UNHCR: More credit warranted for Iran’s hosting of refugees

May 29, 2018

TEHRAN - Volker Turk, the UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, believes that Iran has not received enough recognition for hosting refugees for the past 40 years.

Speaking to a few reporters, Turk said Iran has done an exemplary job integrating Afghan refugees into its society and educational system.

Turk was in Tehran to hold talks with authorities including deputy foreign minister and deputy interior minister over the matter of refugees in Iran.

Turk began his briefing focusing on his trip to Iran:

“With a long-standing relationship with Iran, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the largest and most operational UN agency in Iran. It has field offices all over the country.

At the global level, UNHCR is negotiating a global compact on refugees. It came out of a discussion that took place in New York in September 2016, when the leaders of all 193 member states of the UN adopted the New York Declaration of Migrants and Refugees, a landmark document as it was adopted at the level of heads of state of government. The declaration gave birth to two processes. One process is to develop the global compact on migration and the other one is to develop a global compact on refugees. At UNHCR we were asked to develop the global compact on refugees and as a result we obviously want to have a dialogue with the major host countries and Iran is one of the longest and largest refugee hosting countries in the world and has one of the most protracted refugee situations because of the situation in Afghanistan.

For me, I am somewhat relieved that the conversation with the member states and our strategic partner, Iran, has gone well, and whatever is happening inside the country (regarding refugees) is being addressed.I don’t think the international community has given enough credit and attention to the generosity and creativity of Iran hosting millions of Afghan refugees for almost four decades. We hope that there will be more support from the international community for what the Iranian government and society has done for Afghan refugees over the years.

Volker Turk says Iran has done an exemplary job integrating Afghan refugees into its society and educational system.

At the moment, we have about 970,000 refugees with Amayesh cards, mostly Afghans, but there are also two million undocumented Afghans. We don’t know exactly their number. It could be 1.5 to 2 million, based on the head count by Iranian authorities.

It is also important to bear in mind what Iran has been doing. First of all, they have allowed over 400,000 school-aged refugee children to have access to the national education system, including primary, secondary and tertiary education. They have also allowed access to services like healthcare insurance to Afghans, mostly the vulnerable ones. It has been important for us to feed the observation from Iran back into the global process.

The purpose of discussions taking place now is about responsibility sharing because refugees are an issue of international concern and we need to realize that it is not just a few host countries doing it all like Jordan, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. It really involves every member state of the UN. We want to bring the message back from the major host countries what it means to host refuses for many years.

The floor was then open to questions and answers and below are some of them:

Q. What was the nature of your discussions with Iranian officials?

A. The discussions were about the global compact on refugees. It was very constructive to see Iran’s experience in this context. In some situations in a country you have a parallel system. You have a camp based system where refugees are almost warehoused and they have no integration into the housing system and education. For years, however, Iran has practiced an inclusive approach, because it has recognized that it doesn’t help the manage maintenance in camps, which is happening in most countries in the world. However, they need support and it is important for us to voice that and have their voice heard.

Because of this global debate, we hope to create more awareness about global refugees in Iran and draw more support to Iran.

Q. Has the current political tension between Iran and the U.S. made it tougher to have donors commit support for Iran as it has hosted million of refugees for decades?

A. The refugee situation is humanitarian. No one has any interest in politicizing this and for us it is a key issue. At UNHCR we have an advantage that in our mandate it says we are humanitarian, not a political organization. We want to bring that humanitarian dimension into discussion because what Iran is doing deserves our utmost appreciation and admiration not just on behalf of the UNHCR but the international community and we hope that there will be more recognition for what Iran is doing for refugees. We hope that the humanitarian space created here for Afghan refugees gets its proper credit internationally.

“Iran is one of the longest and largest refugee hosting countries in the world and has one of the most protracted refugee situations because of the situation in Afghanistan.”

Q. If sanctions are re-imposed by the U.S. on Iran, will the UNHCR projects get halted in the Islamic Republic?

A. We don’t know what situation we will face at this stage. In the event of sanctions, they will impact the Iranian economy which will also have a ripple effect on refugees and how they can find a job. For us, at the global level, we need to make a very strong case that support is required for not just refugees but vulnerable Iranians, who are the host communities. For example, in Lebanon you have the marginalized poor Lebanese communities living together along with Syrian refugees. Of course, we need to look at both because otherwise it will create tension. We don’t know how the situation will evolve here but we need to work on social cohesion and look also at affected Iranians. So, that is one of our worries. However, we need to respond when the situation evolves.

Q. Has the UNHCR been able to convince the international community to donate more to Iran?

A. There are activities by the UNHCR that are not affected by the sanctions. Of course, the U.S., Japan, the European Union, Germany are very important donor countries and in that sense we always had their commitment to continue our humanitarian activity. We don’t see any change in that regard. For us what is more important is to get more support. We are in a current situation where there are ever growing needs that don’t match the funds. For example, last year we had massive influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh. Within a couple of weeks we had hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh in the most underdeveloped part of the country. So there are a lot of competing realities. What we hope to achieve through this global debate is not just about the response but also looking at the protracted situations such as Afghanistan.

So a couple of years ago we launched together with the Afghan, Iranian and Pakistani governments a solution strategy for Afghan refugees. As a result of this global debate, we hope to revitalize that. We are also aware that the security situation in Afghanistan has not necessarily improved. We have seen a deterioration in security there which is why the example of Iran is such an important one. It is almost like investment in the Afghan refugee population, which serves the interest of the people first, and helps also to build up their own countries in the future until they can return. But it also serves the host society as they contribute to the host country as Afghans working here, and they are a resilient community. Iran has adopted a very wise approach of how to handle refugees in difficult situations. We hope that despite the changing geopolitics, we continue to emphasize the great achievements by Iran.

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