“I have no way to contact my family. I have just crossed the border into Greece. It would be great if you could tell my family that I am alright.”
The UN says there are now at least 71 million refugees around the world. Refugees include anyone who has left their home, for many reasons, and have taken shelter in foreign lands or are trying to do so. Thousands of them have been lost along the way – whether trafficked or killed through violence or misfortune. There are many Iranians among these refugees, and many Iranian families have been searching for months or even years to find their lost loves ones. Living as a refugee is like living in a war-torn country – neither your property nor your life are safe.
Now that internet connections across Iran have been cut following nationwide protests against a fuel price increase, many Iranian refugees have lost the ability to communicate with their families. After their perilous journey across difficult or even hostile borders, they are unable to tell their families if they are safe and have arrived at their destinations. And they also cannot receive news from their families – though this is just one problem among many.
Hossein is one refugee who, after many attempts, and after having been detained several times at the Turkish border, has finally managed to enter Greece. But no matter how many times he has since tried to contact his family in Iran, he has been unable to get through.
His story is not unique. When IranWire successfully contacted the families of some of these refugees, many said that, besides all their other worries, they were afraid that their children had been arrested or had lost their lives during their attempts to enter a new country as a refugee.
“Do you know where he is?” asked Hossein’s sister in a trembling voice. “Is he in the camp? Is he OK? Is everything alright? Can we help? What is he going to do now?”
The Shutdown Cuts Both Ways
The families of some of Iranian refugees, living in areas like Kurdistan and Karaj that seen violent clashes during the recent protests, have also caused refugees to fear for their families back home.
Diako is a young Kurd who is now in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a refugee. “Would you please call my family and ask them where my brother is?” he said, with a lump in his throat, when he spoke to IranWire. “He could have been in the protests and been injured. I have no news of him. All means of communication with Sanandaj [capital of Iranian Kurdistan] have been cut off. I feel like I have been paralyzed.”
Another Iranian refugee, Tina, is currently in a camp on the German border. When speaking to IranWire, she asked that her family in Eslam Shahr, a city in Tehran Province, be contacted so that she might have some news of their wellbeing.
The sudden isolation has added to the difficulties Iranian refugees face as they travel. Refugees cannot hold bank accounts, have no credit cards to use for communication services like Skype, and cannot afford to make direct phone calls to Iran. The internet was therefore their only way to contact Iran. Many retirees are also financially supported by their families, especially those who are still on the road or are in Turkey, Greece or Bosnia and Herzegovina. They need the funds to survive.
Ali is just another case. “For the past four days I have not heard the voice of my son,” he says. “No app works. Can’t you open a Skype account and deposit some money as a loan so I can hear my son’s voice for just a few minutes?” Ali is like many refugees who in recent days have contacted IranWire about their financial and communications problems – problems which they are helpless to solve.
Shahrokh lives in Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos. “Do you know when the internet will be connected again?” he asked. “May I ask you a favor? I need 30 euros to tide me over till the end of the month. I cannot contact my family and have no idea how they are doing. Can you lend me this money till then?”
Diako, Tina, Shahrokh and Ali are just a few examples that show how seriously the Iran internet shutdown has affected the lives and the peace of mind of Iranian refugees. And these are people who, even under normal circumstances, have to deal with numerous challenges while living through inhumane circumstances.
Past “Sins” are not Forgiven or Forgotten
Some of the refugees living in camps or cities outside Iran had participated in earlier protests in Iran, especially the nationwide protests of late 2018 and early 2019. Even if they spent only a few days under arrest, their identity has been recorded by Iranian security systems. According to those refugees who have managed to call Iran, security agencies have contacted their families and have questioned them about their whereabouts and their activities.
“They contacted my family and asked them where I was,” says Reza, a refugee who now lives in Athens. “During the 2018 protests I was under arrest for a few days. Do you think my arrest, and my leaving Iran, can hurt my family? My mother is very scared.”
These Iranian refugees are also worried about security threats to themselves. And their families are also worried – through they may not have been involved in political activities or protests they nevertheless fear reprisals from the security agencies.
Some protesters from the unrest in 2018 and 2019 who are still in Iran told IranWire that they have been summoned by the security forces for questioning – and are therefore now thinking of leaving the country. Many of them have avoided the recent protests. But they are afraid that the authorities may use the protests as an excuse to round them up; they are looking for ways to leave, but wonder if they will be allowed to legally cross into Turkey or if the recent legal summons mean they are banned from leaving Iran.
An Iranian in the US, Ramin, says his cousin is one of those who has been summoned. “What do you think is the risk of legally crossing the border into Turkey?” Ramin asked IranWire during a call. “Is it possible that [Iranian authorities] have travel-banned him in the past few days? Of course, he has a student visa. I told him to go to Turkey and then leave Turkey with his student visa. But I do not know whether or not he has been banned from leaving Iran.”
A Scholarship for Escaping Iran?
A number of journalists and political or civil activists are also thinking of leaving — legally or illegally — and those that have been contacted by the security services are even more intent on escaping.
“In such a repressive environment, I can no longer remain a journalist in Iran,” one of them told IranWire. “But I don’t want to do it illegally. Is there somewhere that may give me a scholarship so that I can leave as a student?”
A new wave of refugees is also likely to come out of Iran after the most recent fuel price protests.
The number of people arrested during recent protests is still unknown. But considering the volatile situation, the widespread demonstrations, clashes and violence, it is likely many people have been detained and that those who are released may try to leave Iran in the coming months. Most of them will be ordinary citizens – some may be journalists or activists. But all of them will be vulnerable, in the way that only refugees can be vulnerable, and their futures will be uncertain for months or even years. Human traffickers may be the only ones to benefit from the next boom of refugees out of Iran.