They are here because we are there
Over the last seven weeks more than 230 undocumented migrants have crossed the English Channel, with forty completing the journey on Christmas Day alone. In the first ten months of 2018, only 220 people made it. The recent spike coincides with increasing numbers of Iranians arriving in Calais. According to one estimate, 40 per cent of the 500 refugees who sleep rough in the town come from Iran.
Last May, President Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran and revived sanctions. Oil exports, as well as the banking sector, have been hit hard. The Rial fell by 60 per cent in 2018. Food prices are soaring and the IMF predicts GDP will shrink by a further 3.6 per cent over the next twelve months. Recession and high inflation is a lethal mix.
Economic discontent has increasingly found expression on the streets. There was a wave of national protest a year ago, and the last fortnight has seen confrontations between the police and protesting teachers and students. Ayatollah Sadiq Larijani, the head of the judiciary, recently warned of a possible repeat of the 2009 protests – but conceded economic grievances this time were justified. ‘The workers and students have legitimate demands,’ he told the Tasnim News Agency, ‘but they should be vigilant not to advance the enemies’ goals’. This is a regime overtly preparing for mass dissent.
Some protest; others leave. More than 1600 Iranians sought asylum in Bosnia in the twelve months to September 2018. A year earlier the figure was just 16. Serbia granted visa-free travel to Iranians from August 2017 until October last year. In that time, between 15,000 and 40,000 Iranians entered the country, with as many as 12,000 failing to return. The Serbian route into the EU is now closed, after Brussels applied political pressure on Belgrade, but Iranians can still travel through Turkey without a visa.
Material adversity isn’t the only reason people want to escape. Civil rights are severely limited, and LGBT people in particular are at risk from a regime whose rhetoric of social justice falls startlingly short of reality.
And yet blame for Iran’s often regressive laws, as well as its precarious economy, doesn’t lie exclusively with the regime in Tehran. Sanctions, intermittently in place since the 1990s, are only the latest effort by foreign powers to obstruct the emergence of a robust democracy and thriving economy in the country, from the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 to support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
Trump’s stance will not lead to regime change. If anything, renewed sanctions empower Iran’s autocratic elements, especially the Revolutionary Guard. The Islamic Republic has endured as long as it has because it commands significant – if weakening – domestic consent and enjoys resilient institutions carefully crafted over forty years. More likely is an increase in the numbers of refugees. Moderately affluent Iranians have the means to enter Europe as well as extensive networks of friends and family in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia.
From invading Iraq to selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, over the last several decades Britain has continued to exploit and destabilise the Middle East with devastating consequences. Why are Iranians undertaking the perilous journey across the English Channel in winter? To paraphrase A. Sivanandan, ‘they are here because we are there.’ Until sanctions are removed and Iran’s economic isolation is ended – and Britain calls time on its interventions in the Middle East – there is no justification to refuse a single Iranian seeking asylum.