Iranian Kurds protest at UN office following asylum-seeker’s self-immolation

Gathered protestors in front of the UN compound in the Kurdistan Region's capital Erbil, May 20, 2021. (Photo: Nawras Abdulla / Kurdistan 24)
Gathered protestors in front of the UN compound in the Kurdistan Region's capital Erbil, May 20, 2021. (Photo: Nawras Abdulla / Kurdistan 24)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Kurds from Iran who are waiting for asylum decisions in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq protested in front of the United Nations headquarters in the capital on Thursday, just days after a man set fire to himself at the building.

Mohammad Mahmoudi, a Kurd from the Boukan region of Iran, poured gasoline on himself and set himself alight in front of the UN headquarters in Erbil on Tuesday. Mahmoudi, 27, suffered burns on more than 90 percent of his body and is now being treated at a public hospital in the city, said medics who spoke to Kurdistan 24.

Mahmoudi was seeking political asylum after fleeing Iran. Before he set himself on fire he said in remarks captured by some of the region’s news media that he had been living in the Kurdistan Region for four years without receiving an asylum decision from the UN Refugee Agency, which has an office at the Erbil compound.

"We have been living like homeless dogs for four years,” he said angrily as he held a plastic bottle filled with fuel. Reporters seen in the video, which shared widely on social media before it was taken down, were later criticized by the Kurdish public for not stopping Mahmoudi from setting himself on fire.

The Iranian Kurds who gathered in front of the UN buildings on Thursday condemned what they said was the international organization’s negligence of their rights and refugee cases, saying some of them had been waiting for decades for a decision.

“Our demand is to be resettled in a third country, which some of us have been waiting for decades for,” one protestor told Kurdistan 24 on Thursday.

According to the UN refugee agency, known as UNHCR, resettlement in a third country is one option for people who have fled their homes due to conflict or persecution and live precariously in another country. 

Resettlement refers to the transfer of refugees from the country where they first made contact with the UNHCR to another state that has agreed to ultimately give them permanent residence. People who are still waiting for a decision on their refugee status are called-asylum-seekers.

The protesters in Erbil urged the agency to respond to the “pending status” of asylum-seekers who have been waiting in the Kurdish region for years.

“I have come to the conclusion that even UNHCR has become the man of Islamic Republic,” another protestor told Kurdistan 24, expressing his disappointment at the agency’s perceived lack of willingness to find a solution to their cases.

Thousands of Kurds from Iran have left for the Kurdistan Region, some motivated by political opposition to the government but also for economic reasons as years of sanctions have taken a toll on Tehran’s finances.

More than 10,000 Kurds from Iran are registered with the UNHCR in the Kurdistan Region, according to the Joint Crisis Coordination Center .

Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly