Concern for Ahwazi refugees, UNHCR

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR says it’s increasingly concerned about the fate of a group of Ahwazi (Iranian-Arab) refugees in Syria.

The Syrian authorities recently arrested seven Ahwazis, six of whom had been recognised by UNHCR as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and one former refugee who had recently been naturalised by the Netherlands, a UNHCR statement issued on 6 June said.

Three Ahwazis have been released but four remain in detention. The refugee agency says Damascus recently deported one officially recognisd Ahwazi refugee to Iran at the end of 2005 and who had been accepted for resettlement in Norway.

“The refugee was supposed to depart for Norway on 4 April 2006, but was instead detained by the Syrian authorities and consequently deported. According to the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the extradition request for the refugee was made by the Iranian authorities,” a UNHCR statement said.

“Extradition does not mean that a refugee or asylum seeker loses his or her international protection status. We therefore strongly appeal to both Syrian and Iranian authorities to allow the refugee to depart to Norway as scheduled,” the statement added.

Ahwazi refugees first began arriving in Iraq and Syria in the 1980s during the Iran/Iraq war as Tehran accused them of supporting Baghdad.

Recently, there has been concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Al-Ahwaz (Khuzestan) in Iran, home to nearly 2 million Iranians of Arab descent. According to human rights organisations, individuals promoting rights of the Arab people in the Ahwaz region have reportedly been targeted, and access to the region has been denied to foreign and local journalists.

“It is selective,” said Geneva-based UNHCR spokesperson Astrid Van Genderen Stort, “only those promoting the rights of the Ahwazi are targeted and not the entire Ahwazi community.”

“We strongly appeal to the Syrian authorities to respect their obligations under international law and to refrain from deporting anyone who is recognized as a genuine refugee fearing persecution,” said Van Genderen Stort.

No one was available to comment from the Syrian government when approached.

SZ/AR/AM