3. An Analysis of the Situation of Afghan Refugees in Iran
1) Introduction The influx of 25 to 30% of the Afghan population to Iran and Pakistan over the years has made an in-depth study of their situation necessary. The importance of such a study becomes evident when we take into consideration that there is a basic difference between Afghan refugees in Iran, refugees in Pakistan and refugees in other parts of the world. Any kind of planning for the reception of refugees and for the improvement of their situation should be based on the assumption that the refugee is trying to preserve his national identity and is looking forward to returning to his own country. 2) The Difference Between Afghan Refugees in Iran and in Pakistan Altogether more than five million Afghan refugees live in Iran and Pakistan. Although they come from a single country and apparently have the same reason for seeking asylum, each refugee chases one of these two countries according to his needs and his circumstances. As there are basic differences between the two countries concerning the admission of refugees, the refugees in Iran have different characteristics in comparison with the refugees in Pakistan. Such characteristics can be seen in language, religion, ethnicity, status of living, employment, sex and age combination, as well as in the motive for seeking asylum and the way of the eventual settlement. Most of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan live in frontier camps. They preserve their social texture, and their situation is such that as soon as the political circumstances allow it they immediately return to their home country. The situation for Afghan refugees in Iran is a different one. This difference has grown out of some peculiarities of the admission policy for refugees in Iran.
These peculiarities are: A- The allocation of refugees to different regions in Iran. The proportion of refugees in each province varies according to the size of the Iranian population. In some western provinces (combat areas) there are no refugees. B- Settlements in urban areas and out-of-camp areas. C- The possibility of seeking employment D- Religious solidarity of Iranians (the majority of whom are Shias) with the world's Shias including Afghan Shias. Because of these peculiarities there are some basic differences between the Afghan refugees in the two countries: A- The number of Shia refugees in Iran (in comparison with Pakistan) is much higher. These refugees are mainly from central areas of Afghanistan and they are Hezareh people. One reason for this fact is the common use of the Persian language by them and the Iranians. Other groups of Afghan refugees are mainly Sunni and speak Pushtu. B- The percentage of male refugees in Iran is much greater than in Pakistan. This is probably due to the availability of jobs in Iran which attracts Afghans who are old enough to be part of the work force. Choosing an occupation and earning money leads to financial independence of the refugees, something that can hardly be encountered in camps. C- Living out of camps and getting in touch with the people of the host country leads to a kind of cultural attachment and attraction. However, if the cultural level of the refugees is considered to be lower than that of the hosts, contacts between these two groups might lead to a kind of cultural humiliation and cause different reactions on the refugees' part. This cultural humiliation as a whole may damage their national morale which is an important motivation for their returning home. Living out of camps for a long period of time results in the separation of the refugees from their own culture. This applies mainly to young people. Life in camps includes some social control of the members of that society. Most of the social structures still exist for the refugees. Living out of camps however, leads to a kind of disintegration of the individual's social relations as these controls are lost. One example illustrates this: The population of Afghan refugees amounts to 4% of Iran's total population. 9% of the prisoners in Iran who are accused of murder are Afghans. Most of these murder cases are related to disputes which in the Afghan community could have been settled peacefully. D- The isolation of the refugees, the distance to their homeland and the
occupation they pursue leads to a certain indifference and neglect towards their country's situation and its future. There is evidence that the majority of Afghan refugees have not got a clear picture of Afghanistan's status quo and its perspectives. E- The relative freedom of travelling, occupation and earning money leads to a legal involvement for the refugee. Many new privileges are accomplished by using illegal means, distancing the refugee from his Afghan identity. These legal relations are among the most important factors that hinder the refugee to return to his own country. 3) The Reasons for Seeking Asylum It should be noted that because of different conditions in Iran and Pakistan, the refugees to these countries also differ from each other as to their reasons for seeking asylum. The main reason for Afghans for seeking asylum is the civil war and foreign aggression. But in case of an end of the war there are other factors which may develop into important and fundamental reasons for the continuation of seeking asylum by the Afghan people. If these reasons are not eliminated they will lead to a tendency of staying in the host country. A- Destruction resulting from combat between the government and occupying forces and the guerrilla drives the Afghan people out of their country. B- Desertion from military service in Afghanistan is among the most prevalent reasons to seek asylum. C- Ethnic, tribal and religious differences lead to destruction, murder and ravage that is much worse than that caused by the civil war. D- Poverty forces many Afghans to take refuge in a foreign country as they cannot secure the cost of living for their families. Many of the refugees in Iran send a considerable amount of their income back to Afghanistan to help their families. 4) Working Conditions of the Refugees in Iran Since the increase of the oil price in 1973 which resulted in a lot of petrodollars being poured into the economy there have been fast and important changes in Iran's economic sectors. The increase in the national income and the expansion of some economic sectors like construction led to a lack of workers particularly in labour intensive industries and in heavy industries like mining and
