Why Iranians Continue to Seek Refuge in Australia

Clothes and other textiles hang on a chain-link fence surrounding tents
An Iranian detainee hangs up her laundry on the fence at the Construction camp detention center used for younger men and women and children. February 26, 2012, on Christmas Island, Australia. Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Shokoofeh Azar moved to Australia as a political refugee in 2010. Her novel The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (see WLT, Spring 2020, 96), originally written in Farsi, was shortlisted for Australia’s 2018 Stella Prize for Fiction and the 2020 International Booker Prize. Here she recalls her refugee journey from Iran to Christmas Island and reveals why Iranians continue migrating to Australia, despite the absence of war. 

I escaped from Iran after experiencing three months of solitary confinement in one of the many unknown prisons in Tehran. This included many horrifying interrogations involving both physical and mental torture. Because of this, I was not able to concentrate on my circumstances in the refugee camps when I came to Australia as a boat asylum seeker in 2010. My memories of the three months in solitary confinement were so horrific that I often prefer to be silent about it or quickly pass over it. In solitary confinement, there was no light. The door was opened only when a dirty dish of food was pushed in or I was summoned for interrogation. These interrogations were long and involved sexual humiliation and threats while asking many questions about my ex-colleagues, my personal life, my friends, family, job, etc. I was devastated from many long and successive interrogations, mentally tired, and terrified when I reached Christmas Island; most of the time I preferred to be alone and silent in the corner of the camp. Actually, reaching Australia, even the refugee camp, was like a safe and friendly place where my brain could reset and my body could feel safe. 

It was October 1, 2010, on the morning of a sunny day, when I got off an Australian Navy vessel surrounded by security guards along with seventy-four other asylum seekers. We had landed on Christmas Island. The turquoise blue of the Indian Ocean merged with a beautiful green sapphire color. Were I not captured by the hands of fate, wouldn’t Christmas Island have been an ideal destination for a perfect holiday? Blue skies, tall palms, dense jungle, turquoise-blue sea, as well as a beautiful, clean, and quiet beach. Then we were taken over a hill in vans to a large hall. I will never forget the white banner next to the gate: “Refugees are welcome in Australia!” My first impression was that safety and warmth were injected into my cold veins.

From the large windows of the hall, I could see the beach below and the forest. The forest always makes me feel safe, as I grew up in the rain forest in northern Iran. After those horrifying months in Tehran, the panicked weeks’ journey to Indonesia, and the five days of stress and hunger at sea on a rattletrap boat, everything suddenly seemed to be safe. 

After those horrifying months in Tehran, the panicked weeks’ journey to Indonesia, and the five days of stress and hunger at sea on a rattletrap boat, everything suddenly seemed to be safe.

The behavior of the security guards (Serco), immigration officials, and translators was courteous and sometimes occurred with a smile. Their response was as if our sudden presence on Australian land was not surprising at all, and it seemed that they were even waiting for us. Everything was in a predefined order. That regularity, as well as the polite behaviors of the people working there, gave me the feeling that everything was okay. I felt that I was safe and that the rest of the refugee process would be all right in the end. 

But other Iranian refugees had a dissimilar experience at the same place at a different time. Just three years later, Behrouz Boochani, another Iranian journalist, had a different experience from me on Christmas Island. As he stated in his award-winning book, No Friend But the Mountains, he felt insecure and unwelcome as soon as he stepped onto Christmas Island. Behrouz was told that he could not stay on Christmas Island and that he had two options: he could return to where he came from, or he would be transferred to a remote island in Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately, four days before his arrival, Australia’s refugee law had been changed by then-Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, from the Labor Party.


“So You Are a Writer, Not a Journalist”

In the hall, after I had some warm food and drink, I was given a form about the details of my education, occupation, family members’ names, etc. Translators were everywhere, and they helped us fill out the forms. Serco officers, and several employees of the Australian Immigration Department, were courteous and helpful in answering our questions. 

When my form was filled out and given to an immigration officer, she saw me in person. She rechecked my name and birthdate. Then she asked what my job was. “Journalism,” I said. She looked at the form and asked doubtfully: “You are a journalist or a fiction writer?” I said again: “I am a journalist, but I have published a couple of storybooks, too.” Then she said with particular emphasis: “So you are a writer, not a journalist!” I could not understand what she was trying to say. So, feeling quite stressed, I said: “No! I am a journalist. I have been a professional journalist for eleven years in Iran. Is there any problem?” She paused and gazed into my eyes and said, “So, you are the first journalist who has come to Christmas Island by boat. I have worked for fourteen years in the Immigration Department of Australia and never ever saw or heard of a journalist coming here by boat. 

