What is Camp Ashraf?
Camp Ashraf is a community of 3,400 Iranian exiles and refugees who fled their country in the years following Iran’s Islamic revolution. It is located 60km north of Baghdad, in Iraq.
Who lives there?
The camp is famous (or infamous) as a centre for the banned Iranian opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK). It has been described as the Iranian opposition’s “headquarters”. The PMOI supports free elections, gender equality and equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. The PMOI also advocates a free-market economy and peace in the Middle East.
In 1979, the PMOI were targeted in Iran by the new theocratic government of Ayatollah Khomeini. The PMOI fought back with their own terrorist attacks on the Iranian Islamic government. In the face of continued repression, the PMOI leadership eventually fled, first to France and then to Iraq where they established Camp Ashraf.
The PMOI were welcomed into Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. Iraq, with Western backing, was at that time engaged in war with Iran. Saddam funded and armed the PMOI at Camp Ashraf: they had a common enemy in Iran.
Following the overthrow of Saddam, the US forces took responsibility for the security of Camp Ashraf. They granted the inhabitants “Protected Person” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Since the end of the US occupation, however, the Iraqi government has moved closer to Iran, putting the future of Camp Ashraf in doubt. The UK government takes the view that the Camp Ashraf “Protected Person” status no longer applies because the country is no longer in a state of war.
The PMOI were designated a terrorist organisation by the US in 1997, as a show of support for a (comparatively) moderate Iranian government at the time. The PMOI were also listed as terrorists by the EU in 2002, but this ruling was overturned in 2009. The PMOI are no longer considered a terrorist organisation by the EU or by the UK.
In May 2005, a Human Rights Watch report claimed that the PMOI were committing severe human rights violations against former PMOI members. This claim has been repudiated by the PMOI and a number of independent authorities, but the charge still stands.
There is no question that – as with all political groups across the world – there is much fault to be found within the PMOI. However, it would be a grievous mistake to confuse the protection of Camp Ashraf with politics. This is a mistake that could cost many lives.
The massacre of 2011
In April 2011, following a similar attack in 2009, Camp Ashraf was attacked by Iraqi forces. At least 47 residents were killed in these attacks and hundreds wounded. To compound these atrocities, the camp is currently under an Iraqi blockade, which prevents medical supplies from reaching the wounded. As a result of this blockade, at least 12 injured residents have died from treatable wounds in the past year. As recently as the 11th of January 2012, Iraqi forces prevented the entry of five special beds for paralysed patients.
The commander responsible for the 2011 massacre is being investigated by a Spanish court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against international community.
The attack was documented in gruesome detail by the residents, sometimes recording at the cost of their own lives.
The massacre of 2012?
The Iranian government has been pressing Iraq to close Camp Ashraf, as its residents and the PMOI pose a direct ideological threat to the current theocratic regime in Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded favourably to this pressure and vowed to close the camp by April 2012.
“Iraqis consider the [PMOI] as terrorists and criminals and don’t want this criminal group to remain on their soil… In April there will no longer be a Camp Ashraf.”– Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Maliki had previously promised that he would close the camp by the end of 2011. This threat has been postponed thanks to a last-minute arrangement with the UN. The UN was granted a six-month extension by Maliki, during which time the residents of Camp Ashraf will be transferred to a former US military base (ironically named “Camp Liberty”) and have their refugee status assessed by the UN.
On the 29th of December 2011, the first residents started to move to the new camp, as a “gesture of goodwill” according to PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi. However, these people have been prevented from transferring their assets and vehicles to their new homes. Furthermore, only a small area of the camp has been allocated to the refugees and cooking and water facilities are far worse than at Camp Ashraf. Camp Liberty is at risk of becoming a prison, surrounded by Iraqi police and armed forces.
Given the Iraqi government’s record of massacre at Camp Ashraf, it is hard to imagine that the closure of the camp will pass off without bloodshed.