construction. Afghan workers emigrated to Iran and filled in the gap. Therefore the need for unskilled workers in jobs like brick-burning, construction, mining, together with a higher standard of living in Iran attracted a lot of young people from Afghanistan, The change in the Afghan government and the assassination of David Khan led to an acceleration of this process. As a result of the influx of Afghan refugees to Iran and Afghan engagement in various economic fields, the production of certain goods has totally become dependent on the relatively cheap Afghan labour. At present less than 500 Afghan refugees have got a full work permit and most of them are employed by the government. These people are for the most part highly educated and work in medical and technical fields. There are about 4000 people who have got a work permit limited to unskilled labour. These two groups are only a small part of the Afghan work force in Iran. The bigger part are refugees without a work permit who mostly work and live in the same place. Although they are very often exploited by their employers they do not complain since their situation is still better than the one in Afghanistan and they are often able to save some money to send to their relatives in their homeland. 5) The Stages in the Emigration to Iran The Iranian government has enacted some laws as to whom asylum should be granted. According to these laws asylum is only granted to people below the age of 16 or over 50, to women and those wounded in war. But due to lack of control other people can also enter the country, mainly by passing over blind frontiers. At present it is estimated that more than 40% of the Afghan refugees living in Iran are not officially registered. Those who legally enter Iran are registered and given an identity card after being kept in quarantine. Then they are sent to one of the country's provinces. Many of the refugees who have got relatives in Iran and would like to join them may choose their place of residence before entering the country. This process is carried out in temporary camps. The temporary camps are like small towns surrounded by barbed wire. There are public bathrooms, kitchens, bakeries and other facilities. The refugees stay there for a short period of time only. There are also camps that are permanent and open. The refugees there are involved in various activities including agriculture. A number of such camps have been established in the eastern parts of Iran, near the Afghan border. Most of the Afghan refugees have come from villages in border areas. Given that the population of Afghanistan consists of 85% villagers, this number is not surprising. Life in the Iranian cities like Tehran, Mashad, Esphahan and Shiraz however, can have a deciding effect on a refugee's choice of residence when returning home.
6) The Implications of Seeking Asylum to the Homeland A- Economy: Among the most decisive factors in the refugee's decision to return home is the local situation that he has come from and the way he thinks about the present economic situation. For instance the market system including the exchange of goods in the Afghan economy disintegrated as a result of the war. If this situation does not change in reasonable time it may lead to a total disintegration of the Afghan of the economic system in regions where the majority of the people has left to seek asylum. B- Population: Afghanistan is among the countries with the highest death rate. But because of the Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan and the health care system there, the death rate among Afghan people has been lowered. The high birth rate however has not changed. Their rate however has not changed and any increase in their number has some important effects on their returning home. Although only about 30% of the Afghan people have sought asylum, their return to their home regions might cause a population crisis and requires careful preparation. C- Housing: Because of the cold weather in the mountains of Afghanistan, proper and warm housing is an absolute necessity of life there. Almost all the buildings in combat regions have been damaged, causing problems for returning refugees as to find proper housing. In addition to that marriage of young Afghans during their stay in Iran or Pakistan intensifies the need for housing. D- Public services: Some regions suffer heavy damage in various fields as a result of the war. After the war it will therefore take a long time for public services like health care and education to reach the same level of efficiency as before the war. 7) The Effects of the Refugees on the Host Country A- Economy: As the refugees become important for the economy of their host country their return to their home country will cause problems. They will be attracted with higher wages and with better conditions of living, which in turn will again weaken the refugee's will to return. In the long run the host country (here: Iran) will be faced with a lot of economic problems. B- Law: When the Afghan refugees stay in Iran for a longer period of time their involvement with Iranian society provides them with special legal relations. Initially these relations were not legal but in the course of time acceptance by
the native people has evolved. The newly gained rights and duties of the Afghan refugees will cause a lot of problems upon their return. Among these legal relations are marriage or the ownership of real estate to name just two. 8) The Effects of the Iranian Lifestyle on Refugees The lifestyle of the Iranian population is very different from the traditional Afghan way of life. As the refugees are distributed all over the country and as they get in contact with the Iranian people they are influenced by the Iranian way of life which is reflected in their behavior and attitudes. The financial situation of the refugees is especially touched by this. A- Consumption: As far as the availability of food is concerned the refugees in Iran probably do not enjoy a better situation than in their homeland. In particular the price of meat is very high in Iran compared to Afghanistan. Thus the refugees have to do without meat if they want to save some money. There are current government policies however, that may bring about changes in the refugees' diet. According to these plans there should be a distribution of food stamps among the officially accepted refugees. The effects of such policies however, require some further analysis. A brief look at some other important aspects such as the availability of facilities like electricity, refined drinking water, oil and gas, the transformation in the refugees' lifestyle, the change from a rather rural way of life to an urban one. B- Education: According to estimates the percentage of illiteracy among Afghans is very high. However it varies between men and women, cities and villages. The illiteracy level is nearly zero among Afghan women in villages. The Afghan teenagers in Iran - both boys and girls - can enjoy equal education with Iranian students on all levels such as school, high school and university. The classes of "literacy education movement" are also accessible to Afghan adults. Having got familiar with the benefits from education the refugees consider it as an essential need to be met. When they return to their homeland the situation will be very different again. C- Health: The refugees get used to the wide availability of health care. They get used to having access to clinics, doctors and drugs and they increasingly become aware of healthy life. All this makes it difficult for the refugees to accept the circumstances they encounter in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, health care in Iran is partially responsible for the population growth among Afghan refugees. D- Employment: Although the majority of refugees are employed as unskilled
