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Features

Desperate Iranian Refugee Sets Himself on Fire in Front of United Nations Office

May 21, 2021
Havari Yousefi
5 min read
This report contains images of injuries that some readers may find disturbing
This report contains images of injuries that some readers may find disturbing
Behzad Mahmoudi, 25, from Bukan county, set himself on fire in front of the UN office in Erbil to protest against its indifference to refugees' living conditions
Behzad Mahmoudi, 25, from Bukan county, set himself on fire in front of the UN office in Erbil to protest against its indifference to refugees' living conditions
A close friend said Behzad suffered 90 percent burns and was fighting for his life in Erbil Hospital
A close friend said Behzad suffered 90 percent burns and was fighting for his life in Erbil Hospital
Behzad is one of several Iranian refugees to complain of being neglected by the UN's local office
Behzad is one of several Iranian refugees to complain of being neglected by the UN's local office

On the evening of May 18, an Iranian asylum seeker named Behzad Mahmoudi, nicknamed Mohammad, set himself on fire in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Erbil.

His protest was mainly about the organization's lack of attention to issues such as asylum seekers' livelihoods and unemployment, and the lack of financial assistance. Behzad is still alive and is now in hospital. But the video of his self-immolation have angered civil society and asylum seekers in Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

In response to this issue, Iranian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan are organizing a rally against what they consider to be "abuses of the UN" against Iranian refugees. Dealing with Iranian asylum seekers, they say, is not a priority for the UN and some have been left waiting for years in different countries without a clear outlook, while struggling to get by.

In an interview with IranWire, Saad Saghezi, a friend of Behzad Mahmoudi, recounted the circumstances that led to the self-immolation of this Iranian asylum seeker.

***

"We are from the Rojelat (Iranian Kurdistan), and we have been displaced.

“Why should we live like this? Should this be the life of a political asylum seeker? We’ve been here for four years. Is this the result of our struggle and revolution? We are talked to like dogs. If we return, we’ll be executed. Here, too, we’re left to sleep in parks and mosques.”

Behzad Mahmoudi is a 25-year-old from Bukan county, West Azerbaijan province. He made these anguished remarks in front of the cameras of some local media outlets in Iraqi Kurdistan, protesting the situation of asylum seekers and the apparent indifference of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He then set himself on fire.

The widespread publication of these painful images has provoked fury among civil society in Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and has also hurt the hearts of many Iranians.

On the other hand, a few hours after the broadcast, the Ministry of Culture of the Kurdistan Region issued a statement calling for legal action against local media for "disseminating and publishing violent, murder, and suicide scenes."

Iranian asylum seekers in the region are now preparing for a gathering in front of the UN office in Erbil against what they call its “inhumane practices”.

Saadi Saghezi, a close friend of Behzad Mahmoudi who accompanied him to Erbil Hospital, told IranWire that although Behzad is now receiving medical care in the emergency department he is more than 90 percent burned. “Unless a miracle happens,” he said, “he will not survive for more than a few days."

There is no trace of UN forces or officials in the released videos. According to Saadi Saghezi, along with a compatriot named Fereydoun, UN staff been informed of Behzad’s intentions beforehand together with his reasons.

But for whatever reason, it seems they did not take the threat seriously. It took 20 minutes, during which Behzad was on fire, running and shouting, until a UN ambulance rushed him to hospital.

Saadi told IranWire that after Behzad spoke to UN officials, he was told: "Set yourself on fire a little more, lest the evil catch us!"

He added that two months ago, a group of Iranian asylum seekers, Behzad among them, had protested in front of the UN in Erbil against the “indifference” of local UN officials to their living conditions. But their demands went unanswered.

Behzad himself is a former member of the Organization of Iranian Kurdistan Struggle, but had been separated from the organization for about three and a half years and had started working in Erbil as laborer. The is one of the many groups opposed to the Islamic Republic, which, like many other Iranian Kurdish parties, is based on the other side of the border.

Saghezi is in charge of the organization's membership and support base, as well as its representative to the UN office in Erbil. He said he considers the UN's lack of care and attention to Iranian asylum seekers to be unprecedented.

"Last year, Behzad applied to the organization for an asylum card," he said. "But they wouldn’t give him the registration form. Finally, we complained about this, and with great effort, we succeeded in obtaining a card, for which Iranian asylum seekers have no other use than receiving a political residence card from the Ministry of Interior.”

Behzad had apparently called him about a month ago and said, at the height of despair, that he had "no place to stay anymore." Due to the outbreak of coronavirus and high unemployment rates among asylum seekers, he was no longer even able to pay for the worn-out hotel in which he used to spend the night. "He was under so much pressure,” his friend reported, “that he said, 'If the UN does not think about our livelihoods and shelter, I will set myself on fire.'”

Saadi says that he and other friends had tried to dissuade Behzad from carrying out the threat. They went to the UN for assistance, he said, but the organization’s officials there were "ultimately cold and indifferent, apologizing to us and pointing us out the door."

According to this activist, Mohammadi's request to UN not to determine his transfer to a third country, but rather, only for financial support to arrange a better place to live and survive in the middle of a pandemic.

Compared to that of Syrian refugees, who have access to schools and medical treatment his friend said, the situation of Iranian refugees was “almost catastrophic” and the Erbil office’s policies were “very cruel and strict”. In fact, Behzad is reportedly far from the first Iranian asylum seeker to have tried to commit suicide or self-immolation over their treatment, but others were talked down by activists. "Many have become unemployed and do not have a place to sleep or live,” he said, “and have to stay either in parks or in mosques and half-finished houses.”

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