There was no optimistic emotion in her face. On the contrary, it seemed that she was upset about this. I smiled with uncertainty and said, “It’s probably my misfortune.” She shrugged and went away. 

However, she was right. I remembered that all my former colleagues had taken refuge in European countries and the United States because there are Iranian satellite channels abroad there, such as BBC Persian (London), Voice of America (Washington), Deutsche Welle Persian (Berlin), and Radio Free Europe in Persian (Prague). And they could have worked there. But I was unlucky. The smuggler who I found could not take me to Europe or the United States, and the land route to those countries was very long and dangerous. On the other hand, I didn’t have enough money to wait in Turkey for months or even years for a UN refugee visa. The only possibility that existed at that time, for me, was Australia, and by boat. That’s why I was the first Iranian journalist who fled to Australia by boat.

That’s why I was the first Iranian journalist who fled to Australia by boat.

When I enter into the Family Camp, I have a better understanding of that immigration officer’s strange reaction. In fact, I was as surprised as she was as soon as I entered the Family Camp on the same afternoon. It wasn’t difficult to recognize that most of the Iranian refugees had previously been laborers coming from working-class families with moderate levels of education. Most of them had no documentation to prove their refugee case. 

The truth is that before my arrival to Christmas Island, I imagined that Iranian asylum seekers would be people who deliberately and consciously challenged the Islamic Republic of Iran for a long time with their human rights and social activities such as journalists, lawyers, or feminists. Or people who had tried to bring democracy back to Iran through civil disobedience or formation of nongovernment organizations or unions.

But I was wrong. Millions of Iranians who had been involved with the Green Movement demonstrations after the presidential election in 2009 belonged to all social groups: laborers, students, workers, employees, unemployed people, employers, vendors, shopkeepers, academics, celebrities, and journalists. Meeting a large number of people very different than me at the Christmas Island camp, people who challenged the Iranian regime during the Green Movement demonstrations, was surprising to me. During the time that I had stayed on Christmas Island, I only met a very small group of highly educated people who had challenged the Iranian regime by their longtime work as social and political activists. In other words, the Iranians in the camp came from all walks of life, and it was perhaps not surprising that the immigration representative reacted the way that she did.


The Unofficial Wars Spurring Migration

Meeting Iranian people at the camp from all walks of life made me think again about the relationship between Iranians and the Iranian regime. Since 1988, Iran is neither involved in a war or a civil war, but, in fact, the Iranian regime has engaged in two types of unofficial wars and conflicts with its own people for the past forty years:

1. There have been conflicts between the regime and outspoken dissidents like journalists, political activists, social activists, academics, writers, artists, musicians, poets, singers, and industrial dissidents. These dissidents have been killed, imprisoned, or forced to flee. Iran’s prisons are full of these people—people who, in a healthy society, would be respected. There are many of these stories in the Western media.

2. There have been conflicts between the regime and the ordinary people in their private and social lives. Unfortunately, the news and stories about these Iranian lives never appear in the Western media—that is until recently, concerning a campaign called “White Wednesday” against the compulsory hijab in Iran.

 Dubbed the "Green Movement" after the symbol of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the 2009 post-election protests became a symbol of unity for people who challenged the Iranian regime.Photo: Ben Curtis / AP Photo


Compulsory Infusion of Sharia Law into Everyday Life

To understand this situation better, it is noteworthy that there are several moral police organizations in Iran; their job is to interfere or “police” citizens’ moral issues. These government organizations include the Moral Police, Police Fighting with Social Corruption, Ethics Security Police, Police Fighting with Moral Corruption, Basij, Organization of Islamic Right and Wrong Behavior, and many, many more. The Iranian regime spends millions of dollars annually to control the public and private lifestyles of people through these organizations. Thousands of people have been imprisoned, killed, flogged, or forced to pay fines in this conflict each year. This is like a daily war—a war between authorities and people for the satellite dish, social media, music, women’s hijabs, women’s boots, women’s tight or short pants, women’s makeup, alcoholic beverages, women dancing, women singing, sexual relations, homosexual relationships, and so on. 