workers there are some who have become experts in certain fields with wages being significantly higher. This group will not be eager to leave their job unless they find work where they can use their skills. 9) The Problems of the Refugees So far we have discussed issues that point out the unlikeliness of the refugees returning to their original ways of life. And even if they do return they will want to live in the cities, thus the cities and their suburbs will rapidly expand. In addition to this a great number of refugees will not find a proper job or a suitable place to live in the cities upon their return. Hence they will often emigrate to Iran again. Nevertheless there are many factors that create a strong motivation for the refugees to return to their home country. A- The Feeling of Being Degraded: It is a fact that refugees do not prepare themselves to live in Iran permanently. Thus their lives are determined by waiting and by the feeling of being a refugee. These feelings strengthen their desire to return. They do not want to live as refugees for a long period of time. Certainly there is the option to adjust to the new environment and eventually to cope with the new situation. So far the hope to return is stronger for the majority of the Afghan refugees than the desire to adjust. However it all heavily depends on the political situation in Afghanistan as well as on the development of the Iranian attitude towards them. B- The Feeling of Being Despised: Although the general attitude of the Iranians towards refugees is not of nationalistic character, there are a lot of factors causing refugees being looked upon with contempt. The main factor may be the presence of too many refugees all over the cities out of the camps they were allocated to. This can cause many problems for native people. On the other hand refugees often are given the role of the scapegoats. They are blamed for causing problems they are in no way responsible for. The feeling of being despised is more prominent among young people since they are more sensitive about discrimination. They are also more often confronted with the rather hostile attitude of the Iranian youth. This can be seen in schools in the suburban area of Tehran were Afghan refugees and Iranians go to the same classes. These feelings of inferiority leads to a longing to return to the home country even by those refugees who do not have any reminiscence of Afghanistan.
Let us look at some of the factors that create such a negative picture of the refugees: A- Criminality: The dramatic effects of drug abuse have forced Iranian authorities to take action against this social difficulty. In most cases these drugs are imported from the eastern borders, namely from Afghanistan and Pakistan with the majority of smugglers being from Afghanistan. These smugglers take advantage of the current situation and pretend to be refugees which in turn arouses suspicion towards all Afghan refugees. Afghans are also often mentioned in connection with murder cases and with violence. The rough mentality of the Afghans together with the collapse of social and legal regulations that to some extent control the individual's behavior pave the ground for serious clashes among Afghan refugees. Since very many refugees are single or away from their wives there are also sexual crimes that are committed in addition to violent clashes. These assaults and the clashes lead to more hatred towards them. A recent research among murderers imprisoned in Iran shows that over 9% of the inmates are Afghans while their percentage of the population in general is just 4%. The research also illuminates that among Afghan murderers 65% are Sunni with the rest being Shia’i. The study also shows that 85% of the people murdered by refugees are refugees themselves. Nevertheless suspicion and fear is growing among Iranian citizens. B- The Economic Factor: The growing number of employed Afghans versus the unemployment of Iranians makes the situation more difficult. Since Afghan workers accept lower salaries, Iranian workers lose their job. Some employers recently replaced Iranian workers with Afghan refugees. This fact causes hostility mainly among the Iranian working class. Other social classes, especially employers in the field of construction or heavy industry, are happy with the presence of refugees. C- Laws: There are laws concerning refugees that from their point of view are unjust. These laws are in fields like housing, property, employment, etc. Although some of these laws might appear as cases of discrimination, they are meant to protect the refugees from conflicts among themselves or with Iranian citizens. In addition to that these laws are aimed at preventing strong dependence on either side, thus strengthening the tendency of the refugees to return to their home country. 10) Adaption of the Refugees Facing the problems mentioned above, refugees try to find solutions. These
problems are of a more social than personal nature. They result partially from the refugees' nationality. Thus if the refugees can hide their nationality, some of their problems will be solved. To reach this goal one of the following methods is generally adapted: The Afghan refugees do not look like Iranians. They are almost from Mongolian descent. There are some Iranian tribes in the Khorassan region that share many features with them. But they are just a minority. The refugees often change their hairstyle, their way of dressing and particularly their language in order to be taken as Iranians. There are some Afghan refugees, the Pashtoon sects and Sonnies, that have less difficulty in disguising themselves since they look somehow similar to Iranians. Because traditional cloth is a prominent Afghan feature, changes in the style of dressing helps the Afghans not to be recognized all that easily. Young people are especially successful in this method. It is to be mentioned that Iranian clothing is also about 50% cheaper than Afghan clothing. So there is also the financial factor that encourages Afghans to wear Iranian clothes. Although both nations speak Farsi, there is some difference as to the usage of certain words and to pronunciation. Naturally children and young people are more successful in trying to adapt to the language than older people.