A group of 100 Iranians, most of whom are Christians, are currently marooned in Vienna, Austria, and have been for the past year. They’re caught in limbo between the American Dream they were promised and the threat of being forcibly returned to Iran.
Their fate took a grave turn this month, as the US State Department confirmed that a number of the stranded refugees would not be granted resettlement in the US under the Trump administration’s tighter requirements for refugees, leaving them with just weeks to leave Austria and return to Iran.
On Wednesday, Austrian police raided the building where some of the Iranians have been staying, reported WORLD magazine. Travel and identity documents, including passports, were seized in the operation.
“These individuals were subject to the same rigorous process for resettlement as all refugees and, following input from all relevant departments and agencies, the applications for resettlement were denied,” a department spokesperson said in a statement provided to CT.
“The United States will not force anyone to return to Iran,” the statement continued. “The United States, the government of Austria, and others are working together on protection options for denied applicants that could include resettlement or asylum elsewhere.”
The bad news comes after a year of uncertainty for the refugees in Vienna, which was meant to be only a stopover point as the refugees traveled from Iran to the United States. They arrived in the European capital city last January, granted passage to the West under the Lautenberg Amendment. A Cold War-era law passed by the US Congress to help Jews escape persecution in the Soviet Union, the policy was updated in 2004 to accommodate other persecuted religious minorities.
Expecting to quickly move on to the US to unite with family and friends already living there—a third were to be resettled in California—their case stalled due to a hold enacted for unreported reasons toward the end of the Obama administration.
The threat of denial notices from the US emerged as early as the first week of 2018, said Ann Buwalda, executive director of Jubilee Campaign, an organization that advocates for persecuted religious minorities. Now, a majority of the 100 refugees in limbo are believed to have officially received their rejections.
“The US has broken its promise to Iranian religious minorities,” said Buwalda.
“They traveled to Vienna at the invitation of the United States, with the understanding that they would soon be reunited with their American families. Instead, the refugee applicants in Vienna today have been forced to wait there for more than a year with no explanation for their delayed departures. They have no source of income, and many have spent down their life savings.”
End of a long wait
Since 2001, nearly 33,000 members of religious minorities from Iran have been welcomed to America under the Lautenberg Amendment. Each of them passed through Austria, a longtime partner in the US immigration and family reunification process. All participants arrived in Vienna pre-screened and thoroughly vetted and, before 2017, the average wait-time for these individuals was less than three months, said Buwalda.
For these 100 Iranians, however—most of them from heavily persecuted communities of Armenian and Assyrian Christians—something changed.
“High-level administration officials are monitoring the progress,” a White House official told The Washington Free Beacon last month. “Certain complexities exist that the administration has to work through, including human-rights concerns and national security. But the administration is certainly engaged.”
Back in January, a spokesperson with the State Department emphasized the vetting process these refugees must undergo.
“The safety and security of the American people are paramount,” she said. “For individuals who cannot be resettled in the United States, the US government-funded Resettlement Support Center (RSC) provides counseling on options, and the US government may also work with international partner organizations to identify other potential resettlement locations. In some cases, applicants who have been denied voluntarily choose to return to Iran.”
With the latest State Department update, the decision has been made for them; they are forced to return.
“The Iranians in Vienna are in desperate circumstances,” Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of US programs at the International Rescue Committee, told Foreign Policy. “Without income or the right to stay in Austria, they have but no choice to be deported to Iran, unless another nation steps up or Austria grants them asylum.”
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Source: Christianity Today