This is like a daily war—a war between authorities and people for the satellite dish, social media, music, women’s hijabs, women’s boots, women’s tight or short pants, women’s makeup, alcoholic beverages, women dancing, women singing, sexual relations, homosexual relationships, and so on. 

According to Iranian law, wearing the hijab is compulsory for women. Girls at the age of seven must wear the hijab at school. Girls can be married at the age of nine and boys at the age of fifteen. Women do not have the right to sing. Listening to Western music, or the kind of music that provokes people to dance, is haram (forbidden by Sharia law) and forbidden (by the country’s law). Women dancing is haram and forbidden. Drinking alcohol and eating bacon and pork is haram and prohibited. Emotional, physical, and sexual relationships outside of marriage are haram and forbidden. It is haram and forbidden to have a wedding party, a birthday party, a party where women and men dance together, or a party where women wear non-Islamic clothing. According to Iranian law, any program (theater, movie, cartoon, book event, art event, etc.) that promotes Western culture, joy, and dance is officially haram and forbidden. According to Iranian law, girls and boys must attend different schools, and women and men at universities must attend different classes. In some universities, there are even men’s and women’s elevators. In some cities such as Tehran, there is a park that is only for women; boys older than five are not allowed to enter this park. 

In addition to all these written laws, we can add hundreds of unofficial and verbal acts that are announced daily by the mullahs, the Moral Police, and state officials through tribunals and the media. For example, wearing colorful fabrics by women is haram and prohibited as well as wearing stylish and bright boots. And nobody dares to ask: “Had stylish red boots been created in Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam’s, time, would he have forbidden them?”

In a recent case, the Tehran Moral Police suddenly announced that women have no right to go to the mountains alone (north of Tehran is a charming and beautiful mountain). Until October 2019, women were not allowed to go to sports stadiums. 

I could write a very long list of harams and lawfully forbidden acts in Iran. This never-ending list has destroyed people in their daily life over the last forty years. This is a war by the Iranian regime affecting ordinary people who do not want anything but daily liberties and equality in their private and social lifestyles. For Australians, asking for “freedom and equality in the private life of citizens from the government” might not make sense. But according to Iranian law, there is no equality between men, women, and children. I could write another long list of these laws again, but I am going to mention only a few.

According to Sharia law, the inheritance of a woman from her father is half the inheritance of her brother. Atonement (blood money) of a woman is half that of the man. The atonement of a woman is equal to the man’s testicles. Yes, you read correctly: A woman’s value in Islam is equal to two testicles of a man! 

According to Sharia law, a father can kill his child because the child is considered the father’s property. After a divorce, the child is given to the father. In the case of the father’s death, the child is given to the grandfather or uncle (father’s side) and not to the mother. A man can have up to four spouses at a time while women’s and men’s sentences for having a sexual relationship out of marriage is stoning. 

A husband can prevent his wife from working. A husband can prevent his wife from leaving the country. A woman has no right to divorce unless she can prove one of the seven reasons named in law against the husband such as a husband’s madness, venereal disease, drug addiction, etc. In other words, it means that “disliking your husband” is not enough reason for a woman to be granted a divorce. 

These violent antiwomen’s and antichildren’s laws were ratified after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Feminists and women’s rights activists at the time of Shah Pahlavi II (1941–79) had succeeded in resisting the Sharia law (protected by mullahs), and, to a large extent, the rights of women and children were respected. Under the law at the time of the earlier, moderate Shah, women were entitled to a divorce, the marriage of girls under the age of eighteen and boys under the age of twenty was prohibited, and a child could stay with its mother after separation. The man was not allowed to stop the woman from working. The woman did not need the husband’s permission to leave the country. There were stringent rules for a man’s polygamy, such as having his first wife’s consent, the husband’s financial strength, and paying equal alimony to both wives. Also, killing children by the father invoked the death penalty. These laws were alongside the Shah’s modernization of Iran and the encouragement of women to be educated and to work. 

A boardwalk leading from Lily Beach toward Ethel Beach on Christmas Island, Australia. Photo: David Stanley / Flickr

Tears and Laughter on Christmas Island

In the Family Camp on Christmas Island, when I listened to some of the Iranian refugee stories, I felt that everybody had suffered from those inhumane laws, which try to control and suppress all normal and natural aspects of people’s private and social lives. There were people who didn’t want to get involved with politics or the authorities; the only thing that they wanted was freedom and equality. 

