Sulaymaniyah City, Iraq – On May 18, Behzad Mahmoudi, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iran, set himself on fire in front of the United Nations office in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Four years ago, the 26-year-old fled his hometown of Boukan in western Iran in the hope of a better future away from the persecution and discrimination that many Kurds in Iran are facing.
But when Mahmoudi arrived at the KRG, he could not find a permanent job or an income. Desperate for a way out, he applied to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for temporary accommodation and asylum in a third country. But his friend told Al Jazeera that Mahmoudi’s requests went unanswered.
In protest against the harsh living conditions in the KRG and the UN’s delays in processing his asylum application, Mahmoudi doused himself in gasoline and lit a lighter as he stood in front of the UN office. A few moments later, his body was surrounded by a ball of flame.
Mahmoudi was badly burned and died in hospital a week later from complications from his injuries.
The young man’s story reflects the plight of tens of thousands of Iranian Kurds who, after fleeing to the KRG, are desperate in the hope of a better life.
Up to 35 million Kurds live in a mountainous region on the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They form the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but have never been given a permanent nation-state.
Almost 10 million Kurds live in western Iran, on the border with Iraq and Turkey. The ethnic minority has been demanding more political and cultural rights since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Opposition parties – including the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDPI) founded in Northern Iraq and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) – have repeatedly led an armed struggle against the Iranian government in order to establish an autonomous Kurdish state.
Hard living conditions
Mahmoudi’s friend and Iranian compatriot, who only identified himself as a Grami for security reasons, comes from the province of West Azerbaijan in Iran. He told Al Jazeera that he was with his friend the day he took his own life.
Although Grami, 23, also planned to set himself on fire, he gave up moving when he rushed to rescue his friend when Mahmoudi was on fire.
Grami said both young men were employed as construction workers in Erbil at the time of the incident. They could not afford housing and had been living on an unfinished construction site for several months.
âMahmoudi and I were close. We worked hard, but we always had financial problems, were unemployed, or couldn’t afford permanent housing. We have been to the United Nations several times, but they did not respond to our request for help, âhe said in a telephone interview.
He added the last time the couple went to UNHCR in Erbil, they were not allowed to enter.
“We threatened to burn ourselves in protest, but the guards mocked us and told us it would be better to do it in front of headquarters,” he said.
Search for autonomy
Grami said that despite the threat of deportation to Iran by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and their repeated requests for help, neither he nor Mahmoudi received any financial support from the UN.
According to Grami, both he and Mahmoudi were civilian members of the Sazman Khabat, an armed political group founded in 1980 by Iranian Kurds who wanted ethnic minority autonomy. Grami said he participated in several demonstrations in Iran as an activist.
Last year, Iranian Kurdish Mustafa Salimi, 53, who applied for asylum in the KRG after escaping from a prison in Iran, was reportedly turned over by local Kurdish security forces to Iranian authorities who later executed him.
Salimi was reportedly among thousands of inmates in eight prisons in Iran protesting fears of the coronavirus spreading in prison cells.
According to the reports, the KRG announced that it had formed a special committee to investigate the allegations. The results of the committee are not yet known.
Criticism of the media
Mahmoudi’s self-immolation was caught on camera. Videos shared on social media showed him setting himself on fire when a few journalists with microphones stood idly by.
Talking about the events leading up to the incident, Grami said after the two friends bought fuel they called a group of journalists to share their plan. They were told to pretend to set themselves on fire.
âThey assured us that they would prevent us from actually burning ourselves. We wanted to give up the plan, but we were ashamed to resign, âsaid Grami. “So we went on and waited for the journalists to stop us, but unfortunately the tragedy happened.”
The day after the incident, the KRG’s media and information department released a statement condemning the actions of the media organizations present and saying they had “no regard for the journalistic integrity and ethics and broadcasting laws and guidelines of the Kurdistan region”.
The KRG authorities added that they would take steps to prevent such an incident from happening again.
“What we’ve seen shows a grave disregard for the ethics of journalism,” Mem Burhan, a KRG lawmaker and member of Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Civil Society, told Al Jazeera.
“It was inhuman and immoral for journalists to prioritize reporting the news before putting out the burning man,” he added.
The apparent inaction of journalists towards Mahmoudi and the perceived unconcern by the UN sparked sharp criticism on social media and sparked protests against the difficult living conditions of many Iranian Kurdish refugees and asylum seekers in the KRI.
After the incident, dozens of Kurdish refugees from Iran protested outside the UN office in Erbil when KRG police reportedly used force to disperse the demonstrators.
The protesters also submitted a letter to UN officials demanding more rights, including humanitarian aid, temporary housing and access to health care for asylum seekers.
In the nine-point letter they also called on the UN to âtake rapid action to deal with the cases of political asylum seekersâ and to distinguish them from social asylum seekers and refugees.
“Iranian Kurds seeking political asylum at the UN are the most marginalized group among the refugees in Iraq,” Arsalan Yar Ahmadi, board member of the Hengaw organization for human rights in Kurdistan, told Al Jazeera. “You face all sorts of injustices and discrimination.”
According to Ahmadi, in 2006 the UN stopped registering Iranian Kurds in the KRI as asylum seekers.
Instead, they would be registered as refugees, he said, estimating that there were “nearly 30,000 Iranian Kurdish political asylum seekers in the KRG whose lives would be in danger if they returned to Iran”.
“These asylum seekers receive little financial support from the United Nations and face many problems in terms of housing, paperwork, health care, education and job search,” said Ahmadi.
“Consistent refugee policy”
UNHCR spokesman Firas al-Khateeb denied the allegations, saying that the UN office in Erbil was handling all asylum seeker cases in accordance with the standards of international refugee and humanitarian law.
âWe are evaluating the cases of 10,000 Iranian Kurds according to a consistent refugee policy. We examine every refugee or asylum seeker case that we receive, âal-Khateeb told Al Jazeera on the phone.
“But in order to register someone as an asylum seeker who can apply for UNHCR aid, we must first ensure that they are actually civilians and not people with a militant background.”
He stated that refugees and asylum seekers should follow “specific” procedures when seeking help from the United Nations, adding that decisions on relocation of asylum seekers to a third country are not made by the UNHCR but by the receiving countries.
While some Iranian Kurds in the KRG are hoping to be relocated to a third country, others have chosen to stay.
Many of them have married Iraqi Kurds and have lived in the KRG for more than a decade. Many have yet to be granted Iraqi citizenship.
Under Iraqi law, a refugee who meets certain conditions can apply for Iraqi citizenship. However, the Iraqi constitution provides that the power to grant citizenship to foreigners is solely the responsibility of the federal government in Baghdad. Nevertheless, the KRG is said to have granted citizenship to several Iranian Kurds in 2006.
On condition of anonymity, an Iranian Kurd from this group told Al Jazeera that his status and stay in the KRG remained unclear despite receiving his passport.
“The Iraqi government does not recognize the KRG’s power to naturalize foreign nationals,” he said. “Our nationalities could be withdrawn from us at any time.”