The silent exodus
"I got baptised in May 2005. I could not imagine what happened afterwards". Moha Shoar (36) is from Tehran, the capital of Iran. She grew up in a conservative Muslim family, her father being a former general, one of her brothers a policeman and her aunt’s husband a religious leader. She was sentenced to death for having converted from Islam to Christianity.On the 24th December 2006 she arrived in the UK and claimed asylum.
Like Moha, more than 32,000 people claimed asylum in the UK in 2015, the highest number since 2004. Many flee from war and poverty, but there is another silent exodus that does not appear in the newspapers: the one caused by religious persecution. 5.3 billion people – three quarters of the world’s population – live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion, according to the Pew Research Center, an American think tank.
There is no information on the number of people seeking asylum due to religious persecution in the UK and my aim in this project is to find out some data to know where these people come from and why they are persecuted. But The Exodus Data Project is not only about data. It’s a story about people from Iran, Pakistan or Eritrea on their long journey to Europe, a journey that often goes through detention centres, law firms and two courts.
My first stop to find the data was the Home Office. They refused my Freedom of Information (FOI) request, arguing that the reason for claiming asylum only appears in the handwritten notes on the claimant's file and that extracting the information "would only be achievable at a cost disproportionate".
The asylum process in the UK consists of several stages. Once the asylum application is submitted, the asylum seeker has the first meeting with an immigration officer. Then the case is given to a caseworker who will interview the asylum seeker again and decide if the claim is plausible according to the evidence presented. If the claim is rejected, the asylum seeker can take the case to the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, which is divided into the First-tier Tribunal, whose decisions are not made public, and the Upper Tribunal, who publishes the decisions on its website.
The data from this project has been obtained after analysing 10,000 appeals from the Upper Tribunal’s website. This is the first time this data has been published and it gives clues about the religion and the countries where the asylum claimants come from.
This graph shows the percentage over the 370 court rulings retrieved from the Upper Tribunal’s website related to religious persecution.
Atheism and apostasy – the rejection of the religious beliefs or changing them for new ones – is persecuted in Muslim countries like Iran or Pakistan. Burma denies citizenship to Rohingyas (members of a Muslim ethnic group); Baha'is have limited access to education in Iran; Ahmadis cannot vote in Pakistan and Sikhs have almost disappeared in Afghanistan. Other groups like Falun Gong in China, Jehovah's Witness in Eritrea or Yazidis in Iraq are also discriminated and persecuted.
In the following table you can search through all the data.
Claiming asylum, the only way to be free
The persecution of Christians is the basis of half of the 370 appeals and, from those, two out of ten are from Iranian citizens. In several of the cases, the appellant converted to Christianity in the UK. This was the case of Arash. We meet in his office in a Christian organization where he helps immigrants and asylum seekers. Arash is not his real name – he doesn't want that his identity or the name of his organisation is revealed: "There are tensions right now in the Muslim world and not everyone sees what we are doing in a positive way."
Arash arrived in the UK 16 years ago. He escaped from Iran due to the lack of freedom and seeking a better future. "You could not even talk freely to a girl. People were sometimes arrested with their fiancés and had to prove that they were related. The lack of freedom affects everybody, unless you are a part of the government", he says.
Seeking asylum was the only way for Arash to escape from this oppression, and so he based his claim on a lie that over time came true. "I wasn’t a Christian at that time and, like many others, I basically told a lie to the Government. I said that I was interested in Christianity and that Iranian authorities arrested me", he remembers. "To avoid being deported, I had to find out what Christianity was all about. It took me a few months until I heard the gospel and I truly became a Christian."
Arash’s case is exceptional because the Home Office never called him for the interview with the case worker. "It took the government 9 years to process my case, and no one gave me an explanation. I made some inquiries through my solicitor and complained to the Home Office and, all of a sudden, I was giving leave to remain."
Iran was the second nationality with more asylum applications in 2015 behind Eritrea, according to the Home Office. "A good number of Iranians do not have any threat in the country and their main problem is the lack of freedom", Arash remarks.
Death sentence for being Christian
For Moha Shoar the situation was different: Staying in Iran would have meant her death. We meet in a cafeteria and the conversation flows right away. Moha discovered Christianity when she was in India, studying at university. Her roommate Jennifer, daughter of the Nigerian ambassador, often talked about her Christian values, values that contrasted not only with Islam, but also with the strict rules Moha's father imposed on the whole family.
After a serious illness, Moha got more and more interested in Christianity. She started studying the Bible in secret and in 2005 she was baptised. She was 25 years old. "I was not aware of the consequences and I thought I could hide my faith to everyone", Moha explains.
In October 2005 Moha graduated and came back to Iran, where her eldest brother helped her to get a good job in a friend’s company. Everything was fine until she confided to a colleague that she was a converted Christian. From then on, Moha's life changed completely. Some time after the confession, the police registered Moha’s home and found her Bible and her Baptism Certificate. Moha spent five months in jail and was tortured physically, mentally and sexually. "You can't imagine what happened there", she says with a broken voice. In October 2006 the trial took place and the judge sentenced death by hanging.
With the exception of her mother, most of her family turned completely away from her. But Moha had a brother living in the UK who visited her while she was waiting for the execution. Her brother just said: "A few days before the execution, do whatever you can to get to the hospital". Moha did what her brother told her – and cut her veins. From this point on, everything went very quick. On her way back from the hospital to the prison, she was picked up by a second car that brought her to the airport. "The driver gave me new clothes. When I entered the airport terminal, I heard my name and started to shake. I thought: They caught me. I went to the information desk and a man gave me a passport and a boarding pass to Dubai. 'Keep calm', he said. I passed through the passport control without any problem."
In Dubai the scene repeated: A woman gave her a new passport and a new boarding pass. "My flight was to Birmingham. When I arrived on December 24th 2006 my brother was at the airport to picked me up", she says.
Moha asked her brother only once about what had happened, but he refused to explain any details. "His answer was: ‘You are here and you are safe’. I think he paid a lot of money to officials to organise my escape", she says.
Moha’s process for claiming asylum was straightforward because her case was clear: "I was going to be hanged," she remembers. It was not until two years ago that Moha spoke for the first time about the torture in prison. She had lots of health issues, but doctors were unable to find any physical problem and finally reached the conclusion that something was disturbing her mentally. "I am going to a psychiatrist who is helping me, but the process is slow and painful. I know that the torture is finished, but I have nightmares and flashbacks". Because of the sexual abuse in prison, she doesn't feel able to have a partner. "I am 36 years old and my culture does not allow me to be single, but I simply cannot be with a man", she says, sighing sadly.
Her face changes when she speaks about her faith and helping others. "I know that many Iranians are fleeing because there is no freedom in Iran and the situation is getting worse with the current president". In 2006, when Moha arrived in Birmingham, there were only three Iranians in her church. Now they are 35. "I know that some Iranians are playing with Jesus, but I want to help them. I am not here to judge anyone."