Thousands of Iranians are fleeing their country for political or religious reasons, passing through Turkey in the search for refuge in the West.
Ahmad Bahbahani, who said he is a former Iranian secret service agent, won instant international fame when he said in Turkey that Iran was to blame for the Pan-Am airliner bombing over Lockerbie, in Scotland, in 1988.
That claim was rejected by Iran and questioned by the CIA.
Metin Corabatir, spokesman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) in Turkey, said that Iranians constituted a high proportion of asylum seekers arriving in the country.
Of the nearly 7,000 people who registered with the UNHCR in Turkey in 1999, 96 percent were from Iran or Iraq, most of them Iranians, said Corabatir, adding that 1,800 cases were accepted.
Among them, a considerable number were members of the Bahai faith, persecuted in Iran but who have established strong communities in the United States and in Canada.
An estimated 1.5 million Iranians have arrived in Turkey since the Islamic revolution of 1979, but Ankara does not provide asylum for the nationals of its neighbors, fearing a greater influx of refugees, and Turkey remains only a transit stop.
Those who illegally cross the mountains on the border between Iraq and Turkey apply for a temporary residence permit from Turkish authorities, allowing them time to register with the UNHCR for permanent refuge in a third country.
This is the procedure reportedly followed by Bahbahani, but the UNHCR has refused to confirm this.
According to Turkish authorities, the Iranian stayed for several days at Yozgat, 150 kilometers east of Ankara, one of 20 Turkish towns boasting a refugee center. But hundreds of others stay underground. Sometimes they are arrested by the Turkish police and sent back to Iran.
Tehran, whose relations with Ankara are often strained, protested officially last month against "massive" arrests of Iranians in Istanbul, but Turkey said those involved were illegal immigrants.
Ankara has accused Tehran of supporting Islamist groups in Turkey and sheltering militants of the Kurdish PKK rebel movement.
The UNHCR pays around 60 million Turkish lira (about 100 dollars) monthly to asylum seekers, while awaiting the response of possible haven countries - particularly the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland.
The usual waiting time is a year to 18 months. "People ofen flee their country after having been persecuted and have undergone trauma which we try to alleviate by psychotherapy," Corabatir said.
One Iranian asylum seeker who asked not to be named said he had been waiting for nine months in Turkey. "I would go to any Western country. It would be better than Iran," he said - ANKARA (AFP)
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