By Aida Ghajar
December 2, 2020
Many Iranian citizens have been reluctant to leave their country but felt compelled to do so for various reasons, including professional restrictions. Those who are forced to emigrate are generally seeking to reside in another country in order to live both safely and freely. But it comes at a personal and financial cost while their country of birth remains in the grip of sanctions.
Georgia has long been one of the first and most accessible destinations for departing Iranians hoping to forge a new life. But last year, the Georgian Foreign Ministry announced that in the first quarter of 2019 alone, it had blocked the entry of at least 6,400 foreign nationals, half of whom were Iranians.
Justina is a 30-year-old Iranian rapper, singer and songwriter who left Iran after being arrested due to of an arcane ban on female solo vocalists. She lived in Georgia for two years before moving to Sweden. Here, the artist tells IranWire about the difficulties she faced on the first leg of her reluctant journey.
Justina is in the final few months of her time in Georgia. After two years of residence in the country, she still faces banking and financial restrictions and cannot access many services. In an Instagram story, she brandishes her Iranian passport in front of the camera. “This,” she says bitterly, “is useless, and brings us nothing except misery, whether we are in Iran or outside. I put this story out there for you who think we are having lots of fun when we leave the country.”
Justina is a rapper who initially studied theater in Iran and later switched to music. Her lyrics often center on social issues, human rights and discrimination against women and sexual minorities. She was arrested and held in detention in Iran for three days her artistic output because women in Iran are still banned from singing solo. The experience prompted her to leave the country.
Having faced clear persecution, such as arrest or detention, for political reasons can help Iranians to claim asylum in a foreign country. But for those granted residency their Iranian background can also pose additional problems. In Georgia, for instance, they are required to undergo a criminal record check before undergoing certain administrative processes. And in 2017, following the escalation of sanctions against Iran, major Georgian banks received a notice calling for Iranian residents’ bank accounts to be closed.
The order had been issued by the US Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Banking pressures on Iranians in Georgia predated this; in 2013, Mahmoud Davari, a member of the Georgian International Chamber of Commerce, announced that more than 1,600 Iranian businesspeople had already been forced to leave the country. Georgia closed the bank accounts of 150 Iranians in early summer that year, accusing them of using the country’s financial system to circumvent sanctions and launder money.
Most of the restrictions on Iranian citizens in Georgia were created and continued due to sanctions and anti-money laundering regulations. The main opponents of the law are unsurprisingly the Revolutionary Guards, who are contemptuous of international law, but Iranian asylum seekers and migrants have also been impacted. In recent years Georgia has also become a locus for Iranian sex workers, and is a hotspot for human trafficking and prostitution. It is, however, a safe haven for those who have set up corporate entities in coordination with the government. Ordinary citizens such as journalists, activists, artists and students are the ones that suffer unfairly.
In Georgia, Justina could not so much as open a full bank account because of having an Iranian passport, despite producing her ID and other documents. In an interview with IranWire, she said: “After receiving all my documents, I could open an account with which I could only buy from stores. I was not allowed to buy or pay for anything online. No one could deposit money into my account. I had to go directly to the bank and deposit the cash myself. I was only allowed to shop in shops in Georgia, and when I could not renew my residency permit, they closed even this account.”
Justina’s residency was not extended due to her lack of security clearance. “When you do not have a bank account, you cannot find a job because you need a bank account to be employed,” she says. “A chain of events takes place that puts you under psychological pressure. You feel that you are officially considered “nothing” by the world, and have no value – purely because you came from a country whose leader and government are running a dictatorship. The whole world seems to be against the Islamic Republic, but the people are paying the price.
“The world is such that you cannot live without money. Bills, rent and food all depend on money. With these restrictions, you are constantly separated and humiliated. You are always immersed in the most basic needs of your life. Forced migration is difficult. Knowing that you cannot return home is stressful. The residency process, financial constraints and discriminatory attitudes make life even more difficult.”
Justina notes the arguments that sanctions could bring down the Iranian regime in the long run, but adds that Iranians abroad would also have to pay for the human and political cost of such an event. And in the meantime, she says, the hindering of economic progress in Iran impacts the people first and foremost. “If you stay in Iran, you bear the pressure, or if you have to flee, you will carry all the damage with you.” She is also cynical about the supposed aim of sanctions: “If the continuation of sanctions was to put pressure on the Islamic Republic and punish it, why, when the internet was cut off for a week in November 2019 and people were killed, did the international community not react, and why did no one come to the people’s rescue?”
The anniversary of the November 2019 protests recently passed in Iran. On the pretext of controlling coronavirus, effective martial law was declared in the country while Iranians tried to raise awareness online of the 1,500 people thought to have died on the streets and in detention centers as a result of security crackdowns. The world at large seems reluctant to acknowledge the human rights abuses of the Iranian government, with many of the most high-profile confrontations about Iran focusing instead on the issue of sanctions.
But the impact of sanctions, Justina adds, is also itself discriminatory. “All the pressure is on the people,” she says. “Even if they revolt, go to war, become poorer and face humiliation outside Iran, the Islamic Republic will not care. Governments, even Western governments, play with the people. Governments are like children who ruin their toys in fights. Those toys are us, and they, like children, may become friends again, but toys cannot be repaired. The people of the Middle East crumble and perish; nobody pays attention. Why do we, the people, always have to pay the price? Because on one side of the earth there must always be a war so that on the other side, a few can live in peace.”