Prague, 17 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The UN's refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says about half of the international NGOs operating in Iran have been forced to leave the country because of administrative obstacles, government pressures, and funding problems.
Aid workers say that, as a result, thousands of refugees will be deprived of the socioeconomic assistance they were receiving. Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, says many international aid agencies have had to pull out of Iran because of a variety of problems.
"The main problems have been administrative formalities that are simply without end -- various obstacles and objections to work plans, visa requests and visa extensions," Kessler said.
He adds that administrative hurdles are putting off even the most experienced nongovernmental organizations, each with years of experience in crisis zones and refugee assistance operations worldwide. Despite the big refugee population in Iran, he says there are currently only seven international NGOs operating in the country.
Kessler declined to reveal the names of the NGOs who have been forced to leave, for fear, he said, of jeopardizing the work of the local staff who remain behind.
The UNHCR says it has, on several occasions, expressed its concern to the Iranian government about the problems faced by NGOs trying to operate in the country. Nevertheless, the situation hasn't been resolved.
Kessler says that, despite a high level of official government support, refugees in Iran are being affected by the problem, since the Iranian government is not able to fill the gap left by the pullout of the aid agencies. "Refugees are being affected by this. Refugees are going without medical care and other necessary assistance, so it is having an impact," he said.
Administrative obstacles are not the only problems international aid agencies are facing in Iran. According to the UNHCR, some NGOs have discontinued their activities following government pressure.
One of those is Ockenden International, a British NGO that works with refugees and displaced people. Ockenden was for several years supporting the Iranian government by providing aid to Afghan refugees living in Iran and also by working on the repatriation process.
James Bill, chief executive of Ockenden, told RFE/RL that the agency decided to leave Iran because its independence as an NGO was under threat. "Ockenden had an excellent working relationship with all the authorities in Iran from 1997 up until the beginning of 2003," he said. "At that point, we were asked to dismiss our most senior staff member in Iran, our country representative. We inquired as to why we were being asked to dismiss her, and we received no reason at all for dismissing her -- and we certainly had no reason to dismiss her. As an NGO, we have to maintain our operational independence within the laws of the countries that we work in, and this was obviously an attack on our operational independence."
Tehran has not commented on why it asked the Ockenden official to be removed.
For more than two decades, Iran hosted the world's biggest refugee population -- about 2 million Afghan refugees who fled war and hunger in their home country. About 1 million are believed to have now returned to Afghanistan. More than 200,000 Iraqi refugees also reside in Iran. Iranian authorities have repeatedly complained that they have not received adequate support from the international community and that the burden to help these refugees has mostly fallen on their shoulders.
Bill of Ockenden says that by hampering the efforts of aid agencies, the Iranian government is sending out the wrong message. "[The Iranian authorities have] been looking for support, and we've been able to provide some of that support. So obviously, it will have an impact in that the work we did is no longer taking place," he said. "But there is danger that it also has an impact, in that it sends a message that the Iranian authorities are not interested in having international support to the refugee problem inside their country, which I know is not true."
Nazanin Kazemi is the representative of the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran (ICRI), an international agency that coordinates and facilitates the work of NGOs and disseminates information on the refugee situation in Iran. Kazemi says several other NGOs have had to leave Iran because of a lack of funds.
"I think that the other NGOs have left because they either didn't have funding to work inside Iran or have chosen to take what funds they did have inside Afghanistan and inside Iraq. Unfortunately, even though we do understand the need on both sides -- inside Afghanistan and Iraq -- it certainly doesn't mean that there isn't need left inside Iran," Kazemi said.
The repatriation of Afghan refugees began last year under a tripartite agreement between Iran, the UNHCR and the government of Afghanistan. Since the end of major military operations in Iraq, small groups of Iraqi refugees have also started to return to their country.
Hussein al-Shahristani is the representative of the Iraqi Refugee Aid Council (IRAC) in Iran, an organization that provides help to Iraqi and Afghan refugees in Iran. Al-Shahristani says his organization has a good working relationship with the Iranian authorities. However, he adds that receiving needed funds from the international community is becoming difficult because of so-called "donor fatigue."
"The only problem we are facing in our work is obtaining money from international donor organizations. Because of the return of Afghan and Iraqi refugees to their countries, the budget has decreased a bit," he said.
The UNHCR is warning that unless the situation with the NGOs is resolved soon, the agency's ability to complement the Iranian government's assistance efforts will be seriously hampered.
Meanwhile, the ICRI's Kazemi says attracting aid agencies to Iran is turning into a real challenge. "It's not an easy task. There are issues of funding, there are issues of priorities. There are issues of the difficulty of coming into Iran. It's always been a difficult task, and it's becoming more difficult by the day," he said.