Overview of the Refugee Situation

Iran has been hosting the largest refugee population in the world for more than two decades. According to official statistics of the Government of Iran there were 2,563,827 refugees in Iran in 2001.2,355,427were Afghan and 202,878 were Iraqi. 38,000 of the Iraqi refugees are in 22 camps and approximately 40,000 of the Afghan refugees live in 7 camps. Therefore a large proportion of this population is disbursed in rural and urban Iran and live amidst the Iranian population.

Afghan Refugees:
The first Afghan refugees came to Iran in 1979 following the Soviets invasion and although a significant number of Afghans repatriated in 1989 following the Soviet withdrawal. A continuous flow of refugees followed until the overthrow of the Taliban.

Afghan refugees live in almost all major cities in Iran but the largest communities are found in Khorasan, Sistan- Baluchistan, Tehran, Kerman, Fars, Markazi and Semnan. The information gathered by ICRI during its regular field visits indicates that the most vulnerable Afghan refugees live in Sistan- Baluchistan and Khorasan. Although those in other provinces do face certain difficulties such as legal/security problems as well as unemployment.

Some Afghans, who fled Afghanistan during the 1980s, received a "green card", a refugee identification document that enables them to stay in Iran legally (although duration of the stay is not specified). These refugees are entitled to subsidized health care and free primary and secondary education. Until a downturn in the Iranian economy in 1995, these documented refugees also received food subsidies. This card does not entitle the refugee to legally work in Iran.

The country faced another big influx of refugees between 1992 and 1994. However, no permanent documents were issued. The government finally reached an agreement with UNHCR in order to issue 500,000 temporary cards for Afghans. These cards were renewed several times. The last time they were renewed was August 1996.

For the past few years the law banning refugees from working in Iran has been more stringently enforced and has thus had an adverse affect on an already difficult living situation. Customarily Afghans were limited to low- wage, manual labor, including construction work, chicken farming, cattle breeding, tanneries and brick kilns. Households headed by women and elderly men, therefore, often have severely limited earning potential and are significantly more impoverished than those headed by able- bodied men.

Following the establishment of an interim Government in Afghanistan a tripartite VOLUNTARY REPATRIATION agreement has been signed between the Afghan Authority ,The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and UNHCR.Under the agreement 500,000 refugees will potentially be assited in returning voluntarily to Afghanistan in the next year .The assistance provided includes:Transport for the returning families
    -Transport for their belongings
    -Food enroute
    -Cash assistance of between 5-30 dollars depending upon final destination

UNHCR has reached its target goal of 400,000 at the end of its first year of implementation but this by no means implies that the are no longer any needs and issues facing the refugee population in Iran.
There are many areas that require assistance and funding in order to ensure a sustainable and continuously voluntary return and many linkages need to be made between the agencies on both sides in order to maximize the efficacy of this exercise.
There is great concern that the distractions of an Iraqi crisis can potentially damage small and fragile gains in the Afghan context and without a doubt will the international community needs to made aware of its obligations to all sides.

Iraqi Refugees:
The first wave of Iraqi refugees came to Iran in the early 70s. This group were mostly Faili Kurds and have lived in western regions of the country (in both rural and urban areas), for well over a decade. Another group who came in 1975, numbered about 350,000. They had been expelled from Iraq as it was claimed that they were of Iranian origin. The greatest number of Iraqi refugees(700,000) arrived in Iran following the Halabja crisis.Many of this group returned to their country in 1992.

Approximately 10,000 of the Shiite Arabs currently in Iran are those who fled from the marshlands to Iran in 1994, joining the 50,000- 60,000 Shiite Arabs already here.

The largest number of Iraqi refugees live in Khuzestan province. They work in small workshops, or earn their living as drivers or street peddlers. Outside Khuzestan, the main concentrations of Shiite Arabs are in Tehran and Qom. Like Afghans Iraqis need work permits to be employed, although for them it is relatively easier to obtain.

Kurdish refugees are scattered between the northwestern provinces of Kermanshah Kordestan and West Azerbaijan. Kermanshah has a mixed population of both Iraqi Kurds and Arabs. From the limited information we have on this group, there is a great variation in the situation of individual families. Those who have been in Iran longer are relatively better off than the newer arrivals. Many in this group associated strongly with Iranians and aspire to gain citizenship. There is a small group of Turkish speaking Kurds who face a particular problem, as they speak neither Kurdish nor Farsi.

The events in Iraq at the moment have created a new worldwide attention on the Iraqis as well as some attention to the Iraqi refugees in Iran.There are a range of outstanding needs for the old cases as well as many outstanding needs in the event of any potential new influx.Even under the best case scenario there may potenatially be two repatriation programs working simultaneously and there are many obvious areas that will need real and tangible assistance to be forthcoming from all elements of the international community.