Iran encourages more international NGOs to come and help refugees

News Stories, 8 May 2009

© UNHCR/J.Pagonis
Afghan refugee children in Iran, which has done an immense amount for refugees but now needs more help.

TEHRAN, Islamic Republic of Iran, May 8 (UNHCR) The Iranian government is encouraging more international non-governmental organizations (NGO) to come and help the Islamic Republic of Iran shoulder the burden of caring for refugees during hard financial times.

Some international NGOs do work with refugees in Iran, but several left the country earlier this decade because of difficult working conditions. At a conference staged earlier this week in Tehran by the Iranian Interior Ministry, UNHCR and the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran, the government urged NGOs to return or establish a presence for the first time.

There are some 954,000 Afghan and almost 44,000 Iraqi registered refugees in Iran. Some fear their situation will become very difficult if Iran's parliament accepts proposals to remove subsidies on basic commodities. The refugees already find it difficult to find employment as a result of the economic downturn.

Deputy Interior Minister Abbas Mohtaj told local and foreign NGO participants at the "Critical Needs of Refugees & Repatriation from Iran" conference that Iran had fulfilled its duty of protecting refugees until a durable solution was found. Some of the refugees have been in Iran for more than some 30 years.

Mohtaj added that finding a solution had taken too long, "and we therefore believe that today, when repatriation is becoming more and more problematic, we should work with NGOs to find solutions to assist voluntary repatriation."

The Deputy Interior Minister said Iran believed the best solution for the refugees was voluntary repatriation, but "this will not be possible until the infrastructure [in Afghanistan] has been rebuilt with the assistance of NGOs and other international organizations such as the United Nations." Mohtaj added that "international NGOs have been invited to this meeting so that we can find a solution together to the problem."

The development was welcomed by UNHCR officials taking part in the conference. Bernard Doyle, head of UNHCR's Inter-Agency Unit, noted that while Iran has provided tremendous support to refugees over the years, this was the first time in several years that the government had invited international and national NGOs to sit down and discuss the issue. "It's a huge step forward and very progressive on the part of the government," he said.

"We hope to see greater support from the international community and international NGOs and expect that they will support the Iranian government to meet this challenge," added Carlos Zaccagnini, UNHCR's representative in Iran. But he also expressed concern about the draft bill on removal of subsidies and the increasing level of unemployment, saying these would make it tough for the members of the refugee community to make ends meet.

International NGOs attending the meeting said they would discuss the government's invitation among themselves. The International Consortium for Refugees in Iran, which was established in 1993, closed its operations five years ago, but may now seek to reopen its office.

The Norwegian Refuge Council, a close partner of UNHCR, is also among those considering resuming operations in Iran. "Now that there is a need for burden sharing, we need to know where the biggest needs lie and the existing gaps," said Niamh Murnaghan, NRC's regional director.

The Interior Ministry invited interested aid agencies to get in touch with the Committee for Cooperation of NGOs for approval of their project proposals, so that the Iranian government could facilitate visas and other procedures.

By Dina Faramarzi in Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran