Iran: preparing for a refugee crisis

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
20 March 2003


- A 2001 government census reported that Iran hosted more refugees than any country in the world – most from Afghanistan and Iraq.

- The UNHCR plans to set up ten camps near the border with Iraq – in a ‘humanitarian no man’s land’. Seven camps now under construction could hold up to 20,000 people.

- The UNHCR plans to have supplies for more than 300,000 people in place by the end of March.

- The lead Iranian NGO, the Red Crescent Society, is closely regulated by the government. Non-Iranian NGOs will be asked to coordinate with multinational organisations such as the UNHCR.

- The lead Iranian NGO, the Red Crescent Society, is closely regulated by the government. Non-Iranian NGOs will be asked to coordinate with multinational organisations such as the UNHCR.

- The Iranian government is worried about the additional humanitarian catastrophe and escalating regional crisis that could result from the use of chemical or biological weapons in the Iraq war.

Iran has for many years hosted a large refugee population – as many as three million Afghans and 500,000 Iraqis at times, according to Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN), in a recent interview with Arthur Helton.

Zarif, a veteran diplomat who has served in the United States for many years, earned his doctorate at the University of Denver on the legality of preventive self-defence. In the 1980s, when he was conducting his research, Iraq justified military action against Iran on this very ground. Zarif noted the irony of the fact that now it is Iraq’s turn to be targeted according to the same logic.

In Zarif’s account, Iran believes that it has had to bear an unfair share of the refugee burden. A government census in 2001 revealed that Iran hosted more refugees than any other country in the world. For the most part, refugees in Iran do not reside in camps, but live intermingled with the population, mostly in Shiraz in the south, and in Qom in central Iran, and have limited opportunities to work. International agencies decline to assist refugees in Iran because they do not live in camps. The refugees receive subsidies from the authorities, and they take jobs from Iranians. Iran is thus ‘penalised’ by hosting refugees.

The Iranian authorities have grown weary of hosting refugees in the face of minimal international financial support or burden sharing. Since mid-2001, the government has imposed restrictions on employment and social care for refugees and migrants, making it increasingly difficult for refugees to subsist in Iran.

In responding to a question about reports of Afghans being forcibly returned, Zarif allowed that some ‘illegal aliens’ had been deported in recent times from Iran. But he was quick to assert that the government was committed to (in the French term) non-refoulement – the obligation under international treaties, to which Iran is a party, not to return a refugee to a place of persecution.

Preparing for disaster

Zarif, speaking just a few days before the start of the war, was already resigned to its inevitability. He noted that military action in Iraq is likely to produce “a humanitarian catastrophe of unparalleled proportions”, and that Iran had no choice but to begin to prepare to host another group of asylum-seekers from Iraq.

This time, however, the authorities would prevent would-be refugees from crossing the border. Arrangements would be made with international organisations – with the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the lead – to establish camps inside Iraq close to the Iranian border, reportedly ten camps located no more than a few miles from the border in a kind of humanitarian ‘no man’s land’.

When asked about ensuring the safety of these internal encampments and the separation of armed elements from civilians, Zarif answered that, unlike reports relating to Turkey, Iran had no designs to introduce forces to protect these camps. “We believe that the introduction of foreign forces would be a new complication,” he stated, presumably referring obliquely as well to the impending US-led invasion.

According to UNHCR, seven of the ten camps, each of which will be designed to hold up to 20,000 people, are currently being prepared. UNHCR plans to have supplies pre-positioned for more than 300,000 people by the end of March. The agency has spent $25 million to build up regional stockpiles of relief items and to deploy additional staff, but it has received only $16.6 million in donations. UNHCR appealed for $60 million to prepare for 600,000 refugees in the region.

But the UNHCR’s estimates may be low. The UN country team estimated in a confidential January 2003 planning document that upwards of 500,000 Iraqis could seek asylum in Iran, some of whom may have to trek through heavily-mined border areas – a residue of prior conflicts.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are the humanitarian foot soldiers in relief operations. In Iran, they operate in a highly regulated environment. The lead local NGO in Iran would be the quasi-governmental Red Crescent Society. Non-Iranian NGOs would be asked by the government to coordinate with multilateral organisations such as UNHCR.

A regional crisis

Zarif suggested the possibility of a nightmare scenario regarding the use of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, which would add a new dimension well beyond the capacities of either Iran or the international community to address. He spoke from experience, recalling that Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and civilians during the 1980s. No entity has the capacity to deal with the catastrophic humanitarian consequences to civilians of the use of weapons of mass destruction in this setting.

The humanitarian aspects of the impending conflict were being dealt with only ‘superficially’, suggested Zarif. He noted that the hesitancy of some donors and humanitarian groups to send the signal of the inevitability of war had caused preparations to lag.

Zarif is dismayed by what he sees as an ‘ideological rush to war’. This is perhaps an understandable expression by a diplomat from a country once identified by George W. Bush as part of an ‘axis of evil’, and where new uranium-enrichment operations are being viewed with increased alarm by nuclear weapons experts.

Zarif ended our conversation with sober reflections. He warned that war on Iraq is very likely to lead to instability in the region. He also warned that without unity in the deliberations of the UN Security Council, it could prove impossible to build consensus to reconstruct Iraq after the war, with serious and negative implications for regional order.

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