Assist Refugees in Iran

The West has ignored the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran, but providing needed aid could help build a bridge to Tehran

By , Hiram A. Ruiz, a policy analyst with the Washington-based US Committee for Refugees, recently visited refugee sites in eastern Iran and attended the International Conference on Refugees in Iran.

IRAN is at a crucial juncture. Its economy is in shambles, with inflation running 300 percent. Moderates have made political gains, particularly in recent parliamentary elections, but to keep the radicals at bay they have to deliver on the economic front. Improved links with the West could help, but too direct an overture might spark a backlash.

According to people I recently met in Iran, that may be one reason why the Iranian government invited Western relief groups to assist refugees in Iran. The invitation, made at a conference on refugees in Iran co-sponsored by the Iranian government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), marks a dramatic turnaround in Iranian policy.

For more than a decade (except for a brief period during the 1991 Kurdish refugee crisis), Tehran has not allowed Western relief groups to operate in Iran.

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But there is another good reason for Iran's opening the doors to the relief groups. Since the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, and particularly since the ouster of Kabul's Moscow-installed Najibullah regime in April of this year by various mujahideen militia groups, some of the estimated 6 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran have begun to repatriate.

The international community is assisting Afghan refugees repatriating from Pakistan but is doing little to aid those in Iran. Consequently, the number of Afghans leaving Pakistan is far higher than that returning home from Iran. Iranian authorities are worried that if the international community doesn't help, many Afghans may remain in Iran, causing the country continuing problems.

The Iranians seem to think that if Western relief groups agree to assist refugees in Iran, they will also help to draw attention to the needs of the repatriating Afghan refugees and perhaps help stimulate further international aid.

Since Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Iran has opened its doors to vast numbers of Afghan refugees (the official figure is 2.94 million, but that includes at least 700,000 Afghans who were working in Iran before 1979). Iran granted the Afghans asylum, freedom of movement, permission to work anywhere in Iran, and social services.

UNHCR established a presence in Iran in 1983, but its relations with the government have been strained. For years, Iran allowed UNHCR little access to the refugees, and UNHCR in turn limited its assistance to the 7 percent of refugees living in refugee camps ("guest cities," as the Iranians call them). The remaining 93 percent of the refugees living in cities and villages across Iran, including some 600,000 in and around Tehran, had to find ways to support themselves, mostly by taking low-paying jobs tha t most Iranians did not want.

IN 1991, when Iraqi refugees fled to Turkey and Iran, Turkey turned many of the refugees away, while Iran granted them refuge without reservation. Yet the international community (particularly the United States) directed its assistance primarily to the refugees on the Turkish border. At the height of the crisis, the international community spent seven times as much on assistance to Iraqi refugees on the Turkish border as it did on those who fled to Iran.

The West must not continue to penalize the refugees in Iran.

Afghans are the world's largest refugee group. Assisting them in exile has been a costly matter. Helping them return home and rebuild their lives is not only morally right, in the long term it's also cost-effective. Promoting successful repatriation contributes toward reconstruction and peace in that troubled region. But repatriation assistance should be based on humanitarian need and availability of resources, not on whether or not we like the politics of a host country.

The Iranians have criticized the type of aid that UNHCR is giving refugees leaving Pakistan (cash and a year's supply of food), arguing that it does little to help them reintegrate in Afghanistan. But because the Iranians are angry over the disparity, they are calling for the same aid for refugees repatriating from Iran. That's not the right way either.

UNHCR needs to assess the repatriation needs of Afghans in both countries, and determine what is the most appropriate assistance. Donors, particularly the US, which over a 12-year period gave vast amounts of military aid to the mujahideen to aid them in their fight against Kabul, must also do their part. A legacy of the cold war is that donors are largely ignoring the needs of refugees who were victims of cold-war-related conflicts and who in some cases are now able to return home and start rebuilding th eir lives and countries.

Many of the refugees I interviewed in Iran said that the two main reasons they are not going back are continuing insecurity in their home areas and concern over how they and their families would survive in Afghanistan. They say that what they most need is temporary food aid and rehabilitation assistance in their home areas that will help them get back on their own feet.

That's also what the Iranians would also like to see. And it's what they hope the Western relief groups will concentrate on. Anything that helps stabilize Afghanistan and encourage the repatriation of refugees who may in the future look favorably upon their former hosts is also good for Iran.

There is potential gain for Iran if Western relief groups take up its invitation. But the West also has an interest in developing better ties in a region that remains one of the world's most volatile tinderboxes. Many of the agencies that attended the Tehran conference recognized this, and some are willing to take up Iran's invitation. If they do, it may not be only the refugees, but also West-Iranian relations that will benefit.

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