Migrants shelter next to the Tatvan bus station waiting to take a bus to western Turkey, after their 200-kilometer walk from the Iranian border to Tatvan, on the western shore of Lake Van in Bitlis province, on August 24, 2020. Photo: AFP / Bulent Kilic

As the world is engrossed in the news around the Covid-19 crisis and the epoch-making US presidential contest, the tragic deaths of four Kurdish Iranian migrants in the English Channel off the north coast of France has filled many with sorrow, throwing the plight of Iranian refugees and asylum-seekers into the spotlight.

Rasoul Iran-Nejad and Shiva Mohammad Panahi, both 35, and their children Anita and Armin, aged nine and six, were crossing from France to the UK on October 27 when their boat capsized. They died, and the couple’s 15-month-old son Artin is missing.

British media reported that the family had paid migrant smugglers a huge sum to take them to the UK shores by boat. They sold all of their valuables, including gold, and their apartment in the city of Sardasht in northwestern Iran, and remitted £14,000 (US$18,500) to the smugglers to get on to the vessel. Another £8,200 was slated to be disbursed when they arrived in the UK safely.

But for the forlorn family trying to escape economic hardship at home, the journey did not end as they had dreamed.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has offered sympathy to the loved ones of the victims, adding that his government “will do all we can to crack down on the ruthless criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people by facilitating these dangerous journeys.”

In the first three months of 2020, Iranian migrants made up more than half of those who were intercepted while attempting to reach British shores via the English Channel, the world’s busiest shipping route. Of the 463 migrants captured by British and French authorities, 266 were from Iran.

The desolate state of Iran’s economy, compounded by grinding US sanctions, rampant corruption in government agencies, glaring socioeconomic disparities and shrinking civil liberties, has compelled many Iranians to bid farewell to their homeland and embark on quests for better lives in the developed world, often at exorbitant costs and through life-threatening adventures.

Drifting across borders

Iranian journalist Peyman Aref, now 38, has for some five years been wandering across borders in an effort to secure a tranquil and peaceful life for himself and his wife somewhere away from Iran, since it dawned on him that security organizations would not relent on their pressure campaign against him.

In 2010, Aref was sentenced to a year in jail after being found guilty of spreading propaganda against the Iranian establishment by speaking to foreign media, as well as 74 lashes for writing an “insulting” letter to the president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“I decided to leave Iran when I realized there [was] a new lawsuit against me every other day, and the security organizations would not allow me to spend a single solitary day of my life without dossiers, revolutionary courts, indictments and bails,” Aref told Asia Times.

After his latest arraignment in 2014, he was prohibited from leaving the country. Also, he had no time to apply for a visa to travel to any European state. The most workable option to avoid imprisonment was to flee through the land border with Turkey, which is a visa-free travel zone for Iranian citizens. With $3,000 in his pocket, he undertook an arduous odyssey with no idea how it would change his life.

Aref told this correspondent that he “deceived” the security organizations and ran away to Van, Turkey, in a bitterly cold winter. From there, he went to Ankara and then lodged a request with the local representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for asylum.

He filed a request for himself and his wife on February 2, 2015, and they were allocated an interview slot scheduled for June 2, 2016. During the intervening 16-month period, Aref, who spoke fluent Turkish, stayed in Ankara, working as a journalist and tour guide to sustain himself financially.

In the meantime, the intelligence apparatus of Turkey, which was interested in recruiting Iranian journalists, approached Aref and asked him to join them. He refused, despite their attempts to entice him. Afterward, they doubled down on pressuring him.

The couple’s interview in June 2016 was successful, and then it was time for resettlement. They chose the United States as their preferred destination.

But before they could embrace emancipation, a new cataclysm cropped up when Turkish security forces raided Aref’s apartment in Ankara on December 10, 2016, at 1am, arresting him on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a BBC interview. After two weeks of detention, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) deported him to Lebanon.

“I was deported without being given the chance to collect my money and credit card, and my only [possession] was the clothes I was [wearing]. I survived in Lebanon with great difficulty,” Aref said.

In Beirut, the UNHCR office was working to finalize the paperwork required to send him to the United States when President Donald Trump introduced his executive order banning travel to the US by citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. This was the latest adversity striking Aref.

