By William Samii and Golnaz Esfandiari
Prague, 27 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives from more than 20 international humanitarian organizations began meeting in Tehran this week to discuss the plight of more than two million mostly Afghan refugees in Iran.
The meeting, which started Tuesday and continues through Sunday, is organized by an international group of NGOs comprising the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran (ICRI). It is being held in cooperation with the Iranian government.
Catherine Squire, a representative of the ICRI, told RFE/RL by telephone from Tehran earlier this week that the conference is aimed at raising interest among foreign humanitarian organizations in helping to care for refugees in Iran, which is itself hard hit by economic problems.
"The aim is to try to let people know about the needs of the refugees, which, as you know there are many refugees in Iran, estimates are about two million, and there are very few NGO's working here, so the aim of the conference is to try to inform people about what their needs are, and to encourage them to see for themselves what they could do to help these refugees."
Conference organizers say that representatives from Save the Children US, the International Rescue Committee, the International Assistance Mission from France, the Danish Refugee Council, and other NGOs are attending the event. Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan NGOs, such as the Red Crescent Society, Refugee Aid Council, and Imam Javad Foundation, have also sent representatives.
Squire told RFE/RL that only three international NGOs are working in Iran despite the more than two million refugees in the country. The refugees came into Iran in successive waves during the 1970s and 1980s from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hojatoleslam Hassanali Ibrahimi, adviser to Iran's Interior Minister and Director General for Foreign Nationals and Immigrants Affairs, said at the conference's opening that about three million Afghan refugees entered Iran after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, quoted him as saying that almost half of these remain in Iran today.
Ibrahimi also said that there are some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Iran. Analysts say this number includes Kurds from northern Iraq who fled into Iran following a crackdown by Baghdad in the mid-70s and again following the Iran-Iraq war which ended in 1988. The refugees also include Shiites from southern Iraq who were expelled by Iraqi President Saddam Husseyn in the 1970s.
Ibrahimi said that in addition to the Afghanis and Iraqis, there are an additional 32,000 refugees in Iran but he did not specify from what countries.
In a statement read at the conference opening, Iran's Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari said that hosting so many refugees imposes a heavy burden on Iran and that international NGOs currently provide only some $18 million worth of assistance annually. He also said Iran favors repatriation of the refugees but will continue to shelter them until they can return to their homes with their security guaranteed.
The English-language daily "Iran News" reports that the refugees cost Tehran some $1 billion a year. It said that one reasons for the high cost is that the refugees get the same subsidies, welfare benefits, and free education as Iranian citizens. The newspaper called the cost of supporting the refugees at a time of economic difficulty an urgent problem for Tehran. The paper editorialized: "at a time when the government itself is resolved to save expenses and is short of domestic and foreign capital, this important issue is of absolute priority for the government to address."
The burden of supporting the refugees comes as Iran's own economy is suffering from a downturn in world oil prices last year. Officials say the downturn, which last year saw prices sink to ten-year lows, has deprived Tehran of an estimated 40 percent of its hard-currency earnings.
The ICRI's Squire told RFE/RL that this week's conference will particularly look at the problems of Afghan refugees both in the region and in Iran specifically to identify how international NGOs can better help them.
"We'll be looking at schooling, skills training, adult literacy, health education, education in the widest sense. But then we'll also be looking at, for example, the problems of the refugees in Iran, and the needs for voluntary repatriation, the needs for helping NGO's to get legal status in Iran, there's still a rather shaky basis for international NGO's in Iran, so these are the kinds of issues we'll be looking at."
Squire said that the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran has largely been overlooked by international organizations despite the hundreds of NGO's which for decades have been helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. She said that many of the attendees at the Tehran conference have previous experience in Pakistan and organizers hope they will now increasingly also include Iran in their activities.
The ICRI was formed in 1992 by a group of NGO's with the encouragement of the Iranian government and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The group maintains an office in Tehran to help other humanitarian organizations establish operations in Iran and has hosted some 50 organizations which have since visited the country.
(William Samii is a regional specialist with RFE/RL's Communications Division. Golnaz Esfandiari is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Persian Service.)