Iranian Kurds in Iraq hopelessly seek asylum, UN assistance

On May 18, Behzad Mahmoudi, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iran, set himself on fire in front of the United Nations office in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq.

Four years ago, the 26-year-old fled his home city of Boukan in western Iran, hoping to find a better future away from the persecution and discrimination many Kurds in Iran say they face.

But when Mahmoudi arrived in the KRG, he was unable to find a stable job or income. Desperate for a way out, he applied to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for temporary accommodation and asylum in a third country. But his friend told Al Jazeera that Mahmoudi’s requests went unanswered.

To protest the harsh living conditions in the KRG and what he perceived as delays from the UN in processing his application to seek asylum, Mahmoudi doused himself in petrol and flicked on a lighter as he stood in front of the UN office. Moments later, his body was engulfed in a ball of flames.

Mahmoudi suffered severe burns and died in hospital as a result of his wounds a week later.

The young man’s story reflects the plight of tens of thousands of Iranian Kurds who find despair after fleeing to the KRG in hope of finding a better life.

Up to 35 million Kurds inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation-state.

Nearly 10 million Kurds live in west Iran, along the borders of Iraq and Turkey. The ethnic minority has demanded more political and cultural rights since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Opposition parties – including the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) established in northern Iraq – have waged an on-and-off armed struggle against the Iranian government in hope of establishing an autonomous Kurdish state.

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