As many as 1,000 Iranian Jews will soon be able to leave their homeland for Austria, the first step in a two-step process for gaining admission to the United States as refugees.
Until now, these Jews were unable to apply for Austrian visas because they did not have friends or relatives outside of Iran who could put up the requisite $2,100 security deposit needed for those wishing to wait in Vienna while their refugee applications are reviewed. The money is required to assure Austria that the applicants do not become wards of the state.
But last week, Agudath Israel of America signed a promissory note with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the group responsible for preparing and presenting refugee applications to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, guaranteeing security deposits for all Iranians who wish to emigrate. About 25,000 Jews still live in Iran and have limited religious freedom; it is not known how many wish to emigrate.
"It is meant to underwrite the financial responsibility that most of the immigrants would be expected to undertake themselves," Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, said of the promissory note. "What we are trying to do is speed the process of emigration from Iran. Most of the immigrants will have their own funds. We just wanted [the process] to happen more smoothly."
The security deposit has become "an unfortunate and unavoidable bar to participating in this program," said Mark Hetfield, director of international operations for HIAS.
Since 1980, HIAS representatives in Vienna have resettled 13,060 Iranian Jews in the United States. In July 2001, the U.S. State Department designated HIAS as its sole processing organization in Vienna; HIAS now handles refugee requests from all religious minorities in Iran. Until then it had handled requests primarily from Jews and those of the Bahai religion.
Hetfield said it used to take three to four months for an applicant to be reviewed and granted refugee status. But since Sept. 11, he said, "it is taking longer because of the extra security hurdles. It is now very unpredictable. Some applications are processed in a couple of months and others have been waiting more than a year, with no end in sight."
On average, the review is taking six to nine months, according to Eric Newman, associate director of international operations at HIAS. He said 177 Iranian Jews are in Vienna awaiting review.
But because the $2,100 security deposit HIAS asks of applicants’ relatives and friends is based on living expenses for a three-month wait, Hetfield said HIAS may increase the amount.
"We have already had to go back to relatives to ask for additional funds," he said.
Newman said HIAS is reluctant to raise the $2,100 figure for fear it would discourage emigration.
"It can become a financial burden on sponsoring families and we have, in some extraordinary circumstances, paid rent and medical bills for people," he said.
Newman stressed, however, that many Iranian Jews who emigrate are permitted to leave with their own money and do not have to tap the security deposit. Any money remaining of the security deposit that is not used by the time the applicant leaves for America is returned to the sponsor.
Iranian Jews seeking to emigrate primarily are families, although occasionally some in their 20s leave on their own, Newman said.