IRAN'S need for international assistance to help it cope with the sudden influx of more than 1 million Iraqi refugees challenges the decade-long isolation of the Islamic Republic. As one of the first representatives of a private American refugee organization to visit Iran and assess the needs of the refugees there, I encountered the Iranians' ambivalence about foreign - and particularly American - contributions to the relief effort. The attitude toward America is generally suspicious and antagonistic. T h e view is expressed that the United States is directly or indirectly responsible for a panoply of evils, including Saddam Hussein himself.
The Iranians are aware, however, of the great burden the refugee influx presents, and many, including Iran's president, acknowledge the need for international assistance to help them meet this crisis.
During the past decade of war and austerity, Iran hosted more than 2 million Afghan refugees and about 500,000 Iraqis who were expelled in the Iran-Iraq war. These earlier refugees were left pretty much to fend for themselves. But the new arrivals from Iraq are far more dependent, arriving suddenly on a massive scale, hungry and sick. Iran now hosts the largest refugee population - about 4.16 million - of any nation in the world.
Revolutionary Iran has guarded its independence, but has paid a price in its own economic development. This has also meant that refugees in Iran have had less assistance than those in many other countries. Compare the $406.5 million that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spent on 3.3 million refugees in Pakistan in the years 1982-90 versus the $81.8 million it spent for 2.35 million refugees in Iran during the same period of time.
In the present crisis the discrepancy is even greater. Twice as much money has been allocated to Turkey as to Iran, although only about a third as many refugees are staying in the Turkish areas, according to United Nations Disaster Relief Organization accounting of contributions received by governments, the Red Cross, and private organizations, as of May 17. For every dollar spent per Iraqi refugee in Iran, a total of $7.60 has gone to assist an Iraqi refugee on the Turkish border. The US contribution i s
weighted against Iran; no more than $20 million of the $207.6 million in US contributions to Iraqi refugees has gone to assist those in Iran, as of May 17.
Yet the needs in Iran are at least as compelling. The most vulnerable among the Kurds are the babies. Many are dehydrated, near death. Some powdered milk became available during our stay, but the water was polluted, raising concerns that the milk would be contaminated. Health workers voice concern that the unhygienic conditions could lead to outbreaks of typhoid, hepatitis, and cholera.
Food is essentially limited to bread and potatoes. The quality is poor and delivery irregular. Rice, sugar, vegetable oil, beans or meat, fruits and vegetables were rarities or nonexistent. Despite the lack of resources, starvation and epidemic disease have been avoided thus far, thanks largely to the efforts of the Iranian Red Crescent.
While death on a massive scale has, thus far, been averted, dangers continue to loom even in the weeks and months ahead. Another 600,000 Shiite refugees are stuck in the swamps on Iraq's side of its southeast border. They have begun crossing at a rate of about 500 to 700 per day. The new arrivals are in poor health, many wounded, and have often not eaten for a week or more. As the summer months approach, temperatures in the south will climb as high as 130 degrees, which will severely strain water availa b
In the north, the lack of tents will become more critical as the harsh winter months approach in the mountains. There is now a severe shortage of tents worldwide; only a third of the tents needed in Iran have been procured. Many of the tents we visited were rotten and leaky.
In every city and town in which we traveled, we saw collection points for donations from the Iranian people. The refugees themselves told of Iranians who opened their own homes, sharing food, water, and living space. Even among the refugees who voiced complaints, expressions of gratitude toward the people and government of Iran were universal. But many of the refugees asked us when international assistance would begin to appear.
While it is true that there is little evidence of international assistance in the camps, it is also the case that the food, medicines, blankets, and tents that have arrived are generally not marked in a way that readily identifies the source. The logistics of moving these life-saving goods to the most needy refugees has been exceedingly difficult.
But American aid has also been held up by distrust and by inappropriate linkages to other outstanding issues between the two countries. Relative to the cold shoulder our regional allies, Turkey and Kuwait, have displayed toward the refugees, Iran's conduct has been exemplary. But US support for the Iranian relief effort has been slow and grudging.
The US role in the relief effort will, of necessity, be a delicate subject. Animosity toward the US government - and private humanitarian groups as well - is still quite intense among many in Iran. But should the Iraqi refugees suffer because of our poor relations with the host government?
Realistically, neither the US government nor private organizations will likely be able to function effectively in Iran given the level of hostility. The aid should be channeled through international agencies, such as the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Doing so will minimize the chances for a recurrence of the charges by some Iranian authorities that the US is sending "rotten goods." Avoiding direct assistance not only depoliticizes the aid, but also strengthens the ability of th e
international humanitarian agencies to protect and assist the refugees.
The Kurdish population, in particular, needs protection by international monitors. Thus far, Iran has acted properly. But skittishness about the Kurds is no secret. The international community needs to be on guard that rights to protection are not overlooked as political solutions to the refugee problem are sought.
The refugees we interviewed articulated a well-founded fear of persecution in Iraq. Many said they would not return unless Saddam was gone. They spoke of brothers and sons who had returned from exile in response to earlier amnesties who were arrested and never seen again. Not long ago, President Bush said that Saddam's "credibility is zero, zilch." Should we expect the Kurds or the Shiites to have any more faith in his word when their lives are at stake?
Voluntary repatriation is regarded as the durable solution of first choice for refugees. But involuntary and dangerous repatriation is the worst option, violating as it does the international law prohibiting refoulement - forced return - the essence of the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. Therefore, steps toward repatriation must be taken carefully and with full regard for the principles of refugee protection.
Ultimately, the humanitarian crisis requires a political solution. Hopefully, the discussions between Kurdish leaders and Baghdad will draw in the concerns of the Shiite population as well. Safe zones may be an important element in making voluntary repatriation possible along the Iranian as well as the Turkish border.
But, ultimately, the root cause of the displacement must be addressed. The Kurds and Shiites have clearly stated their political goal - autonomy in the context of a democratic Iraq. Given the international community's degree of involvement in Iraq's internal affairs, and the success of the international community in promoting peaceful, democratic change in Nicaragua, Haiti, and Eastern Europe, renewed efforts should proceed on the diplomatic front to make Saddam's promises of a transition to democracy m o
re than empty rhetoric and the return of refugees more than wistful hope.