Iran continued to host about 1.8 million refugees in 1999, the largest number of refugees in any country in the world. According to the government, these included about 1,300,000 Afghans and 510,000 Iraqis. These government figures could not be independently confirmed, however, and Iran has not carried out a detailed census. Iran has not granted outsiders access to its refugee registration systems and has provided little information on the legal status and rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the country.

Although the government claims that it hosts 30,000 refugees of other nationalities, it has not provided any information about them. In 1999, some 12,000 Iranians applied for asylum in Europe. The largest number, about 3,400, applied in Germany.

Many Afghan and Iraqi refugees have lived in Iran for nearly two decades, but Iranian officials have made it clear that the welcome is over. Citing slumping oil prices and an official unemployment rate of 15 percent, government officials claimed that refugees occupied more than 800,000 job vacancies in 1999. In recent years, the government has set several deadlines for refugees to leave the country, has declined to register new arrivals from Afghanistan and Iraq as refugees, has attempted to round up and confine refugees to camps, and, at times, has deported them summarily.

During the summer, the Iranian parliament, the Majles, passed legislation directing employers to dismiss all improperly documented foreign workers. In November, the Majles passed a measure requiring the government to deport all foreign workers without work authorization. Because relatively few refugees have been allowed to work, the measure, if approved by a clerical oversight body, would seriously affect Afghan and Iraqi refugees.

During the year, about 21,000 Iraqi refugees and about 62,000 Afghan refugees voluntarily repatriated. Iranian authorities increasingly resorted to pushing back and forcibly repatriating refugees and asylum seekers during the year. Iran deported about 100,000 Afghans in 1999, many of whom were summarily repatriated after round-ups in the eastern provinces and urban centers. Although Iraqis were not generally subjected to mass deportations, the authorities rounded up one group in July and forcibly repatriated an unspecified number, probably less than 50.

Few refugees in Iran resettled to third countries in 1999, but missions from Denmark, Finland, and Norway visited Iran during the year, and agreed to accept about 600 refugees, mostly Afghans. By year's end, only 248 had departed (240 Afghans and 53 Iraqis), of whom Norway took 173.


Although the authorities once allowed refugees unrestricted movement within Iran, in recent years, Iran has increasingly confined refugees to designated residential areas and enclosed camps. In 1999, the government used 30 refugee camps to accommodate the most destitute refugees, but also to provide staging areas for voluntary repatriation and deportation. For this reason, the camp populations fluctuated much more in 1999 than in previous years: at mid-year, the government said that some 98,000 refugees were living in camps; in November, the total was about 67,000; at year's end, the camp population totaled 84,000. Although the general Afghan refugee population was larger, more Iraqis lived in camps. At year's end, 47,767 Iraqis were registered as living in 23 camps in contrast to about 36,141 Afghan refugees in seven camps.

At a symposium in May, attended by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR), Ministry of Interior officials announced their intention to expand the existing camps to make room for refugees unable to return to Afghanistan and Iraq (although it was not stated explicitly, Iranian officials appeared much more anxious that Afghans repatriate or relocate to designated areas, and seemed more inclined to allow Iraqis, at least Shi'a Arab Iraqis, to remain in their present circumstances).

Iranian officials claimed that living in camps would make it easier to provide the refugees health services, improve their security, and allow them to maintain their culture. Their relocation to camps, an official argued, would also ease strains with the local Iranian population, particularly regarding competition for jobs.

A UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official responded that moving refugees into camps who had been living on their own for years would undermine their self reliance and tip the balance from reasonable self sufficiency to dependence, which would create new tensions and costs.

He also said that it was doubtful that donors would be interested in paying for shelter construction in the new camps and that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would have little interest in providing services in camps to refugees who had been living independently.

Repatriation Controversy

Throughout the year, the government and UNHCR engaged in negotiations to revive a short-lived repatriation program that had ended on a sour note in 1998 when UNHCR suspended its involvement.

During that repatriation exercise, UNHCR had registered Afghan refugees, assessed the voluntariness of their decision to return, and gave them a repatriation assistance package. At the same time, however, the authorities stepped up deportations of Afghans regarded as illegal aliens, deporting some 90,000 in 1998. UNHCR suspended its involvement in the repatriation program in December 1998, citing Ramadan, the onset of winter, lack of funds to assist returnees, the lack of a UNHCR monitoring presence in Afghanistan, and Iran's continuing deportation policy.

In drafting a new repatriation agreement, UNHCR sought to avoid a program of "voluntary" repatriation accompanied by a parallel program of forced repatriation. UNHCR's goal was to institute a genuine refugee screening program jointly with the government that would assess individual claims and provide protection to persons recognized as refugees.

