TitleThe death of Kambiz Roustayi should make the Netherlands think

We should be democrats, not barbarians

9 Apr 2011

■ Ann De Craemer
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April 9, 2011

So this is what utter despair can look like. On Wednesday, Kambiz Roustayi, a 36-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, set himself on fire on one of the busiest squares of Amsterdam. Not Teheran, not Tunis, not Cairo, but the capital of a democratic country. April 6, 2011 was one of the first glorious days of spring, but Kambiz could not feel the sunshine anymore. The only heat he could think of that day when travelling to Amsterdam to execute his dark plan was the heat of the flames that would put him out of his misery.

Because misery is exactly what Kambiz was faced with. He had been ‘living’ in the Netherlands for eleven years, but his request for asylum had failed several times. Last week, another refusal of the Dutch authorities was one too many for this young man, who went to university in Tehran and had worked as a journalist in his country. He expected to be deported and was afraid of being arrested or even executed in Iran, as he had written articles that the Iranian regime disapproved of. Kambiz died on Thursday as a result of his injuries. A friend of his, Parvis Noshirrani, told Dutch television on Thursday that Roustayi announced he was planning to commit suicide at a meeting with civil servants on 25 March at the asylum centre. But Noshirrani says he was not taken seriously and was not given help. ‘He was fed up with the situation. Roaming the city, sleeping in the streets. No status, no travel documents, no future. If he had returned to Iran, he probably faced the same fate.’

Immigration and Asylum Minister Gerd Leers called Mr Roustayi’s death ‘very tragic’, but says that all procedures were followed correctly and that the man was given proper legal assistance. This is of course the answer we can expect from a minister like Gerd Leers. He is the man who announced in February that he wanted to ‘sharpen’ the Dutch asylum policy. If for instance an asylum seeker wants to appeal against a refusal for asylum, he has to wait for the verdict in his country of origin – no matter how dangerous the situation over there is. It is an inhuman and barbarous attitude, but Leers is surfing on the waves of populism that Geert Wilders’ xenophobe political party PVV (Party for Freedom) has been sending through a country that was once praised for its tolerance. With his sharpened asylum policy, Gerd Leers seems to want to act just as tough as Geert Wilders.

Acting tough causes some vulnerable people like Kambiz Roustayi to no longer see light at the end of the tunnel

But acting tough causes some vulnerable people like Kambiz Roustayi to no longer see any light at the end of the tunnel. Actually, the inhuman asylum plans of Leers reached a tragic climax on the very day that Roustayi committed suicide. In the morning, it was announced that eight Iraqi families who were denied asylum would be deported from Amsterdam to dangerous Bagdad the following day. In the afternoon, Kambiz Roustayi put himself on fire. Unfortunately, we can no longer ask him, but the deportation of eight families to his neighboring country Iraq might have fastened Roustayi’s gloomy idea. Just before he put himself ablaze, he shouted that you only get asylum in Holland if you are gay or christian. This is not just a cry of despair. It is a cry that reveals a bitter truth. In March, Gerd Leers said that when an asylum seeker can ‘prove’ that his sexual orientation is a cause for persecution in his home country, he could be granted asylum in the Netherlands. Apparently, having written articles against the regime, which in Iran is also a cause for arrest or even execution, is not taken into account when considering asylum. The Islamic Republic is not at war, which seems some people to cause to forget what a horrible dictatorship Iran is. It is a shame that Holland deports people to countries where the lives of people are in real danger. It is a shame that this minister wants to act as the uncompromising tough guy and shout that we should not grant so many immigrants asylum in the Netherlands when actually, since 2003, sharpening asylum procedures has hardly had any effect and those who do flee their country are mostly citizens who are living in dangerous dictatorships. How can we send those people back if we consider ourselves democrats and defenders of human rights? As Mr. Van Haren, the lawyer of Kambiz, said: ‘The authorities may be right to reject an asylum request and deport an asylum seeker, but if he is still here after eight or ten years and you see him deteriorating, and become mentally finished, only physically okay, there comes a time when the authorities have to take responsibility. You cannot just show someone the door.’

How can we send those people back if we consider ourselves democrats and defenders of human rights

The death of Kambiz does not only teach us that Holland should reconsider its asylum policy. Over the past week, it also made me think about how little attention we actually have for the lives of asylum seekers. They only seem to get a human face when something terrible happens. The Afghan girl Sahar gave a name and story to asylum seekers in Holland only when she was in danger of being deported – a decision that was reversed by Gerd Leers on Friday, which might have been influenced by the tragic suicide of Kambiz, though of course the minister will never admit this. Kambiz also gave a human face to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in our rich western countries, but he could only do so by choosing to set himself on fire. According to his friend Mr. Noshirrani, this is exactly what Roustayi had in mind with his act of desperation. ‘He wanted to save other lives by ending his own. There are plenty of people in asylum centres, there are plenty of people who are deported without mercy.’ It made me think of the words of Holland’s best-known former asylum seeker, the Persian-Dutch writer Kader Abdolah, who wrote this about his life in an asylum center in his debut De adelaars (The Eagles): ‘Will I ever find rest over here, I thought. What will I do in this country? Do I have enough energy to start all over again? Thinking about the future made me fearful.’ (1)

These are probably the exact same thoughts that came to Kambiz’ mind while living in the asylum center. But contrary to the man telling the story in Abdolah’s De adelaars, Kambiz had to wait for eleven long years for an answer about his future. It made him desperate and it made him chose flames instead of sunshine.

We should of course not forget that the main culprit in all of this is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which forces people like Kambiz to flee their dictatorial regime. But once these people are here, we should show them that we are democrats and not barbarians. We should not let them live like drifters for eleven years and let them end up in flames on a sunny day in the city centre of Amsterdam.

Kambiz is gone, but I whisper some lines of poetry from his beloved home country that can soften the pain somewhat: A thousand gleaming sunbeams with each step you take, / a thousand weeping stars / of my desire: / if love alone could speak. (Ahmad Shamloo)

(1) Kader Abdolah, De adelaars, De Geus, 1993, p.34.

Tehran Review
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  1. Karin Westera says:

    This picture is haunting my mind since the act of despair: Shout from Misha Gordin


  2. Jane Fielder says:


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