The Trump administration has denied asylum to more than 100 Iranian Christian and other refugees who face possible persecution in their home country, despite White House promises to relieve the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East.
The group of refugees, mostly Christians along with other non-Muslims, have been stranded in the Austrian capital Vienna for more than a year, waiting for final approval to resettle in the United States. Now they face possible deportation back to Iran, where rights advocates say they face potential retaliation or imprisonment by the regime in Tehran for seeking asylum in the United States.
Vice President Mike Pence has vowed action to alleviate the suffering of Christians in the region and the administration has condemned the Iranian regime’s treatment of religious minorities. But critics said the decision on the Iranian Christians shows the administration had failed to live up to its own rhetoric.
“The hypocrisy of this administration has no boundaries,” said Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of U.S. programs at the International Rescue Committee. “It criticizes the Iranian regime, encouraged the protests, but refuses to provide safety to those who flee and are not safe from the Iranian government.”
The Iranians applied for visas under a U.S. law, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, designed to provide special refugee status to persecuted religious minorities, allowing them to resettle in the United States. The 1989 law was originally written to help Jews in the former Soviet Union and later was expanded to include Christian and other minorities in former Soviet states and Iran.
Before President Donald Trump entered office, similar refugee cases under the Lautenberg Amendment had an approval rate of close to 100 percent. Prior to arriving in Vienna, the refugees go through initial screening, and Austria then issues transit visas on request of the State Department. Once in Austria, the refugees are interviewed by U.S. authorities.
In the past, the procedure took a matter of weeks or a few months. But the process has grinded to a virtual halt under Trump’s tenure, and rights groups said the administration could be violating the U.S. law.
The Lautenberg Amendment obliges the U.S. government to explain the reason for a denial of refugee status “to the maximum extent feasible.” But the applicants are being told that the denial is a matter of discretion, rights advocates said.
A spokesperson for the State Department told Foreign Policy that the applications for resettlement had been rejected by the Department of Homeland Security but declined to provide a reason or other details. The DHS did not respond to requests for comment.
“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,” the spokesperson said in an email to FP.
The United States, Austria and other governments are working on possible options for the refugees, including resettlement or asylum elsewhere, according to the spokesperson. “The United States will not force anyone to return to Iran,” the official added.
Rights advocates and experts who monitor the treatment of Christian communities abroad say the Iranians have few options and will most likely be forced to travel back to Iran, where they will face potential retaliation and imprisonment.
“The Iranians in Vienna are in desperate circumstances. 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,” said Van de Weerd of the International Rescue Committee.
More than 4,500 other Iranians are registered in the program and have sponsors in the United States. But they are waiting in Iran for approval to travel to Vienna, he said.
Trump has taken a tough stance on immigration, imposing restrictions on how many refugees the United States will accept and seeking a travel ban on citizens from a number of mainly Muslim countries. But he has also promised to provide help for Christians in the Middle East. The apparent shift in how Washington enforces protections for certain categories of refugees has raised fears that the administration is seeking even broader limits on refugee resettlement.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed serious concern over the case. Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren of Illinois and Democratic Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts wrote a letter last month to Vice President Pence accusing the Departments of Homeland Security and State of “thwarting the purpose of this law by failing to grant the presumption of eligibility to these applicants.”
The group of applicants marooned in Vienna include elderly and disabled people, and it was difficult to see any security threat from them, the letter stated. “This sudden change in policy – from almost a hundred percent acceptance rate to nearly complete rejection – makes no sense, even on security grounds,” the congressmen wrote.
Moreover, Iranians previously admitted under the program with similar backgrounds have not posed a threat to the United States, it said.
Since the Lautenberg Amendment was expanded in 2004 to include Iranians, about 30,000 have resettled in the United States. Apart from Assyrian and Armenian Christians in Iran, members of the Jewish, Mandaean, Zoroastrian and Bahai communities have also received refugee status and resettled in the United States under the law.
Iran’s constitution, which portrays the Islamic Republic as an instrument of divine will, recognizes Shiite Islam as the official state religion. But while Iranian law contains provisions promoting religious freedom, it also places restrictions on the rights of religious minorities and treats members of the Bahai faith as heretics.