A six-month registration period was to follow the signing of the repatriation agreement, during which deportations would be suspended. The aim of the program was to facilitate the voluntary return of 3,000 Afghans per week.

By year's end, however, the two sides had failed to agree. Although the government had not signed the agreement, it appeared to have relented on some issues about which UNHCR had reservations, such as its previous insistence that refugees staying in Iran live in camps. It appeared that self-sufficient refugees might be allowed to live outside of camps, but would have to remain in areas the authorities designated. It also appeared that the agreement would establish a six-month limit on applications for asylum coinciding with the repatriation registration period.

Because of the failed agreement, UNHCR fell far short of its 104,000 planning figure for voluntary Afghan repatriation (and 30,000 for Iraqi repatriation) in 1999.

(On February 14, 2000, the Iranian government and UNHCR signed a repatriation agreement aimed at the return of documented and undocumented Afghan refugees. According to the agreement, Afghan refugees who repatriate will receive the equivalent of $40 and 50 kg of wheat. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) will provide transportation. Undocumented Afghans who still claim to need protection in Iran will have their claims adjudicated by a joint government/UNHCR team. Those determined still to need protection will be permitted to remain in Iran temporarily until conditions in Afghanistan permit their repatriation.)

Afghan Refugees

The Iranian Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA), the Ministry of Interior's refugee agency, reports that Afghan refugees are concentrated in two eastern provinces bordering Afghanistan – Khorasan, with 390,000 refugees, and Sistan-Baluchistan, with 400,000. Afghans can also be found throughout Iran, in urban centers, as well as the poor rural areas in eastern Iran. They are often seen on construction sites or performing other manual labor.

Demographic information provided by BAFIA is dated. Although BAFIA has reported that 34 percent of Afghan refugees in Iran are ethnic Pushtuns, 27 percent Tajiks, 19 percent Hazaras, and 20 percent Uzbeks, Baluchis, and other ethnic groups, these figures do not reflect the higher rate of repatriation among Pushtuns and the new influxes of Hazaras and other Afghan minorities. UNHCR estimated that Hazaras represented a majority of Afghan refugees in Iran in 1999. Hazaras are a Shi'a Afghan minority from Hazarajat Province, but are also found in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and other parts of central and western Afghanistan. Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia has particularly targeted the Hazaras.

For most Afghans, legal status remains vague and confusing. Most who arrived during the 1980s are permanent "blue card" holders. These cards, however, do not use the word for "refugees," panahandegan, but rather the term for involuntary migrants, mohageren. Although blue cards indicate recognition and permission to stay legally, they do not specify the duration of the stay, and can be revoked at any time. Blue card holders were once entitled to subsidized health care and free primary and secondary education, but Iran has seriously restricted benefits in recent years. Since the withdrawal of food subsidies in 1995, economic conditions for blue card holders have deteriorated. Blue card holders were still eligible for repatriation assistance in 1999.

A large percentage of Afghan refugees are either undocumented or hold temporary registration cards, which Iranian authorities started issuing to undocumented Afghans in 1993 as a way to register them for repatriation.

Nearly 550,000 Afghans, mostly persons who entered in the 1990s, received temporary registration cards, giving them temporary legal status, but putting them on a track for repatriation. Between 1993 and 1995, the majority did, in fact, repatriate, but uncertainty about conditions in Afghanistan caused many temporary registration card holders to remain longer than anticipated.

Also, continuing unrest in Afghanistan caused former refugees who had repatriated to seek asylum in Iran again, and to create new arrivals as well. In either case, the Iranian authorities declined to register the new arrivals, despite strong prima facie claims to refugee status. They remained undocumented, however, living a marginalized existence in constant fear of deportation, without the right to work, to receive medical services, or to send their children to school.

Although the authorities have declared the temporary registration cards invalid, meaning that most of those who have not repatriated are considered illegal aliens and subject to deportation, the government's proposed voluntary repatriation program would entitle undocumented and temporary registration card holders to a repatriation assistance package if they voluntarily return.

Relatively few Afghans hold employment identity cards issued by the Ministry of Labor. These documents predicate the right to residence on holding a job. Work authorization cards do not bear an expiration date.

There are no available estimates of the number of undocumented Afghans in Iran. Among the undocumented are persons Iran once recognized as refugees or who had some other legal status that has since expired. Generally, all new arrivals from Afghanistan are undocumented. Among them are persons who travel back and forth across the border depending on economic or political circumstances on either side. Smugglers bringing Afghan refugees across the border into Iran sometimes held them hostage, demanding ransom payments from relatives in Iran before releasing them, according to refugee accounts.

