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Iranians sue US government over 'mass denials' of refugee status

The Iranians are religious minorities seeking refugee status through a special US government programme.

A group of Iranians has filed a lawsuit demanding court intervention after the US government denied the refugee applications of roughly 90 refugees waiting in Austria. 

The Iranians are seeking refugee status in the US through the unique Lautenberg-Specter programme, which is meant to protect vulnerable groups such as religious minorities. 

The programme began with the Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1989, which allowed Jewish people from the former Soviet Union to apply for refugee status. In 2004, the Specter Amendment expanded the programme to Iranian nationals from minority religious groups. 

The Lautenberg-Specter programme requires a US resident to apply on behalf of the Iranian citizen, who then goes through a screening process. If they pass, the applicant then travels to Austria to continue the process of gaining refugee status. 

But in February, about 90 applicants who had already travelled through the programme "received notices of denial that stated only that they were being denied 'as a matter of discretion'," according to a press release from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). 

Some of the Iranians had been waiting over a year, the release said. 

'Cruelly whipped away'

The Iranians are represented by IRAP and the law firm of Latham & Watkins LLP.

Mariko Hirose, IRAP's litigation director, said in the statement the US government "extended a helping hand to these Iranian … religious minorities only to cruelly whip it away for no discernible reason at all".

One of the plaintiffs in the case, identified as Jane Doe #5, said in court filings that the blanket denial had "terrible impact" on her family.

"[B]ecause we had initially anticipated our stay in Austria to last only three to six months, we have run out of savings and are in dire financial straits," she said.

Belinda Lee, a partner with Latham & Watkins LLP, said their clients "long to be reunited as families and free from the risk of deportation back to Iran, where they would be at an even greater risk of persecution".

Religious freedom

Critics of Iran claim the country favours the rights of its Muslim majority, while disadvantaging its many religious minorities, such as Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and followers of the Bahai faith.

Others, however, highlight that Iran guarantees religious minorities such as Jews representation in its parliament.

President Hassan Rouhani pledged after he was elected in 2013 to work for the "total" freedom of Iranians in their personal lives.

"In today's world, having access to information and the right of free dialogue and the right to think freely is the right of all people, including the people of Iran," Rouhani told NBC News at the time.

The administration of US President Donald Trump has taken a hardline stance on Iran. The Trump administration has also initiated policies some have called "Islamophobic", including his executive order to ban immigration from some predominately-Muslim nations, including Iran.

The Trump team justified the orders, popularly called "Muslim bans", by citing national security concerns.

Daniel Mark, the chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government commission, said in a statement that national security "must remain a priority for all US government policies …Yet we also must make timely security assessments in keeping with the intent of the Lautenberg Amendment" to keep refugee applicants safe.

According to court documents, Jane Doe #5, waiting in Vienna, said she hopes the situation is soon resolved: "I am anxious to travel to the US and be reunited with my in-laws."


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