Turkey gives temporary haven to fleeing Iranians on way to US

The Esendere border station presents a peaceful scene on a summer day. The large parking area in front of the Turkish customs building is empty. In a field on the side lie a dozen abandoned cars, some lacking motors. Their occupants had made it across the border with Iran and then proceeded by other means.

But this solitude masks the fact that Esendere is a haven for Iranians fleeing across the Turkish border.

``The biggest traffic here is no longer in goods but in people,'' observed a hotel manager in Yuksekova, the last Turkish town on the highway that leads eastward into Iranian Kurdistan.

``Conditions are bad in Iran [and] people are desperate to get out. Some cross legally at Esendere, but far larger numbers cannot get passports. They come on trails over the mountains. There is a whole group of people in this region who specialize in this business [helping Iranians get across the border] and make good money off it,'' the manager continued.

Yuksekova sprawls over a flat plain at the foot of a long range of snow-capped mountains that form the boundary with Iraq on the south. Brightly painted one- and two-story buildings on both sides of a broad, dusty main street give it the air of a setting for an American Wild Western.

The cost of getting a person across? ``The average price is 1 million Turkish lira (approx. $2,000), but it can be more or less depending on the circumstances,'' the man explained. ``It is a question of how many people come together and what they are trying to bring with them.''

Customs officials at the Esendere border post would neither confirm nor deny the brisk border traffic in people described to me in Yuksekova. Conditions on the border were ``normal,'' they insisted, and they had ``friendly'' relations with their Iranian counterparts.

On the Iranian side of the border stands a huge billboard with a painting of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the legend, in Turkish and Farsi, ``America is the Big Devil!'' Apart from a couple of Iranian guards lounging behind the barrier, there is no sign of activity there at all. Turkish soldiers guarding the border barrier encouraged us to photograph the billboard. Customs officials later objected, saying that it would offend the Iranians.

Iranians who wish to come to Turkey are all accepted, the Turkish customs officials assured us. If they do not have passports, they are given refugee status. No one is turned back.

But such Iranians are also not permitted to remain in eastern Turkey for more than a few days, since the Turks do not want a concentration of Iranian refugees along the eastern frontier.

Periodic reports in the Western press say that there are groups of Iranian opponents to the Khomeini government concentrated in eastern Turkey, ready to strike into Iran as soon as the religious regime falters. These reports appear to have no basis in fact.

What happens, then, to the Iranians who escape to Turkey? Few stay permanently even in the Western part of the country.

A visit to the United States Consulate in Istanbul one morning provided part of the answer. Long lines of drably attired people, mostly young men, had formed at the gate of the consular section. They were all Iranians applying for American visas.

``America may be the `Big Devil' for Khomeini,'' mused one visa officer, ``but the first priority for most of the Iranians who come out is to get to the `Land of the Big Devil' as soon as possible.'' Many go to France, Germany, England, and elsewhere in Europe, but for most the preferred destination is the US.

Paul Henze served on the National Security Council during the Carter administration. He is now a consultant for the Rand Corporation in Washington, D.C.

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