One of the refugees said that he had already been flogged twice, seventy-five lashes each, for drinking alcohol. Another refugee was arrested by the Moral Police many times with his girlfriends at private parties. During one of the parties, when he tried to escape from the Moral Police, he fell out of a window and became permanently disabled. He then showed me his back, and we could see the mark of surgery. Another refugee said that he had been flogged and imprisoned only because he had a satellite dish on his apartment roof and he watched BBC Persian and VOA Persian (both channels belonging to Iranians abroad who opposed the regime). Another refugee was arrested with her green scarf in a street close to the Green Movement demonstration (green was the color of Green Movement reformists). Another refugee said that he was a private swimming coach of women, and a neighbor informed the Moral Police. He was then arrested and received seventy-five lashes. He showed me his back where the scars from the whipping have remained on his skin. The retelling of scenes of how police jumped into the water to arrest him, and his struggle with the Moral Police in the swimming pool, was so funny that we all laughed loudly. Sad laughs. Stupid and hilarious adventures that cost a very high price.

Another Iranian woman said that her drug-addicted ex-husband, who beat their son all the time, wanted to get the child after their divorce. She escaped to her family with her son, but the police arrested her and gave the son to his jobless, drug-addicted father. She was imprisoned with a charge of kidnapping. Eventually, after she was released from prison, she managed to take her son from school and ultimately escaped from the country and ended up on Christmas Island.

I was looking at these people around the table . . . ordinary, simple, and kind people who want nothing but freedom of choice. After many years of suppression, they had no choice but to leave their families and friends behind and seek asylum in another part of the world. It is still a big mystery to me why the Iranian regime doesn’t leave people alone. Why do they spend millions of dollars to impose Islam on people’s ordinary lives? Don’t the individual freedoms of these ordinary people guarantee the survival of this regime? What is the benefit of arresting women for hair, red boots, singing, and the like?

As a journalist, I repeatedly dealt with these stories when I was in Iran. For example, in the summer of 2008, Tehran’s Moral Police announced that about 2,500,000 women in Tehran were given a verbal and written warning, or arrested and imprisoned, because of their non-Islamic clothing. In my report published in the Sarmayeh, the reformist newspaper, I wrote that the population of Tehran is 12 million and, if we say that a quarter of this population is children and another quarter are the elderly population, it means that about 6 million young people live in Tehran. Of these 6 million people, there are—of course—approximately 3 million men and 3 million women. Therefore, if the Tehran Moral Police have warned or arrested about 2.5 million women because of their non-Islamic clothing, it means that almost all of the women living in Tehran do not believe in the type of Islam that the present Iranian regime represents. Also, it means that the decades-long efforts, and the cost of millions of dollars, to Islamize the people of Tehran (as a sample of Iran) have been in vain. 

Even these days, when people around the world are struggling with the coronavirus, Iranians are morally reprimanded, even in their homes and gardens.

I’ve been in Australia for about ten years since leaving Iran, but every day and almost every hour, I follow the news inside Iran through official and unofficial media. In these ten years, the situation of Iranians has not changed in terms of the problems I mentioned above. Hundreds of people are still being arrested or tortured every day for these reasons. Even these days, when people around the world are struggling with the coronavirus, Iranians are morally reprimanded, even in their homes and gardens. For example, in some news that was published by the official media a few days ago, 111 people were arrested at a party in Tehran that was held in a garden. The reason for the arrest was not “gathering during the coronavirus quarantine” but due to “nonconformity with Islamic decency.” 

Also in the past ten years, since coming to Australia, I’ve heard many Australians say that Iranian refugees are not “real refugees” or that they are “economic refugees.” I hope by giving this flavor of ordinary life in Iran to make their judgment more informed.


Author’s note: I would like to thank my friend Professor Anne Pedersen for help editing my English in this essay.

Shokoofeh Azar is the author of essays, articles, and children’s books and is the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the entire length of the Silk Road. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, originally written in Farsi and translated by an anonymous translator, was shortlisted for Australia’s 2018 Stella Prize for Fiction and the 2020 International Booker Prize. It is her first novel to be translated into English.