Whether Iranian asylum seekers are “economic migrants” or not, Australia has become a destination of choice for them since 2010, United Nations High Commission on Refugees figures show.

The numbers of Iranians seeking refuge around the world has more than doubled since 2007, and in 2012 nearly 20,000 Iranian sought asylum, according to UNHCR data. The most popular destination is Turkey, where the number of Iranian asylum seekers has more than doubled since 2007, to nearly 3600 in 2012. The United Kingdom has also long been a favoured destination of Iranian refugees: it received over 2500 applications in 2007, and last year received over 3100 applications.

It’s been a different story in Australia. As late as 2009, barely 300 Iranians sought asylum in Australia, but those numbers rapidly escalated in 2010 and 2011, to over 20oo in 2011, although they tapered off slightly in 2012. Given access to Australia for Iranians is only possible by air travel either directly to Australia or to Indonesia in order to pay a people smuggler for a spot on a boat, inevitably Iranians seeking asylum in Australia are likely to have greater financial resources than those who cross the border into Turkey.

Globally, Iran has been a consistent source of asylum seekers for a long time, given the brutal nature of the country’s theocratic dictatorship. But numbers surged almost immediately after the savage crackdown that followed the June 2009 election. Globally, around 2000 Iranians, and often fewer, sought asylum elsewhere each quarter before the third quarter of 2009; from that point they rose to over 3000 every quarter and often 4000. The combined UNHCR data for Australia and New Zealand (the latter takes a trivial number of refugees compared with Australia) also shows a big lift in applications from Iranians from the third quarter of 2009.

The sudden surge in the third quarter of that year both globally and to Australia suggests that it isn’t purely economic factors — or the tightening economic sanctions Iran faces for pursuing a nuclear weapons program — that are driving Iranians to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Amnesty International reported about Iran last year:

“Authorities maintained the tightened restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly imposed before, during and following the 2009 mass protests and sought to impose further restrictions. The security forces, including the paramilitary Basij militia, continued to operate with near total impunity and there was virtually no accountability for the unlawful killings and other serious violations committed at the time of mass, largely peaceful protests following the 2009 presidential election and in earlier years.”

The list of targets of the regime is long and include women, LGBTI people, religious and ethnic minorities, lawyers, trade unionists and human rights supporters, and its tools of repression include rape, murder, torture, execution, arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention. Iran has persistently been the subject of criticism even by the United Nations.

Iranians may be deliberately targeting Australia as a place of refuge, and the ones doing so may be wealthier than Iranian refugees elsewhere, but the sheer brutality of the Iranian dictatorship makes for a weak case for portraying them purely as economic migrants.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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