Despite the growing economic pressure, the Iranian government has continued to invest in critical services for Afghan refugees, enabling them to build skills and equipping them with what they need to be able to build a new life in their country of origin, once they can return.
This was announced by Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iran Ivo Freijsen in an exclusive interview with Iran Daily.
Freijsen added, “Iran has led by example by providing refugees with inclusive education, health care services and livelihood opportunities. With the advent of the coronavirus, the economic situation in Iran, which was already impacted by the sanctions, is getting more difficult, and it is understandable that the government will find it harder to maintain these services."
In May 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015, and reimposed Washington’s sanctions on Tehran. Mainly targeting the country’s oil and banking sectors, the sanctions have also impeded delivery of international humanitarian aid to Iran.
In addition, since the beginning of its outbreak in Iran in late February 2020, the coronavirus, causing a severe respiratory disease known as COVID-19, has led to the closure of many businesses and border crossings in the country, making it more difficult for migrants to earn a livelihood.
Full text of the interview follows:
IRAN DAILY: As UNHCR representative in Iran, how do you assess the situation of migrants and refugees in the country?
IVO FREIJSEN: For more than 40 years, Iran has generously hosted Afghans fleeing conflict and related hardships. Iran is the world’s seventh-largest refugee hosting country, providing a safe haven to close to one million refugees.
Refugee and undocumented children in Iran can go to school and study alongside Iranian children, and Afghans can access health care as well as work in certain jobs. The government of Iran, despite the growing economic pressure, has continued to invest in critical services for refugees, enabling them to build skills and equipping them with what they need to be able to build a new life in Afghanistan, once they can return.
However, our joint efforts are becoming more strained, as the socioeconomic situation becomes more dire. More support is needed from the international community to enable the government of Iran to maintain and sustain these inclusive policies whilst pursuing durable solutions.
How many migrants enter Iran legally? How many are in the country illegally? How do you view the Iranian government's treatment of undocumented foreign nationals?
As in other countries, the government is in charge of border management so we are not in a position to provide the requested figures. As for undocumented foreign nationals, it is important to note that all states have the right to control their borders and manage irregular movements. UNHCR and other actors stand ready to provide support and advice so that this happens in the most conducive manner possible.
Afghans are an important part of the refugees and immigrants in Iran and have been living in the country for many years. Do other countries provide similar services, such as education and health care, to refugees with the same quality and at the same quantity?
Iran has led by example by providing refugees with inclusive education, health care services and livelihood opportunities. With the advent of the coronavirus, the economic situation in Iran, which was already impacted by the sanctions, is getting more difficult, and it is understandable that the government will find it harder to maintain these services.
UNHCR’s budget has also been impacted by the crisis that is affecting the world. With the humanitarian needs in Iran increasing, our joint efforts are not enough. That is why we need more international support urgently.
What are the impacts of US sanctions on UNHCR’s work in Iran, the transfer of financial aid to the organization and protection of refugees in the country? What solution should be worked out for dealing with the issue?
UNHCR’s work in Iran is one of the priorities of the organization and has been maintained despite the technical difficulties that were the result of the reimposition of the sanctions.
As a humanitarian organization, we have noticed how economic conditions have become more challenging and led to many refugees and others finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet. This is why we renew our appeal to other countries to increase their humanitarian support for Iran, so that inclusive policies toward refugees can be maintained and durable solutions can be pursued.
What facilities and incentives are being offered by UNHCR to repatriate migrants and encourage them to return to their home countries? Is the process of repatriating of refugees and asylum seekers to their own countries currently taking place?
Supporting the return of refugees to their country of origin is one of the priority areas of UNHCR’s work in Iran.
In order to equip refugees for a successful voluntary return to their home country, be it Afghanistan or Iraq, UNHCR supports education, health and livelihoods activities in Iran. Through our operations around the world, we have seen that individuals who are healthy, well-educated and have marketable-skills and business acumen, are more likely to return to their country of origin as they feel more empowered and capable of standing on their own two feet, supporting themselves and building their new lives.
When refugees decide to return to their countries voluntarily and based on all the information available to them, UNHCR supports them by providing transportation and a cash allowance to get them started. However, persevering conflict and instability in both Afghanistan and Iraq mean that only a modest number of refugees are opting for voluntary repatriation. Our main wish is for conditions in these countries to improve so that people can return. In Afghanistan, security remains a big issue and infrastructure and basic services need to be strengthened in order to allow returnees to make a durable and safe new start with their lives.
What measures has UNHCR taken to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and how do you assess the Iranian government's response to the disease compared to other countries?
UNHCR has continued to deliver essential humanitarian aid to refugees and Iranians throughout the pandemic. With the situation rapidly evolving, we have been able to quickly step up and, in coordination with BAFIA (Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs), our main government counterpart with whom we collaborate very closely, we have provided protective equipment and medical items to support the national health system. We have also jointly distributed hygiene materials with a focus on refugee hosting areas and refugee settlements.
Many refugees, who rely on informal, part-time work, have lost their jobs, and they are more and more approaching UNHCR for assistance. Therefore, we provided a one-off cash assistance to a limited number of refugees and other persons of concern directly affected by the virus to support them in affording their basic needs for up to three months.
We also work closely with the World Health Organization, our sister United Nations agency, who is leading the response hand in hand with the government of Iran and, of course, with a range of other national and international actors. We appreciate the collective team effort and continuously advocate for this to be generously supported by the international community.