if they get here – in contravention of international law – has a dubious relationship to human rights at best.

When we talk about refugees in the UK, we’re often talking about Iranians – in 2021, Iran topped the list of the most common countries of nationality for those who applied for asylum, at a time in which then Home Secretary Priti Patel tried to send refugees to Rwanda, housed asylum seekers in former army barracks slammed as ‘unsafe’ and ‘squalid’ by a High Court judge, and threatened to use wave machines to stop refugees from crossing the Channel. 

29 per cent of those attempting said crossing were Iranian, and were swiftly described by Priti Patel as “single men who are effectively economic migrants” – a dog whistle which us Iranians heard. The message was a dig at Iranians’ ability to afford the costly journey to the UK, raising suspicion that such ‘wealthy’ individuals could really be refugees – with little awareness that such journeys are often funded through life savings, selling homes, wedding rings, and cars, and borrowing money from family and friends back home. And of course, Priti Patel’s argument was nonsense; anyone can be a refugee, regardless of their economic status, provided they have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution.’ 

And yet, even when Iranians do have a well-founded fear of persecution, the UK is not safe. Last June, Priti Patel tried to deport an Iranian ex-police officer who was tortured for refusing to shoot protestors, and had claimed asylum in the UK. The situation across Europe is not much better – Iranians have just a 43 per cent acceptance rate EU-wide. 

There are also scores of Iranian refugees prevented from entering the UK who don’t show up in the statistics. Many Iranians will avoid at all costs crossing the deadly Mediterranean or English Channel – perhaps remembering the entire Iranian family who died in the channel trying to reach the UK – and therefore spend years in Turkey waiting for a visa to the west, where, upon arrival in the airport, they hope to apply for asylum. Since, stringent visa requirements have rendered this pathway near impossible, with the Iranian passport ranked as 102 out of 112 in global mobility rankings. When Iranians resorted to fake Spanish passports that they disposed of upon arrival in the UK to claim asylum, they were swiftly arrested.

Few pathways are left to Iranian refugees who languish in neighbouring countries waiting for a visa or getting together the money for the journey, and yet, the tiny number of Iranians of those who do make it here are vilified – or even killed, as in the case of Bijan Ebrahimi. The irony is that refugees, Iranian or otherwise, only risk these costly and dangerous routes because there is no safe passage. If the UK didn’t invest so much money in keeping refugees out, then they wouldn't resort to smugglers or fake passports. 

One of the great contradictions of our time is that we unthinkingly accept freedom of movement for ourselves, which affords us the ability to work wherever we want, marry whomever we want, move away from home in the faith that our families will be able to visit, and obsessively pursue tourism, whilst punishing refugees for believing in the same freedom of movement for themselves, despite the fact that, unlike us, their life depends on it. 

Iran has long been a way for foreign ministers to flex their might – including Liz Truss, who cited negotiating to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anosheh Ashoori as a qualification for her bid to be PM (despite the fact that Boris Johnson’s gaffe resulted in an extended sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe). But for us Iranians, it’s an agonising wait to see how our families will be impacted by the whims of each new politico fancying their hand at international relations. 

Concerning the UK’s role vis-à-vis the protests in Iran, I have no easy answer. The UK government needs to avoid playing into hawkish and interventionist narratives on the one hand, and isolationist tendencies that would abandon Iranians on the other. Given our government’s track-record on ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the Middle East – notably Iraq and Afghanistan, which both neighbour Iran – I’m nervous that they may make a bad situation worse. 

Nonetheless, if they’re really trying to support Iranians’ human rights, let them do so with our refugee policy. Here, the matter is clear: let Iranians in, treat them better, and stop vilifying them in the press.