Despite Iran's lukewarm welcome, Afghan refugees, particularly from Hazarajat Province in northern Afghanistan and the adjacent provinces of Nimruz, Farah, and Helmand, continued to arrive during 1999. Because the government declined to register them, their numbers were unclear. However, USCR visited the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic in Mashhad in May, and found that more than 50 percent of its caseload were new arrivals.

Afghan Refugee Conditions

Afghans in Iran have long occupied the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder, and their situation deteriorated further in 1999. In the past, refugees were eligible for education, health services, and rations on a par with Iranian citizens. Since the government stopped providing refugee documentation to new arrivals, many have lost these benefits. In other cases, officials have confiscated documents and not provided new ones. In any case, support for those with blue cards has eroded in recent years.

In the past, Iranians often ignored their own labor laws, enabling undocumented Afghans to support themselves. In 1999, however, the authorities began to enforce these regulations more vigorously by penalizing employers for hiring undocumented foreign workers.

When Afghans managed to find work, it was mostly low-wage, manual day labor, often in the construction industry. Afghans were barred from owning businesses or working as street vendors. Households headed by women or elderly men often had severely limited earning potential, and were more deeply impoverished than families headed by able-bodied men. Undocumented Afghan men often remained in seclusion during the year, fearing arrest and deportation.

To survive, their wives and children had to make ends meet, often at scant wages under deplorable conditions. Afghan women's income usually came from piecework, such as wool cleaning or embroidery, that could be performed at home. Children did grueling work for long hours and low pay weaving carpets, making bricks, tanning leather, or performing similar manual labor.

In late 1998 and early 1999, mobs reportedly attacked and killed Afghan refugees. The mob violence occurred, in part, in reaction to the murders of nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan in August 1998. On November 22, a bomb exploded at the door of the UNHCR office in Zaheden, an area where many Afghans live in eastern Iran. No one was injured in the explosion.

Afghans found it harder to send their children to school in 1999. USCR toured several "unofficial" Afghan schools in Mashhad, Khorasan Province, where the Afghan community itself was educating the children of undocumented Afghans at no cost to the government. After USCR's visit, the authorities reportedly pressured these schools to provide the student's names and addresses.

In May 1999, USCR also visited the Torbat-e Jam refugee camp, located in Khorasan Province, about 90 miles (150 km) from Mashhad and about 42 miles (70 km) from the Afghan border. At the time, the camp held about 7,800 Afghan refugees, mostly Hazaras.

Torbat-e Jam is a large compound, enclosed by a fence and watchtowers, but with much open space within the camp. Although Iranian soldiers guard the front gate, refugees are free to come and go with the authorities' permission.

There are three different living areas in the camp. The older camp, built in 1994, comprised of mud-walled shelters with canvas roofs built in closely packed rows, accommodates most of the camp residents. The newer section of the camp, comprised of brick buildings, accommodates about 100 families. The third part, the deportation section, is a fenced off area inside the camp whose residents live in tents. Undocumented Afghans who are apprehended are brought to this section pending their deportation. Most people in this section do not stay for more than a month before being deported.

The fear of deportation among refugees at Torbat-e Jam extended beyond the residents of the deportation section. Residents in the rest of the camp did not know what their continuing status would be, and expressed to USCR concern that they would be returned to Afghanistan.

Afghan Repatriation

Information about Afghan repatriation, both the numbers of people involved and the voluntariness of return, are very difficult to assess in Iran. Based on various sources, USCR estimates that the Iranian authorities forcibly repatriated about 100,000 Afghans in 1999 and that about 62,000 voluntarily repatriated during the year.

In 1999, sources varied on how many returned and on the willingness of those who did. Although UNHCR had suspended its agreement for an organized repatriation program in 1999, about 12,000 Afghan refugees nevertheless voluntarily repatriated with UNHCR and IOM assistance during the year. Another 50,000 Afghans reportedly returned home voluntarily and spontaneously during the year. A nongovernmental organization reported that most of the Afghan voluntary repatriates were ethnic Pushtuns.

During the year, there were scattered reports of large deportations of Afghans from Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces to Afghanistan. Many were sent back after having been held at the Torbat-e Jam camp or the Sefid Sang detention center. Round-ups of Afghan refugees in Tehran were also reported.

Pressure to repatriate appeared to be most intense on ethnic Pushtun refugees, concentrated in and around the Dalaki camp in southwestern Iran. The Iranian authorities regard the Pushtuns, who share the same ethnicity and Sunni religious affiliation as the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, as no longer needing protection.

