The Guardian – Four Iranians, including a 17-year-old boy, are on hunger strike and have sewn their lips together with fishing wire in protest at plans by the British government to send them back to Tehran.
The men, who are among six protesters to have not eaten for 16 days, say they were beaten, tortured and in one case raped after taking part in anti-regime protests that swept Iran in 2009. They claim that although their lives would be in danger in Iran they have been “ignored and dismissed” by UK authorities since they sought refuge in the country last year.
“We have sewn our mouths because there is no other way,” said Keyvan Bahari, 32, who has scars across his back and arms from what he said was 12 days of being slashed with razor blades by the Iranian authorities when he was a student. “Nobody in the UK hears us or cares what we say so we have no other option but to do this.”
Bahari, a former champion wrestler who ran his own training centre in Tehran, said the media and government in the UK and US had encouraged him and tens of thousands of other young people to stand up against the regime but had now “washed their hands” of the protesters.
“When I was back in Tehran, I was seeing Obama and British officials on our illegal satellite TVs, encouraging us day in day out to continue our protest,” said Bahari, who is one of three men camping on the pavement outside Lunar House immigration centre in Croydon. Speaking with difficulty through his sewn-up lips, which are already sore and infected, he said: “They said that they will support us but now that I’m stuck in here and need help, they are nowhere.”
The men say they are taking liquids, but doctors say that even so, they could deteriorate quickly, especially if they have pre-existing medical conditions.
Mahyar Meyari, 17, lying in the small tent next to Bahari, recalls how he was raped after being arrested following a demonstration on al-Quds day in 2009. “I was blindfolded and taken to an unknown place where I was kept for a week. I was kicked on the head by batons many times … and even raped,” he said before breaking down.
Mahyar paid a smuggler to get him out of the country but says he did not know where he was being taken before he arrived in the UK 16 days later. “I can’t explain how I feel here, I can’t believe what’s happening to me,” said Mahyar, who does not speak English. “When I claimed asylum with the Home Office, they first didn’t believe that I’m 17 years old, they said I was lying. There’s a culture of disbelief in the Home Office, everybody thinks you are lying by default.”
The men’s asylum claims were all turned down, although some are still involved in appeals. They say they feel let down by the legal system and the lawyers appointed by the Home Office to represent them.
“I’m very discontent about my legal representation,” said Bahari. “I saw my lawyer more as a Home Office officer than a lawyer there to protect my rights. He was more looking after the rights of the Home Office.”
A government spokesman said the UK Border Agency “takes every asylum application it receives seriously” adding the men were given “every opportunity to make their representations to us as well as a right to appeal the decision to the courts”.
He added: “They all had access to free legal advice as well as a designated UK Border Agency caseowner who considered their case on its individual merits.”
However, the men say they have had very little contact with the Home Office since they began their protest and campaigners – and fellow Iranian activists – say asylum seekers are fighting a culture of disbelief across the government.
“The people who are supposed to interview asylum seekers in the Home Office, they do not interview these people, they interrogate them,” said Akbar Karimian, an Iranian activist who has been helping the group. “They search for an error or a mistake in their testimonies so that they can find a contradictory evidence to reject their claim. You imagine that the officers in a refugee organisation of this government are there to help these vulnerable people, but they are there to find a way to send them back.”
Campaigners say the UK hunger strike is a sign of the increasing desperation among Iranian asylum seekers. One man died after setting himself alight in Amsterdam this month and 25 Iranians sewed their lips together in Greece in an attempt to secure refugee status. The Medical Foundation, which is preparing a report on Meyari’s condition for his next appeal, says 293 Iranians were referred to the organisation for help in 2010.
Lying in the tent, Mahyar said the UK hunger strikers, like many fellow Iranians, were prepared for drastic action. “I prefer to die here than going back to Iran. I’ll continue this protest until somebody comes here and asks me why I’m doing this, until somebodycares about what has happened to me.”