How Britain’s broken asylum system props up the Iranian government
Exclusive: Iran’s leaders use the UK’s increasingly hostile asylum policies to warn political refugees against fleeing
“I disobeyed their cruel order,” said Majid Hamidi*. “Because of the love I have for my people, I would not make the police forces under my command slaughter protesters.”
Hamidi, a former police major, fled Iran fearing for his life after refusing to suppress demonstrations against fuel price rises in 2019. He initially hoped to stay in Turkey, but was found and harassed by Iranian intelligence agents, eventually feeling “forced” to flee to Britain.
But after a traumatic voyage across the English Channel in May last year, where his sinking dinghy was rescued by the Royal Navy, Hamidi received a very different welcome than the one he expected as a political refugee.
He was held for 38 fraught days in Brook House Immigration Removal Centre at Gatwick Airport, a detention facility privately run on behalf of the UK Home Office. Here, Hamidi lived in constant fear of deportation and said he faced “many hardships” at the hands of staff.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Immigration officials, he says, treated him with intense suspicion and hostility, dismissing accounts of his loved ones’ persecution back home as “nonsense” and telling him to stop “lying”.
Today, Hamidi is living in a hotel run by Home Office contractors. He is one of several thousand Iranians languishing in Britain’s broken asylum system, plagued by a record backlog of 160,000 cases, as well as unsafe housing and shocking abuse of migrants.
Though a variety of trigger factors bring Iranian refugees to Britain, one thing unites them: all have fled one of the world’s most brutal and repressive regimes.
Recent months have seen some of the most intense and violent demonstrations in Iran for decades, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in September. As of 15 January, at least 522 protesters have been killed since the start of the unrest, according to the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency.
In December, Rishi Sunak told a parliamentary committee: “We stand very much with the people of Iran”, vowing focus on the regime’s “‘abhorrent” behaviour.
But Hamidi’s experience stands in stark contrast to the prime minister’s claims. “The UK government claims they support the Iranian people, but I put mine and my family’s lives in danger so that no protester even got a bloody nose,” he told openDemocracy. “I sacrificed myself.”
Clearly, there is a disconnect.
Yes, it's safe. Yes, it's alive. But it is not living
Amid continuing instability in Iran, protesters face bloody reprisals, lengthy prison sentences, torture and execution. This will likely force more Iranians to flee. If they reach Britain, most will be granted asylum, but only after spending months or even years in a devastating limbo.
“I feel like a fish in a glass of water,” says Ali Tamarkhani, an astrophysicist seeking asylum in the UK. “Yes, it's safe. Yes, it's alive. But it is not living.”
Having escaped religious persecution in Iran, Tamarkhani says the “hardest part” of waiting 19 months for a decision about his asylum claim is there is “absolutely nothing” to do except “waste time”.
Government rules mean Tamarkhani cannot work. He has been allocated a tiny room, and survives on just £8.24 a week, not even enough “to go out or buy a book”.
Whenever he contacts the Home Office for information about the progress of his asylum request, Tamarkhani is told “sorry, we cannot tell you”, if he receives a reply at all. He tries to keep cheerful, though points out “you will find lots of asylum seekers with mental problems”.
The dismal situation faced by Hamidi, Tamarkhani and countless others is not lost on the Iranian authorities.
British-Iranian immigration and asylum lawyer Kaweh Beheshtizadeh told openDemocracy the “sad reality” of the UK’s asylum system is it actually strengthens the Iranian regime.
Indeed, the Islamic Republic is emboldened to act more violently, secure in the knowledge its opponents have few escape options.
“The authorities use what happens to asylum seekers in the UK to make people inside the country shut up and not protest because the alternative is reaching Europe, wasting years of your life and ending up severely depressed,” he says.
“Every dictator looks at their people and asks if they have a choice to go to a country like the UK and claim asylum, or if they are forced to stay.”
The regime’s cynical logic is only reinforced by British ministers’ oft-repeated pledges to crack down on what they call “illegal migration”, plus the controversial plan to send asylum seekers for offshore processing in Rwanda.
This week, the government announced plans to deport every asylum seeker who crosses the Channel to a third country and ban them from ever returning to Britain. Beheshtizadeh blasted the contentious plans, saying they “will never work”.
“The UK government must first withdraw from both [the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights] before they can even try it. It’s unworkable, immoral, inhumane, expensive and frankly absurd,” he said.
