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UNHCR concerned over Ahwazi refugees in Syria

Briefing notes

UNHCR concerned over Ahwazi refugees in Syria

6 June 2006

UNHCR is increasingly concerned about the fate of several Ahwazi (Iranian Arab) refugees recognised by our office in Damascus, Syria. In recent weeks the Syrian authorities arrested seven Ahwazis, six of whom had been recognized by UNHCR as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and one former refugee who had recently been naturalised by the Netherlands.

UNHCR immediately raised its concerns at the highest levels and has highlighted to the Syrian authorities in Damascus and the Syrian Permanent Mission in Geneva that the recognised refugees should immediately be released. As a result, three Ahwazis have been released but four remain in detention.

UNHCR is particularly concerned about the fate of these Ahwazis, as the Syrian authorities recently deported to Iran an Arab-Iranian Ahwazi who was recognised as a mandate refugee by UNHCR Damascus 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.

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.

Ahwazi refugees came to Iraq and Syria during various periods. Recent human rights reports have expressed concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Khuzestan province in Iran, home to nearly 2 million Iranians of Arab descent. 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.

UNHCR strongly appeals to Syria to abide by its obligations under international law and to ensure that the principle of non-refoulement is recognised. The principle of non-refoulement prohibits states from returning refugees or asylum seekers to territories where there is a risk that their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.