Iranian Jews, Christians, and Baha’i Stuck in Iran

Vienna was always the transit point for people facing religious persecution in Iran who wanted to reach the U.S. Now, hundreds have been told to go back to their tormentors.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

BERLIN, Germany—Maybe, just maybe, President Donald Trump will feel something akin to sadness to know that his new border rules prompted Austria to cancel three hundred transit visas, which had been intended for Iranian Christians, Jews and Baha’i trying to flee religious persecution at home.

For decades, Austria has been acting as the go-between for refugees from Iran who have a prospects of admittance to the United States (which doesn’t have an embassy in Tehran). The program began originally as an endeavor by the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg to help Jews and Evangelical Christians out of the Soviet Union, but developed into a national program focused on Iran, which also makes other religious minorities in Iran eligible for refugee status, most notably the much-persecuted Baha'is.

This week, around 300 hopeful applicants were getting ready to travel from Iran to Austria with documents that would allow them to stay there for about six months. The stay itself hardly rates raves, given there is little to do but trudge through the asylum application process with help from a local NGO, go to the U.S. embassy for interviews, and bite one’s nails while waiting for official approval from the United States come summertime. It was a nerve-wrecking experience—but worth it.

No longer, though. “U.S. authorities told us that the onward trip for people to the USA, who received visas from Austrian authorities as part of the program, would be put on hold for now,“ Thomas Schnöll, the Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told the Associated Press. The message reportedly arrived several days before Trump signed the decree on Friday.

The Foreign Ministry in Vienna has been trying to contact the 300 applicants to inform them that they can’t come to Austria after all. But so far, they’ve only reached 100 people. We don’t know many of the remaining 200 are already on the move from Iran to Austria. The Foreign Ministry in Vienna has been spending the weekend searching through its records for airline bookings in order to track down these remaining applicants and put a last-minute stop to their quest for refuge.

Three Iranians (one elderly couple and one young woman) were left stranded at the airport in Vienna on Saturday, despite having valid travel documents and tickets for flights to the U.S. The woman took a flight back to Iran, while the elderly couple spent the night in Vienna.

Meanwhile, Schnöll has said it is “legally impossible” for Austria to accept the Iranian asylum seekers in the USA’s stead. And the small country’s tough line doesn’t just come as a response to Washington’s latest. Austria, strained by 2015’s influx of refugees, has been introducing caps and stricter security measures ever since. It was never interested in being more than a short-term transit point for the Iranians, and it certainly isn’t now.

And this was made coldly clear in a State Department email on Tuesday: Any previously approved applicant who now tries to enter Austria anyway will be blocked permanently.

As for the estimated 30 Iranian applicants who are already in Austria on a short-term visa, their fate is uncertain. In prior years, The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS, a processing centre in Vienna) told refugees who got rejected in Austria not to go back to Iran—because the discrimination and harassment that forced them to leave in the first place was likely to get even worse upon their return.

So where else can they go? By way of Austria, Iranian Jews can travel to Israel, but that is not an option for other religious minorities. (And it is very difficult to immigrate to Israel from Iran directly).

We don’t know yet how Trump’s hasty orders will shake out once the courts are done with him, and how nations that have acted as points of transit for the United States so far will reshape their own border policies accordingly. Austria’s government, like several other European countries, hasn’t even made a statement condemning Trump’s actions yet. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite a polite phone call with Trump, finally had her spokesman come out Sunday and denounce Trump’s unjustifiable “general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion”).

In the past, there have been several discussions about curbing the Iranian Lautenberg immigration program, which, according the HIAS, “eases the burden of proof for members of historically persecuted groups.” Critics have argued that many other refugees would benefit from a move to the United States more than religious minorities in Iran.

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But for now, these discussions are finished, because US officials have simply suspended the program. If, when and on what terms it will begin again? No one knows.

If this is what happens to the refugees that Trump supposedly favors, one must wonder what on earth can we expect to happen to all the immigrants that he so obviously loathes?