But Iranian officials have claimed such policies show how unsafe it is to seek asylum in Britain. Last June, Saeed Khatibzade, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, said: “What is happening is a historical shame for England and all those who have devoted their efforts to cover up and purify their colonial history.”
He added: “Deporting people to third countries is a dangerous procedure that will destroy the international refugee protection regime.”
Immigration lawyer Beheshtizadeh believes the situation in Britain has become “laughable”, saying it is “so embarrassing that even the Iranian authorities were condemning the policy as inhuman”.
The UK government’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda has been delayed after the High Court granted a group of asylum seekers permission to appeal. But if it goes ahead, there are fears that political refugees could be targeted in the central African country by Iran’s powerful security forces.
“What protection is there in Rwanda?” asks Shiva Mahbobi, spokeswoman for the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran (CFPPI). “How can the Rwandan or British government keep people safe? In reality, they can’t. It's impossible.”
Just last month, Persian language TV channel Iran International was forced to relocate from London to Washington DC, citing “threats” posed by Iranian agents, while protesters have reportedly been attacked in the heart of the capital.
Despite ministers’ pledges to reduce “illegal migration”, more people than ever made the perilous journey across the Channel last year.
This is how everyone openDemocracy spoke to for this article arrived in the UK, feeling they had no option but to risk their lives this way.
Most Iranians who claim asylum in the UK are found to have legitimate grounds for protection. Of an estimated 4,978 Iranians who arrived in Britain via small boat last year, 82% were granted asylum with an initial decision, according to the Refugee Council.
The authorities use what happens to asylum seekers in the UK to make people inside the country shut up and not protest
And Britain cannot simply send those who were not granted asylum sent back to Iran. Unlike many other countries, Iran requires potential returnees to apply to return; hardly a tantalising prospect, considering they could face arrest as soon as they land in the country.
This can create a Kafkaesque situation, as happened with Ali Tabrizi*. He arrived in Britain eight years ago and became trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of asylum appeals and rejections.
Tabrizi, who now has a family in the UK, says he left his country after getting into trouble with the authorities for his doctoral research on Iran’s 2009 protest movement.
He claims he was awarded asylum in 2021, only for it to be withdrawn by the Home Office a few months later citing a “mistake”. The department has since “discontinued” his access to benefits and the NHS, and he is forbidden from working.
An asylum support organisation is helping Tabrizi to appeal this decision. But in the meantime, he is faced with a unique situation – being able to legitimately neither stay in nor leave the UK.
“They are playing with my life,” he told openDemocracy. “Imagine if they kept you on hold, without telling you anything. What am I going to do?”
Safe and legal routes
The fallout from Iran’s protest movement adds to the avalanche of reasons why Britain must embrace a more sensible and humane approach to asylum.
Beheshtizadeh believes safe and legal routes should be established for those standing up to authoritarian regimes not just in Iran, but around the world – much like the schemes created for Ukrainian refugees last year.
Not only would this allow for a faster, more efficient and cheaper asylum system – something the government claims to want – it would be a clear demonstration of Britain’s support for “human rights, democracy and the rule of law”, he says.
Between January and September 2022, only nine people from Iran were resettled in Britain via a safe route, according to the Refugee Council. In comparison, 4,978 Iranians made the dangerous channel crossing by small boat last year.
In December, Sunak announced there would be new laws to ensure “the only way to come to the UK for asylum will be through safe and legal routes”.
None have been forthcoming, so far.
Meanwhile, secure in the knowledge that the international community will not directly intervene, “the Iranian government has become more and more aggressive in its crackdown”, Beheshtizadeh said.
Anti-aircraft guns, tanks, grenades and shotguns have reportedly been deployed by security forces against protesters in recent years, killing and maiming thousands.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection for those who genuinely need it through our safe and legal routes. Since 2015, we have offered a place to almost half a million men, women and children seeking safety – including those from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as family members of refugees.
“The UK stands in solidarity with those people under threat from Iran, both at home and around the world. However, nobody should put their lives at risk by taking dangerous and illegal journeys. People should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach – that is the fastest route to safety.”
Mahbobi of the CFPPI notes that while the British government “says it supports the people of Iran, empty promises, condemnations on paper, anyone can do that. It’s nothing. The important thing is what they do in practice to support this movement.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identities
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