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Iranians flee poverty

By Guy Dinmore
Financial Times (London)
Friday, November 16, 2000

Hijackers who fought a mid-air gunbattle with security guards over southern Iran this week were among more than 20 members of four families who had chartered a domestic airliner in a desperate bid to flee the country.

The attempt failed when the pilot of the Ariatours Yak-40 anded in the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas and jumped out.

The hijackers, now under arrest, were reported to have intended to fly to Israel and on to the US.

Their identity and motives have not been disclosed, but it appears the incident was an extreme example of the lengths to which some Iranians - estimated at several thousand a month - are prepared to go to leave their homeland, mostly out of economic considerations. Living standards have steadily eroded since the revolution, and official statistics show nearly a fifth of Iranians live beneath the poverty line.

Western governments are concerned at the growing numbers of illegal Iranian immigrants, but have no common policy on granting asylum or enforcing repatriation.

Last year nearly 4,000 Iranian illegals sought asylum in the UK, the third largest group after Chinese and Sri Lankans. The UK, an official said, has a policy of not repatriating Iranians. The numbers this year are rising.

Iran generally imposes no restrictions on its citizens leaving the Islamic Republic. The challenge is how to get in to Europe.

Advertising themselves in Tehran as "travel agents", couriers in this human traffic offer two solutions: buy a visa or embark on a hazardous overland journey that begins in Bosnia or Turkey.

One agent offers Schengen visas valid for EU countries for $2,000 each, issued by the Greek embassy in Tehran. It is not clear whether the visas are real or forged. A Tehran court last month put on trial a woman engaged in faking Schengen visas, while the French embassy recently discovered to its embarrassment that one of its staff was selling the real thing.

Speaking from Kansas City, one young Iranian from the Christian minority described how he flew on an organised "tour" to Sarajevo, trekked through forests, crossed the Sava river into Croatia, travelled through Slovenia and was met just inside Italy by church-workers. He went on to Austria, where he registered as a refugee and eventually ended up in the US.

Had he waited a little longer in Iran, that young Christian would have had a far safer journey.

For the past year or so the Austrian embassy in Tehran has become the main exit route for members of Iran's dwindling communities of Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and even Zoroastrians - fire worshippers whose religion dates from pre-Islamic times.

Austrian visas are granted to the minorities whose immigration into the US, through Vienna, is organised and sponsored by religious groups.

To the alarm of Jewish and Christian leaders in Iran, some of these groups appear to have an active policy of emptying Iran of its minorities.

More than 1,000 Jews are believed to be departing each year, leaving behind a community of about 20,000. In the ancient city of Hamedan, a place of pilgrimage for Jews around the world, only 35 are left.

"There are no religious reasons to leave Iran," says Morris Motamed, the elected representative of the Jews in Iran's parliament. His view is echoed by Leon Davidian, his Armenian counterpart, who says a rising trend in Armenian migration, mainly to the US, is most worrying.

Ironically, the rush to leave Iran comes at a time of more religious and social tolerance fostered by Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president.

Joining the flow of illegals is a tide of legal immigration, mainly to the US, Canada and Australia, by Iran's professional elite.

Bemoaning the brain drain, the Tehran Times commented in an editorial this week: "We must reverse this trend. Only then can we claim that our government has been successful. And only then can Iranians live in their own home and not feel alienated."


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