July 1, 2016 at 8:16 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay Iranian refugees in limbo after Istanbul terrorist attack

Three gay refugees from Iran are unable to fly to Canada in the wake of the June 28, 2016, bombing at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport.

Three gay refugees from Iran are unable to fly to Canada in the wake of the June 28, 2016, bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

Three gay refugees from Iran are unable to leave Turkey because of Tuesday’s terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

Arsham Parsi, founder of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, which helps Iranians who have fled their homeland because of anti-LGBT persecution seek asylum in Canada and other countries, told the Washington Blade on Thursday that the men were scheduled to fly from Istanbul to Toronto on July 4.

Parsi, a gay man from the Iranian city of Shiraz, received refugee status from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and has lived in Canada since 2006. He told the Blade during a telephone interview from Toronto that the three men fled Iran in 2013 and 2014 respectively because of anti-gay persecution.

The Canadian government sponsored two of the refugees, while a private citizen sponsored the third.

Parsi told the Blade that the three men were living in the Turkish cities of Denizli and Eskisehir during the asylum application process. He said they were about to travel to Istanbul for a mandatory orientation before leaving the country when a representative of the International Organization for Migration, which arranged their travel, told them on Wednesday that their flight from Istanbul to Toronto on Turkish Airlines had been cancelled “due to the explosion.”

Parsi told the Blade the three men also received a call from a UNHCR representative.

“They sold all of their belongings and they just packed two suitcases,” he said. “They were ready to go to Istanbul.”

The Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees continues to raise money for the three men and other LGBT refugees who remain in Turkey.

Cancelled flight ‘not the issue’ of airport, airline

Three suicide bombers killed 44 people and injured more than 140 others during the attack inside the airport, which is among the busiest in the world. Turkish officials have blamed the so-called Islamic State for the attack, even though the Sunni militant group has yet to claim responsibility.

The airport resumed normal operations a few hours after the attack.

Turkish Airlines’ website indicates a flight from Istanbul to Toronto is scheduled to depart Ataturk Airport on Saturday at 2:55 p.m. local time. The three men had tickets for the same flight that was slated to leave Istanbul on July 4.

“It’s not the issue with Turkish Airlines,” Parsi told the Blade. “It’s not an issue with the airport.”

Parsi said the three men received the necessary exit permits from the Turkish government that allow them to leave the country. He told the Blade that it would be difficult for them to rebook their fights because of the holy month of Ramadan.

“It’s pretty unfair,” said Parsi, referring specifically to the International Organization for Migration. “It’s very bad.”

Arsham Parsi, Iran, gay news, Washington Blade

Arsham Parsi (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration told the Blade on Friday that the organization “has temporarily reduced some operations through” Ataturk Airport in the wake of Tuesday’s bombing.

The spokesperson declined to comment on specific cases, but confirmed that “a few groups of refugees” who were “scheduled to fly to Canada through Ataturk Airport have been rescheduled.”

“This is due to the administrative/logistical challenges of rebooking groups of refugees to travel as a group — as other passengers are also trying to rebook flights — and to allow the Turkish authorities to focus on their investigations,” the spokesperson told the Blade, noting there are three days of public holidays in Turkey next week because of Ramadan. “The well-being of our beneficiaries continues to be a priority for IOM and we are working to minimize the impact and will continue to provide the best possible support during this time.”

Christine Constantin, a spokesperson for the Canadian government, on Thursday confirmed to the Blade that officials are “aware of the refugees in question and is providing support.” She said Canadian privacy laws prevented her from providing additional information about their specific cases.

“A number of flight changes have occurred as a result of the bombing, as it affected not only the airport operations but also the offices of the Turkish government that handle exit permits and the IOM offices that coordinate the refugees,” said Constantin. “While flights may have resumed, delays in other parts of the departure process may require that flights be re-booked.”

Tuesday’s bombing is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks that have taken place in Turkey over the last two years.

Turkish counterterrorism police last month arrested three suspected members of the so-called Islamic State who reportedly planned to attack a transgender rights march in Istanbul. Gay German MP Volker Beck was among the more than 20 people who were detained on June 26 for challenging the decision to ban the city’s annual Pride march.

Parsi told the Blade that police “attacked” two LGBT Iranian refugees who attended last year’s Istanbul Pride march.

“It’s very critical for refugees and we are deeply concerned about their situation and their safety,” he said. “Once they left the persecution and death from Iran to Turkey and right now they don’t feel safe anymore.”

“They might be killed as well,” added Parsi.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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