|One of the obstacles to resettling the MeK is that its leadership has made clear that it wants the approximately 3,500 members to be moved either to a single country or to a small number of countries (preferably with strong social welfare systems) in order to protect the group’s vitality.|
Option 2: Resettling the MeK in Third Countries
Given the IRI’s history of persecuting members of the MeK, the United States presumed that the principle of nonrefoulement prohibits repatriating the MeK to Iran. Therefore, resettlement in a third country was deemed to be the only viable option for the long term. So far, however, attempts to accomplish this goal have not been successful.
Resettling Current MeK Members
One of the obstacles to resettling the MeK is that its leadership has made clear that it wants the approximately 3,500 members to be moved either to a single country or to a small number of countries (preferably with strong social welfare systems) in order to protect the group’s vitality. To help facilitate that outcome, during the first year of consolidation at Camp Ashraf, the MeK leadership asked the UNHCR to grant its members refugee status.5
But the question remains whether each MeK member could substantiate a well-founded fear of persecution from Iran, and the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention has exclusions that deny refugee status to persons who have committed crimes under international law, serious nonpolitical crimes, and acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. Would-be refugees cannot commit or condone violence, and refugee status provides no immunity from prosecution for criminal or terrorist acts committed at any time.
Despite the MeK’s public renunciation of violence in 2001, its previous history of violence and the leadership’s requests for the return of its weapons during OIF made it highly unlikely that the UNHCR would grant refugee status to the entire group.
Furthermore, even if refugee status were to be conferred, sovereign states are not required to grant asylum. Rather, they may take it into account as they consider individual requests.
The UNHCR projects that the subset of registered refugees who will require resettlement in 2009 will number 565,000; only 70,000 places were made available for resettlement in 2008.6 Considering that the Iraq war displaced more than 4 million people and that only 3,183 Iraqis were resettled between 2003 and 2006,7 it became increasingly unlikely that any country would admit members of a designated FTO in preference to other refugees from Iraq. Ultimately, the MeK abandoned its efforts to achieve refugee status, but it still requests resettlement, to no avail.
Resettling Former MeK Members
Among MeK members who had renounced the group and taken up residence in the coalition’s temporary internment facility, approximately 200 hoped to be resettled in Europe rather than repatriated to Iran. The JIATF believed that these former members had a better chance of resettlement than current MeK members. In 2004, the JIATF helped facilitate applications to the UNHCR on behalf of those individuals.
All but 11 of these former MeK members were granted refugee status in a highly expedited process involving videoconference interviews.8
Still, no country would accept any current or former member of the MeK who did not already have valid rights of residence. The UNHCR indicated that a few countries might consider such action but only if the United States would accept a token number.9
For its part, the United States is precluded from granting legal residence to any current or former MeK members because the Immigration and Nationality Act (as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996) bars admission of certain classes
of aliens—i.e., individuals who are currently members of an FTO, who have engaged in or incited terrorist activity, or who have received “military-type” training “from or on behalf of” any FTO that was classified as such at the time the training was received.10
The MeK’s own propaganda indicated that nearly everyone at its camps was a member of the National Liberation Army and had received some type of weapons training. Moreover, MeK members would most certainly have received military training between 1997 and 2001, the year in which the group ceased to claim responsibility for attacks against Iranian targets.
Unlike some other provisions of the act, the exclusion prohibiting military-type training could not be waived even if the Secretary of State were to remove the MeK from the FTO list. Therefore, if resettling any current or former MeK members in third countries were contingent upon the United States following suit, the option did not exist. A short- to medium-term solution was crafted when TF-134 successfully negotiated with the Kurdistan Regional Government to take responsibility for refugees within its territory. In late 2008, the remaining former MeK members residing at the ARC (numbering fewer than 200, most of whom had refugee status) were moved into Kurdistan, where they had freedom of movement.11 Most of them reportedly used their freedom of movement to leave Iraq, and the ARC was closed in December 2008.12
5 Stated very broadly, international refugee law links with domestic asylum law to give individuals who flee persecution a means of securing rights of residency for the purpose of protection from persecution rather than for the more common immigration purposes of economic opportunity and family ties. The UNHCR screens applicants for refugee statusto determine whether they meet international qualifications and helps facilitate resettlement if appropriate. (Different refugee law provisions apply to people who are displaced from their homes by war, famine, or natural disasters, as opposed to persecution. Most of these populations are not resettled but instead wait to return home.)
6 UNHCR, 2008. Stateless refugees who cannot return home and cannot be resettled sometimes end up as “permanent refugees.”
7 Amnesty International, 2007, p. 31.
8 Interview with a former JIATF commander, February 2008.
9 Interview with DOS official, October 2007.
10 8 U.S.C. 12 §1182(a)(3)(B)(viii); see also Pub. L. 104-132.