Bricks or pencils
An Afghan migrant, who lives in Iran, works in a brick kiln at the Qasem abad village outside the city of Varamin, on September 14, 2016. (Photo: Abedin Taherkenareh EFE/EPA)
Teheran, Dec 1 (efe-epa).- Schooling is not a right for Afghan refugee children in Iran, home to three million refugees who fled unending conflict in Afghanistan. Many of these kids need to undertake precarious jobs, such as working in brick kilns, along with their parents.
Despite pressure to leave Iran and repatriation campaigns organized by agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Afghan refugees find it difficult to return to a country ravaged by a series of conflicts since the Soviet invasion in 1979.
In 2016, Afghanistan was ranked second in the world, in terms of the number of refugees it generated, Syria being the number one.
The UNHCR had recorded more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees, the vast majority in neighboring countries: there were one million of them in Iran, and 1.4 million in Pakistan. In Europe, Germany topped the list with a total of 43,000 Afghan refugees.
Education for children
However, there are another two million undocumented Afghan refugees in Iran.
Iranian authorities had launched schooling programs which allowed Afghan children, including those who did not hold a residence permit, to study and to regularize undocumented refugees and make residence requirements lenient.
“We want the children to be able to go to school, to have employment opportunities,” the European United Left-Nordic Green Left MEP, Cornelia Ernst, told EFE.
She was member of the European Union delegation, headed by Polish Januzs Lewandowski that visited Iran for one of the regular EU-Iran Inter-Parliamentary meetings.
The delegation visited one of the registration and health centers for Afghan refugees in Isfahan, in central part of the country, after the meetings.
The EU, which has been funding humanitarian projects in Iran since 1997, had allocated a sum amounting to 10 million euro through NGOs and UN agencies, to help Afghan refugees living in the country.
The aid was aimed at Afghan refugee children’s schooling, medical assistance and food security, as well as to help refugees pay for medical insurance premium and access legal advice.
At Isfahan health centre, MEPs checked the outpatient care conditions and had the opportunity to speak with Afghan doctors and nurses, as well as with the people in charge of the centre, run by the Iranian government and the UNHCR.
The Iranian government took steps to include all legal Afghan residents in the national health system, and vaccination campaigns for children, especially against polio, are held frequently. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only countries in the world where the disease is still endemic.
Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, issued a decree in 2015 to allow Afghans, both legal and illegal residents, to study in Iran’s government schools.
In 2016, nearly 48,000 undocumented Afghan children were enrolled in school for the first time, and the number of refugee children attending schools reached 400,000 in 2017.
Repatriation or integration
In 2002, Iran had initiated a voluntary repatriation program that would require the support of the international community and cooperation between the government, the UN, and donors.
In November 2017, the Iranian government urged the Director General of the International Organization for Migration, William Lacy Swing, who was visiting the country at the time, to help Afghans return to their home land.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araghchi, called on the international community to contribute to improve the security and economic situation in Afghanistan, and to prepare the refugees better for return to their country.
However, Cornelia Ernst did not consider Afghans’ repatriation to be a solution, as Afghanistan is not a safe country.
She was also of the opinion that it was necessary to improve their living conditions in Iran, as the issue of undocumented refugees in the country still remained “unresolved,” and Afghans continued to face major problems.
The undocumented refugees had as a limited access to means of subsistence and basic essential services.
Majority of them had no other alternative but to settle for small, unskilled and poorly paid jobs, such as construction workers or parking attendants. In Qasem Abad, on the outskirts of the city of Varamin, brick kilns workers earned $10 per day after working for 14 hours, and they have work only six months per year during hot weather.
Their access to the labour market is however facilitated by their freedom to choose the place of residence. Some 97 percent of Afghan refugees live in urban areas - with 33 percent of them in Tehran province - while only 3 percent live in refugee camps.
Inevitable comparisons with Europe
Poland’s Janusz Lewandowski, a member the European People's Party (EPP), welcomed Iran’s acceptance of Afghans as a “humanitarian measure in response to the human disaster in Afghanistan”.
“It is a good step to back refugees in Iran. We want to help. But we don’t think it would a good idea that all the refugees come to Europe,” Cornelia Ernst said.
Three million represents a staggering number of refugees in Iran, and more so, if the Iranian revolution in 1979, war with Iraq (1980-1988) and years of international economic embargo, witnessed by the country during the last four decades, are taken into account.
Comparisons with Europe were inevitable during the parliamentarian delegation’s visit to Iran between Nov. 25 and 27, 2017, and the delegation also held talks with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and President of the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran, Ali Larijani.
A member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament (S & D), Flavio Zanonato, admitted to EFE that the welcome extended by Iran was “positive” and the number of refugees that the country has played host to, is much higher than Europe.
“Refugees, asylum seekers, arrive in such numbers in Iran that we cannot even imagine in Europe. In Italy, there are 250,000 refugees and we already say that it is disproportionate while there are three million over here,” added Zanonato.
By Marina Villén
Translated by Meena Gupta Seth
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