In some cases, the round-ups and mass deportations resulted in split families. UNHCR tried to track unaccompanied children on both sides of the border who had been separated from their families. In other cases, the authorities would detain one family member in order to have the rest of the family come out of hiding, present themselves for detention, and be deported together.

On November 24, in an unusual move, 16 Afghan refugee families "repatriated" to Kazakhstan. The group claimed Kazakhstan as their historical homeland, saying that their ancestors had fled from western Kazakhstan to Afghanistan in the 1930s.

Refugees from Iraq

Iraqi refugees, like Afghans, are dispersed throughout the country, although they, too, are concentrated in areas bordering their homeland. Iraqi Shi'a Arabs congregate along Iran's southwestern border and Iraqi Kurds are mostly in the northwest.

Most of the 510,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran carry green cards, which are essentially the same as the blue cards issued to Afghan refugees. A few Iraqi refugees, including those who arrived in the pre-revolutionary period before 1980, carry an actual refugee document, the white card, which uses the proper word for refugees, panahandegan. The white card, actually a booklet, in some respects provides greater rights and benefits than the green cards, including exemption from taxes, the right to work, and to obtain Convention travel documents, but it also requires its holders to renew their status every three months and to report their movement and residence to the authorities. Since the Islamic revolution, the government has continued to issue white cards irregularly, mostly to highly educated individuals and established professionals.

In December, the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) said that there were no more than 450,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran, in contrast to the government's figure of 510,000. It was unclear whether SAIRI's estimate included non Shi'a Kurdish refugees from Iraq.

About 350,000 of the Iraqi refugees in Iran were expelled from Iraq at the time of the Iraq-Iran war because of their suspected Iranian origin, and have lived in the western region of Iran for almost two decades. Many are Feilli Kurds, a Shi'a minority among the Kurds, who were denied Iraqi citizenship during the war. In many cases, both Iran and Iraq dispute their citizenship, in effect rendering many stateless. Those people who could prove their family links to Iran have been granted Iranian citizenship, and the remainder have been issued green cards. In practice, the Iranian authorities make no distinctions among Iraqi refugees, whether or not Iraq acknowledges their citizenship.

The Iraqi refugee population also includes an estimated 70,000 Shi'a Arabs who over the years have mostly fled from the southern Iraqi marshlands to Iran. Unknown numbers of Iraqi refugees fleeing the southern marshes continued to arrive in southern Khuzestan Province in 1999.

About 2,500 Iraqi refugees have been resettled to Iran from the Rafha camp in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian authorities issue green cards to the Iraqi refugees from Rafha. During USCR's visit to the Ibrahimabad camp in Arak in May, Iranian camp officials said that they were expecting to take up to 3,500 refugees from Rafha. By year's end, however, none had arrived. The Ibrahimabad camp held about 2,500 Iraqi refugees at the time of the USCR visit, although most did not come to Iran via the Rafha camp in Saudi Arabia.

Iraqi Refugee Conditions

Government restrictions on work authorization, including refusal to renew work permits, affected Iraqi green card holders during the year. Although long-term Iraqi refugees in Iran had largely achieved economic self sufficiency, the authorities strictly enforced labor regulations in 1999, putting many refugees out of work. The labor ministry also imposed a cap on Iraqis' salaries, which adversely affected professionals.

In November, the Islamic Union of Iraqi Engineers, representing nearly 800 Iraqi engineers in exile in Iran, protested this and other measures, saying that Iran had adopted policies "inimical to our professional careers and a secure future in this country."

In October, 55 Iraqi intellectuals living in Qom wrote a letter to leading Iranian officials charging that they were discriminated against. Among other complaints, they said that the government had not been issuing identity papers, had restricted the right to move, denied the right to own property, prevented Iraqis from opening bank accounts, and would not allow them to marry Iranian citizens. In November, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani reportedly requested a legal investigation into allegations of discrimination against Iraqi refugees in Iran.

Iraqi Repatriation

In June 1999, the Iraqi government said that it would not prosecute Iraqis who left Iraq illegally, and that it would issue passports to Iraqis in Iran regardless of their political background. (It made an exception for Iraqis who were expelled in the 1980s for supposed Iranian ancestry; Iraq continued to deny that they are Iraqi citizens.) Baghdad announced that it had decided to issue passports to Iraqis in Iran because of reports that the Iranian authorities were "harassing" them.