Lebanon was no longer safe, as the Iranian government could easily demand its close ally to repatriate him or put him on a travel blacklist, making it impossible for him to leave the country. He decided to try to get to Europe. He booked a flight to Northern Cyprus, which issues on-arrival visas to Iranian passport holders.

Getting to Northern Cyprus was itself a daunting task, considering that flights from Beirut to North Nicosia had a lay over in Istanbul, and he could easily end up being detained by the Turkish authorities while passing through the Istanbul airport. Aref described the five-hour layover in Istanbul as “deeply stressful.”

Once in Northern Cyprus, he illegally made his way to Nicosia in the Republic of Cyprus and was granted asylum within 48 hours. Yet it was not the end of his challenges. He started receiving intimidating calls from Turkish authorities.

“Since parts of Northern Cyprus are under Turkish control and there are no solid borders between the Turkish and Greek parts, the Turkish government can easily pull the strings in the entire island,” he noted.

“I informed the Cypriot authorities of the threats I was receiving. Their response was that we are a fragile and small country, and if the Turkish government harms you in any way, we cannot support you. So it is better for you to seek refuge in Western Europe.”

Eventually, Aref decided to travel to Belgium and seek asylum there. Yet he was not received warmly, and the coming to power of a right-wing government in Belgium meant the admission of refugees and asylum-seekers had died down significantly.

He participated in three rounds of interviews, and all questions revolved around his ties with Cyprus, not his misfortunes in Iran, and eventually the Belgian government, arguing that he had previously been granted asylum in a safe European country, turned down his application. The case was placed under investigation by a Belgian immigration court, but it has temporarily ceased working because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Throughout these turbulent years, the most excruciating moment for Peyman Aref was the day he got to Beirut: “I arrived at the Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport at 3am without a single cent. I didn’t know where I had ended up. I asked the airport taxi driver to take me to the city, and in return, I proposed to give him my watch worth $100. He refused and asked for my wedding ring.

“I couldn’t convince myself to give away my ring. So I decided to walk to the city center from the airport, which took more than four hours. I was asking people for directions every few kilometers, and was feeling immeasurably desperate,” he recounted.

In Beirut, a BBC Persian journalist lent him some money, with which he could buy some food and was able to subsist.

No viable future

Iran is now one of the main countries of origin for immigrants. In 2019, there were 3.1 million Iran-born migrants, mostly residing in the United States, Canada, Germany, rhw United Kingdom, Sweden and Turkey, as well as other states.

Donya Alinejad, an anthropologist and migration scholar teaching media studies at the University of Amsterdam, told Asia Times that the causes for migration from Iran are complex, and even if the unequal standards of living in Iran were improved, it would be difficult to persuade people to stay.

“A drastically weakened currency and sustained economic malaise mean the country’s relatively young population tends to be hard-pressed to imagine a viable future inside the country,” Alinejad said in an interview.

“Add that to human-rights abuses, social repression, and political corruption and it’s understandable that many are ready and waiting to take up their opportunity for emigration as soon as it appears, whether by boat, land, or other routes.”

Sahar Maranlou, a lecturer in law and socio-legal studies at the University of Essex in England, said emigration from Iran is not “a new occurrence.”

“A large wave of migration happened after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, another during the Iran-Iraq War, then after the so-called Green Movement and recently because of economic hardships resulting from the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” she said.

“Most emigrants left Iran not only because of political restrictions, corruption or socio-religious control over personal issues such as sexual orientation but also because of an increase in the poverty gap mainly due to the US economic sanctions and the Covid-19 crisis,” she added.

Maranlou told Asia Times she doesn’t believe the Iranian government is taking the right steps to stem the growing flow of migrants and refugees leaving Iran in search of better lives abroad.

“Even if the government [ever adopted] adequate measures to enhance living standards, still it would be extremely challenging to lift the general public’s standard of living while country is striving to survive both sanctions and a global pandemic,” she said.

The UK-based academic said she expects the global Covid-19 crisis to drive more Iranians to emigrate: “Iran is particularly vulnerable to this worldwide economic shock. As a result, there will be an increase in Iranian economic migrants at the mercy of smugglers and human traffickers but pushed back by EU border policies.”

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.