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Iran's 'Grave Sleepers' Prompt Calls For Action

Images like this of homeless people living in graves have sparked outrage in Iran.

The images are morbid: homeless men, women, and children so desperate for shelter that they would resort to living in open graves.

Yet that is what some 50 Iranians have reportedly been doing for years, holing themselves up in concrete dugouts at a graveyard outside Tehran.

Images and video of the men living in squalor have sparked shock and outrage in Iran -- including at the highest levels of government -- and prompted mounting calls for action.

The existence of the graveyard shantytown was exposed by the daily newspaper Shahrvand on December 27. A front-page feature discussed the lives the homeless, many of them drug addicts, were eking out at the site in Shahriar, a town outside Tehran.

Photographs from the story spread quickly on social media, eliciting reactions from ordinary and prominent Iranians alike.

President Hassan Rohani called the grave dwellers' situation "unacceptable for both the government and the people."

"The government is responsible and the nation is responsible for poverty, deprivation, and problems," Rohani was quoted as saying on December 28. "I have heard about people in Western countries who sleep on cardboard under bridges out of poverty, or those who sleep in metro stations, but not in graves."

Rohani added that in order to "solve these issues, we must all unite and leave aside partisan issues and differences and address the basic problems of the country."

The president was responding to Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who expressed "shame" and "regret" about the condition of those "men, women, and children who spend their cold nights in a graveyard."

"I intend to share my shame with you and all those who have had any responsibility in this country," Farhadi wrote in a letter to Rohani on December 27.

'No Honor...No Fear'

Many vented their frustrations and anger on social media.

Koohe Sefid, a Facebook user, accused the government of making foreign projects like "rebuilding [the Syrian city of] Aleppo" the "priority" instead of solving social and economic problems in Iran.

Javad Siadat, another Facebook user, posted the message: "My God, what are we witnessing?"

Mohesen Eb said on Facebook that the government "has no honor, no fear, and no shame."

In a follow-up story on December 28, Shahrvand said the homeless were forcibly removed from the graveyard by security forces after local officials pledged to take action. Shahrvand reported that some of the occupants of the cemetery had lived there for a decade.

'Hardcore Addicts'

Sayyed Hossein Hashemi, the governor of Tehran Province, described the dwellers as "hardcore addicts," according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

"The publication of reports that these people had nothing to eat and were hungry was unkind and ill-advised because it should be taken into account that these people are hard-core addicts," he said in remarks on December 28, adding that the dwellers had been transferred to a nearby rehabilitation camp.

Iranian officials have said there are about 15,000 homeless people living in Tehran, including 5,000 women.

But activists believe the real number to be twice that figure.

Many of the homeless are drug addicts. There are 1.4 million registered addicts in treatment programs, but activists say that number, too, is much higher -- more than 2 million people out of a population of 80 million.

The number of drug users is believed to be rising, despite harsh penalties for users if they are caught.

One of the main reasons for the rising number of addicts in Iran is that the country is the main gateway for the drug trade from Afghanistan, the world's main source of opium, which is used to make heroin.

In October, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said Afghanistan's cultivation of opium poppy had risen to 201,000 hectares, a 10 percent increase from 2015.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.