Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997
Iran has an international reputation of being among the most secretive and difficult of countries. It may therefore come as a surprise that Teheran is also the most generous host in the world to millions of refugees.
By Ray Wilkinson
It is a secretive, brooding country, isolated and little understood by outsiders. It is also the most generous host in the world to millions of refugees.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has always been a nation of contradiction, but as one leading British NGO official said recently, "It has also always been at or near the top of the league table in welcoming and helping refugees." In the 1990s, Iran sheltered a staggering 4.5 million exiles from Afghanistan and Iraq, the largest refugee caseload any single country has handled in modern times. The numbers have shrunk in the last few years to slightly more than two million people, but that figure is still twice as high as anywhere else. And because of the unsettled regional political and military situation, Teheran may have to continue to shoulder this burden for some time to come.
The history of refugees in Iran, particularly those from Afghanistan, has been markedly different to other recent global crises. There is, firstly, the sheer number of people involved. Secondly, most Afghans have been absorbed into local communities in sharp contrast to other regions such as central Africa where refugees live in squalid camps. Absorption of refugees is the solution preferred by UNHCR, but few governments have been politically or economically willing to undertake such programmes.
The Afghans received heavily subsidized state food, health and education packages and many refugees, including women, found local employment. That has had at least one unintended effect; normally cloistered females became exposed to the workplace and education for the first time and ironically, this could eventually make it more difficult for them to resettle in a 'traditional' Afghan setting, if and when they return home.
That might not be any time soon. Hundreds of thousands of refugees did go back during a 'honeymoon' period several years ago, but as the civil war continued and the Taliban seized control of much of Afghanistan, including all the territory bordering Iran, the repatriation stuttered, stopped and then effectively went into reverse. Today, there are virtually no refugees heading eastwards; some Afghans, in fact, are moving in the opposite direction, trying to get out of Afghanistan.
"We all think about going home but what stops us is the fact that we have no money," says one brick-kiln worker in Teheran. "The unrest and conflict also deter us. We are worried about being looted." Like other Afghans, this worker was concerned not only with personal problems, but even more by the harrowing tales of people who had already gone home – of the lack of jobs and the official harassment they faced, of land confiscation and continuing casualties in the war.
The Iranian government has now dug a huge ditch along the common border, ostensibly to deter drug dealers but also to stop the flow of thousands of Afghans trying to sneak illegally across the frontier. Would-be exiles have increasingly turned to smugglers to get them into Iran. But even if they succeed, they face a difficult reception.
Iran is frustrated with the ongoing instability in Afghanistan and the potential repercussions for the region. Teheran had hoped that, under a repatriation agreement signed with UNHCR in 1992, most refugees would have returned within three years. Instead, it continues to host the largest refugee population in the world. Instead of peace, Iran fears Afghanistan may begin exporting terror campaigns and a brand of radical Islam hostile to its own Shiite beliefs. And to complicate the situation further, Iran's once booming economy has slowed down.
All of those developments impacted on the refugees. Movement within Iran has become more restricted and Afghans are increasingly confined to designated residential areas in cities and towns or to enclosed camps. The authorities tightened up on the issue of identity documents and the length of time Afghans are legally allowed to stay in-country. Some benefits have been trimmed or halted. Refugees generally work in basic jobs such as construction, agriculture or embroidery and for years, with their low salaries and willingness to work long hours, they helped boost a robust economy. But even in these fields, work is more restricted and difficult to find these days. All of these factors have produced an anti-Afghan backlash among some Iranians.
One woman who has been in Iran for 10 years described her particular situation: "My husband and brother-in-law both work in a factory which makes piggy banks, for which they earn 7,000 rials ($2.4) per day. We live on eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes." She would like another child but "we cannot afford the cost of delivery. It is very difficult bringing up children. We have to cut our expenditures to pay for stationery and other things my children need at school." Another Afghan woman said her husband had simply disappeared recently, perhaps he had returned home, and she must now survive by doing whatever small jobs she can find. She is so poor, she said, she "lives on bread, tea and, sometimes, potatoes." Only a small proportion of refugees, generally single males, make enough money to both support themselves and send desperately needed funds to their families in Afghanistan.
Until now, Iran has been fiercely proud of its ability to handle the refugee influx and consequently has limited both the international and NGO presence in the country. Teheran has absorbed much of the financial burden associated with refugee crises which donor governments and humanitarian agencies would normally shoulder. Last year, however, the government signalled it would welcome a larger role by outside agencies. "There is considerable scope for NGOs to work in relief programmes ... covering health and social services, income-generation and schools, in particular," the British Agencies Afghanistan Group said in a study. UNHCR is particularly keen to provide increased assistance to non-camp populations, which form the bulk of the Afghan refugees.
Women and children always form a disproportionately large and vulnerable part of any refugee population and the British Agencies report found that "households which depended exclusively on women's earnings were undoubtedly the most impoverished." One widow with six children described her predicament: "My husband died nine months ago. I don't know what he died of. Nobody in the family is working outside. I am not sure how we survive. I do some embroidery and get 1,000 rials for a day's work (35 cents). One of my daughters suffers from polio. We live on bread and tea. My children can at least go to school. They were delivered in hospital. However, I cannot afford to take them to the doctor now. The one exception was when my daughter was sick and I sold my earrings."
But along with the undoubted hardships, new horizons have opened for many women. "Now, I make the decisions," one Afghan woman told an interviewer. "In Iran, the responsibility for the family is with me. In Afghanistan, my husband or older brother or even my husband's family made all the decisions." A 21-year-old woman originally from Kabul added: "I left Afghanistan as a little girl, knowing nothing. Now I am a mother and I have had an education. How can I ever go back to the 'old' Afghanistan even if peace comes?" That is a dilemma faced by many Afghans.
Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)