Thousands of Iraqi Shi'a Arabs responded by applying for passports. Although UNHCR told them that it was unable to monitor or guarantee their safety upon return, many refugees insisted on return. UNHCR agreed to facilitate their repatriation, as long as it was assured that their decisions were voluntary and informed. On August 28, the first group of 111 returned via the Salamcheh border crossing. By year's end, 2,577 had returned with UNHCR assistance. Most reportedly returned to the Basra and An Nasiriyah areas.

Even as many Iraqi Shi'a Arabs were expressing an interest in returning to Iraq, thousands of Iraqi Shi'a refugees gathered at the gates of the Iraqi embassy in Tehran to protest the assassination of the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'a Muslim community, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sader, in Najaf, Iraq on February 19.

Although thousands of Iraqi Kurds had also expressed an interest in voluntary repatriation, in August 1998, the Iraqi government blocked their path when it informed UNHCR that all Iraqi refugees repatriating from Iran, including persons wishing to return to the Kurdish-controlled north, would have to pass through Iraqi government controls. Thereafter, UNHCR declined to facilitate repatriations for Iraqi Kurds seeking to return to northern Iraq, and organized repatriations remained stalled throughout 1999. Nevertheless, thousands of Iraqi Kurds did return spontaneously to northern Iraq. By year's end, an estimated 18,000 Iraqi Kurds had returned directly to northern Iraq without assistance and without passing through government controls.

The first forced returns of Iraqis were reported in July 1999. The London-based Iraqi Human Rights Organization and other exile groups said that 300 to 500 Iraqis in Qom and Khuzestan were rounded up, brought to the border city of Khoi, and deported to Iraq. The number could not be independently confirmed. UNHCR reported that 47 Iraqi Arabs arrested in Qom were taken to the Khoi detention center and that some were deported, but was not able to say how many.

In December, Iran's interior minister announced that 200 Iraqi refugees in Qom had been arrested following a demonstration and transferred back to their camps in southern Iran. He added, however, that Iran would not expel them, and said of both Afghan and Iraqi refugees, "We have never expelled any of them by force."

Iraqi Relocation

Iraqi Shi'a Arabs continued to cross into Iran to seek asylum in 1999, and Iranian authorities in Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran said that the border province had become overcrowded with refugees.

These authorities proposed relocating Shi'a refugees from Khuzestan Province, starting with the overcrowded Ashrafi Esfahani camp, and moving them to the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Kermanshah, West Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan, in northwestern Iran. By year's end, only a few families had been moved. UNHCR pointed out that the move would relocate these refugees to an area with a completely different culture and climate.

Iraqi POWs

In September, the Iranian government unilaterally returned 275 Iraqi POWs. The International Committee of the Red Cross facilitated the repatriation, including assessing the voluntariness of the returns. While announcing the move, an Iranian spokesman said that about 10,000 Iraqi POWs had requested asylum in Iran. The Iranian government said that it had released about 55,500 POWs since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, and that Iraq had released about 40,000. Iran claims that about 3,000 Iranian POWs are still held in Iraq.

Other Refugees

Although the government claims to host more than 30,000 refugees of other nationalities, including Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis, it has provided no information about them or about asylum procedures, and did not allow UNHCR or other organizations access to them. During USCR's site visit in May, USCR encountered four Pakistani asylum seekers claiming to be members of the Ahmadi religious minority.

UNHCR presented 22 Uighur Chinese asylum seekers and 10 Azerbaijanis of Armenian ethnicity to the Iranian authorities for refugee status determination, but the latter group withdrew their claims. The Iranian authorities rejected all of these asylum claims, but did not indicate to UNHCR the procedure it used to evaluate them.

Other Developments

Despite the 1997 election of moderate Mohammad Khatami as president, and his call for Iranian exiles to return, repression of dissent and other human rights abuses continued to dissuade many from returning.

Religious minorities, whose numbers have dwindled, continued to be particularly vulnerable. In June, news filtered out of Iran of the arrest of 13 Jews in Shiraz, including a rabbi and several educators, accused of spying for Israel. Only about 25,000 Jews remain in Iran; its pre-revolution population was about three times that number.

A nongovernmental organization, Iranian Christians International (ICI), reported in October 1999 that "we can confirm at least 8 deaths in the past ten years" of evangelical Christians or Muslim converts to Christianity and between 15 and 22 disappearances in 1998. ICI said that accounts of more killings and disappearances of Christians had not yet been reported in 1999.

In October 1998, Iran had cracked down on an unofficial Baha'i university operating out of private homes. Thirty-six Baha'i teachers in fourteen cities throughout Iran were arrested in October, and about 500 Baha'i homes were ransacked. At the end of 1999, four other Baha'is remained in prison under death sentences.


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