What can be done?
To prevent a massacre, there must be independent monitoring of the camp. Until 2009, this was the responsibility of the US forces based in Iraq. With the end of the US occupation, that protection is no longer there and Camp Ashraf is at the mercy of the Iraqi military. The people of Camp Ashraf have no means of physical protection.
The people of Camp Ashraf do not have UN refugee status. They do hold protected persons status, conferred under the Fourth Geneva Convention by the occupying US army. However, this status only applies under conditions of war. Therefore the people of Camp Ashraf have no protection under international law.
The removal of these two protections, physical and legal, means that the people of Camp Ashraf are increasingly vulnerable.
The solution is clear: for the UN to confer refugee status on camp as a whole and, in the meantime, to station a monitoring team on the ground to prevent a massacre. Then every member of the camp could be granted asylum in a democratic country – and not sent back to Iran to face punishment from the regime there. However, this simple solution is complicated by the status of PMOI as a terrorist organisation in the US.
Furthermore, the UN process of according refugee status will take a long time. The people of Camp Ashraf don’t have a long time – they have only weeks, until April. In April, remember, Prime Minister Maliki has promised the end of Camp Ashraf, one way or another.
The Iran Liberty Association, the writing of this article and a metaphor
The Iran Liberty Association is a group that aims to promote human rights in Iran and to support Iranian refugees. They are very active on the streets of London. Five years ago, I was approached by a man from Iran Liberty on Tottenham Court Road, asking for my help. I must have given this man my contact details because, earlier this week, he phoned me back to see if we could meet up.
So I went to see him and, as we sat in the sunshine of Camden Lock, he told his story of Camp Ashraf. He showed me a video of the 2011 Iraqi attack on Camp Ashraf and he explained how the residents of the camp needed help raising funds to expedite their case at the UN, to bring their story to the world’s media and to help prevent another massacre. He emphasised the importance of the people at the camp, describing them as intellectuals and defenders of freedom who formed the backbone of Iranian opposition to the oppressive regime in Tehran under President Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs.
There has been some suggestion on Internet message boards that Iran Liberty and Camp Ashraf are somehow fabrications, that they are a way of extracting money from unsuspecting wooly-headed liberals. A cursory investigation will convince even the most cynical that Camp Ashraf does indeed exist, is home to Iranian dissidents and is being targeted by Iraqi forces at the behest of the current government in Iran. Sources as diverse as The Daily Mail, the BBC and Amnesty International attest to this.
I am unable and (at least partially) unwilling to become too deeply embroiled in the political battles of a country so far from my own, that I understand so little, but I did promise that I would tell people about Camp Ashraf on my blog. This is where this article has grown from.
Also at our meeting was a gentleman who’d flown from Paris to contribute to the urgent Camp Ashraf campaign. He was a writer and poet, far more experienced than me, and he gave me as a parting gift a short story of his. I hope he won’t mind if I share a quote with you.
The story is about a man who is staring into a goldfish bowl at a tiny little fish. The man watches as the fish explores his bowl, with its seaweed, pebbles and shells. But the little fish seems agitated, not quite content with his home. Day by day, hour by hour, the fish grows bigger and bigger and he starts to see the bowl as more like a cage than a home. Eventually, the fish grows so large that the bowl can’t contain him any more. The man watches on as, with an almighty push of his fully-grown fins, the fish breaks clear of the water and out of his cage-bowl:
“The cage turns upside down. Its water pours into the room. You’re busy flapping your wings. The water completely covers the room. It rises. It reaches the ceiling. When you’ve leapt through the windowpane, the sky is blue. You are lost among the clouds. And now I’m swimming in the waters of the room. I rise up. I move down. I near the walls of a glass and stare at someone who is staring at me from the other side. My fins are growing larger.”
The metaphor is strong, I think. For me, it shows how, when one group gains power and freedom, they may well drown their neighbours, but they also show the way.