The number of Iranians seeking asylum abroad has grown steadily since the crushing of protests over the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Friday.
Iranian asylum-seeker numbers rose from 11,537 in 2009 to 15,185 in 2010 and 18,128 in 2011, the New York-based watchdog said, citing figures from 44 countries compiled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
HRW attributed the increase to the "unprecedented pressures on civil society in Iran" since the 2009 crackdown.
It said its study was based on the evidence of "dozens of rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and lawyers whom security and intelligence forces targeted because they spoke out against the government," prompting them to flee abroad.
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"Many prominent human rights defenders and journalists are in prison or exile, and other activists face constant harassment and arbitrary arrest," the report said.
"Many Iranian activists continue to make the painful choice to abandon homes and families."
The watchdog criticised the authorities in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey -- the two main escape routes for fleeing Iranians -- for not doing more to ease their living conditions and expedite the processing of asylum requests.
It said Iranian asylum-seekers in Turkey suffered "restrictions on their freedom of movement, burdensome residency fees, their inability to acquire work permits, and lack of access to health services."
It called on Ankara to allow UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Ahmed Shaheed to go to Turkey to interview Iranian refugees.
"The countries in the region need to protect the refugees from Iran and treat them with compassion and dignity."