By Ivo Freijsen, UNHCR representative and Negar Gerami, WFP representative

World refugee Day 2021: Together we can heal, learn and shine

June 19, 2021 - 18:7

Over the course of the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all facets of life, causing millions of deaths around the world and leading to human suffering, economic recession, restrictions on mobility, and severe limitations on daily life. Iran was one of the first countries impacted by the virus and still today, we all continue to struggle to get our normal lives back.

We have all been affected. But refugees, who often are among the most vulnerable in society, have been particularly badly hit. In our work in Iran with UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and WFP, the World Food Programme, we speak with refugees every day who tell us that the pandemic not only affected their health but also severely impacted their livelihoods. Month after month, more people tell us that they can no longer afford food, pay rent and make ends meet.

But despite their challenges, today on World Refugee Day, we celebrate the resilience and courage with which refugees have stepped up and joined the fight against the virus in Iran.

All over the country, refugees like the young Roya in the Sarvestan settlement in Shiraz started sewing masks and gowns for health workers, in workshops supported by UNHCR and WFP. Others worked tirelessly as doctors and nurses, tending to the needs of Iranians and foreigners alike. Every day, Dr. Hosseini, an Afghan refugee doctor in Esfahan, spends hours advising other Afghans in her community on how to keep healthy and safe – on top of her working hours as a Head Physician.

The pandemic showed us that everyone has a role to play to fight the virus and that no one is protected until we are all protected.

That is why since the onset of the pandemic UNHCR and WFP – along with our UN sister agencies and  NGO partners – mobilized quickly to bring in large numbers of masks, face shields, gowns, hand sanitizers, gloves, ventilators, and non-contact thermometers to help address critical shortages in the national health system and support the government’s COVID-19 response, to which refugees have access.

We applaud Iran for very quickly realizing that only by working together can we create a safer and healthier society. Globally speaking, Iran continues to stand out as a very positive example of a refugee-hosting country giving refugees access to basic services – so refugees can thrive, not just survive.

People forced to flee their homes often struggle to find doctors to care for them when they’re sick, schools for their children, or even a place for the younger ones to run around and play. In Iran, refugees can get the health care they need and all children can go to school.

The school does more than teach children math and language skills – it provides them a safe place to grow and learn basic life skills, such as cooperation, responsibility, and respect.

When all children can go to school, communities grow stronger. When all children can go to school, they become able to hope for and build better futures for themselves and their families.

And hope for the future has been hard to find across the globe. People were forced to flee their homes throughout the past year despite the urgent appeal from the UN Secretary-General on 23 March 2020 calling for a global ceasefire to enable a concerted response to the pandemic. By the end of 2020, the number of people forcibly displaced around the world due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and events seriously disturbing public order had grown to 82.4 million, the highest number on record according to available data.

Based on the statistics received by the Government of Iran in October 2020, on which consultations are ongoing, there are over 3 million Afghans in Iran - some 780,000 Afghan refugees (out of 800,000 refugee cardholders), over 2 million undocumented Afghans, and another 600,000 Afghan passport-holders with Iranian visas. In 2020, there were 5.8 million forcibly displaced Afghans and Afghan returnees globally.

This World Refugee Day, we call on communities and governments around the world to include refugees – in health care, education, and sport.

Our shared human condition and values must be a source of unity, not division. Now more than ever, as Afghanistan stands at a critical historical juncture, we need to stand by displaced

Afghans who have borne the cost of years of conflict, and assure them that they have not been forgotten.

We hope that you will join us to advocate for refugees to be given the tools, skills, and support they need to become self-reliant, independent, and able to help their communities. This includes making sure Afghans get the vaccine at the same time as Iranians – a cause dear to UNHCR and WFP, as we jointly advocate for Iran to receive more doses of the vaccine for everyone.

Iran, for more than 40 years, has stepped up and done all it could for refugees. Now more than ever, the international community needs to help Iran shoulder this humanitarian responsibility. Meanwhile, the UN continues to work in Afghanistan, to ensure refugees have a safe place to return to one day.

Together we can heal. Together we can learn. Together we can shine.