Iran War Refugees

A brief account of how the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a main country to host the biggest refugee populations in the world for more than 30 years.

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Still on screen: In modern history, the Polish were the first war refugees in Iran followed later by Iraqis and Afghans. Despite the voluntary return of many refugees to their countries, Iran still remains host to one of the World’s largest and most protracted refugee populations …

Narration: Located in a rundown area in the capital city of Iran, there is a cemetery with thousands of graves belonging to Polish men, women and children. All of these gravestones bear the same date: 1942.

In that year, Iran stood as a beacon of hope for almost one million Polish citizens released from the Soviet labour camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. After enduring terrible conditions, 115,000 of them entered Iran, among them 18,000 children. Upon their arrival, a makeshift city with over 2,000 tents was made along the shoreline of Bandar-e Anzali. It stretched for several miles with a vast complex of bathhouses, latrines, disinfection booths, laundries, sleeping quarters, bakeries and a hospital. They remained in the country for up to three years and their lives totally transformed in the process.

SOUNDBITE [English] Helena Stelmach, Polish Refugee: “I'm proud of being polish. We went through a war. We came to Iran and we became very happy. We were all told that we were coming to Iran. That was while the Iranians were suffering hardship and their country was occupied by enemies; armies from US, UK and Russia were all here when I arrived. We bothered the Iranians.”

Narration: Set in the throbbing heart of the Middle East, Iran has been only a stone’s throw away from wars and crises. And flanked by Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries with precarious political establishment, Iran has always played host to two of the largest and most protracted refugee populations in the world. According to the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrantsˈ Affairs, as of October 2011, the number of registered refugees in Iran added up to over 882,000 with 840,000 Afghan and 42,000 Iraqi refugees. Of this amount, around 97 per cent are living in urban and semi-urban areas.

The Iranians greeted the first large influx of Iraqi refugees back in 1980, one year after Saddam Hussein came to power in the country. It was also one year after the onset of armed conflicts between the Ba’ath regime and the Islamic Republic and as a result, many Iraqis of Iranian origin were banished to Iran. In the meanwhile, many Iraqi political activists who were long under persecution headed for Iran, a country with which they could identify due to similar political and religious trends. In March and April 1991 after the Persian Gulf War, a series of popular rebellions rose in northern and southern Iraq.

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Narration: During this brief period of unrest, tens of thousands of people died and nearly two million people were displaced. The second wave of Iraqi refugees began to flow towards the Iranian borders; more than 500,000 refugees.

SOUNDBITE [English] A woman, Iraqi refugee: “We decided to leave all we had to leave our house, to leave all we owned, so we left Iraq and came to Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [English] A man, Iraqi refugee: “I’m one of the refugees in the Islamic republic of Iran.”

SOUNDBITE [English] A man, Iraqi refugee: “I’m Iraqi doctor, a Kurdish doctor in Irbil city.”

SOUNDBITE [English] A man: “We had a lot of discussions with people in Iraq about the situations in the camp and I must say that the impression we get is that Iran has done very well and has put a lot of effort and a lot of its own money and resources into these camps.”

Narration: Among the Iraqi refugees who took asylum in Iran, Iraqi Kurds takes up a significant portion. During the 70s and 80s, a large segment of the Feyli population in Baghdad - a group of highly influential Shia MuslimKurds were forcibly deported to the Iranian border by the Baathist regime that wanted to keep any potential dissidence and opposition at bay. The most violent phase of conflict between the Kurds and Iraqi Ba'athist regime was during the Al-Anfal Campaign conducted between 1986 and 1989. Many villages were destructed and many people displaced.

According to the statistics released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of Iraqi refugees in Iran decreased to 205 thousands by 2002. And since then, the West’s tough sanctions on Iran inadvertently encouraged the refugees in the country – including Iraqis and Afghans - to try their luck in European countries to such an extent that it became a serious crisis by 2015; a crisis described as an even bigger test than the economic meltdown in Greece.

Another refugee population that have been in Iran for more than three decades is from Afghanistan, the country’s easternborder and the world’s top ‘producer’ of refugees, a position it has held for 32 years. Afghan migration to Iran began mostly in the early 1970s due to famine and economic problems but intensified in 1979 with the outbreak of the Soviet War in Afghanistan. The newly-established Islamic Republic of Iran opened its border to a mass of Afghan migrants while the shadow of a bruising war was looming over it. Against such a backdrop, Iran welcomed Afghan migrants with open arms entitling them to free primary and secondary education, as well as subsidized healthcare and food. A report by UNHCR estimated that there were around 2.8 million Afghans in Iran by 1992. That’s while Iran's Ministry of Interior estimates that the total number of Afghans in Iran is around 3 million. Of this number, around 90% are settled in or near urban areas with freedom to have work and decent life.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Gholamali Jamali, Afghan refugee:I'm Gholamali Jamali. I come from Afghanistan. I was born in Kabul. I came to Iran 33 years ago. During that period of time, Afghanistan was in war and I had a lot of problems. So, I deserted form the army and came to Iran.”

Narration: Out of 35 million displaced refugees in the world who are living outside their own national borders at least 1.5 million have been registered in Iran. In fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a main country to host the biggest refugee populations in the world for more than 30 years despite years of war, sanctions and economic problems, all on humanitarian ground.

SOUNDBITE [English] Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: “The Islamic Republic of Iran has received at a certain moment, several million, now 800,000 registered refugees not to mention all the other Afghans in Iran for 30 years with opening the borders, opening their houses, opening their hearts to the Afghan brothers and sisters and with very little support from the international community. This is absolutely true.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Juliusz J. Gojlo, Polish Ambassador to Iran: “When I talked with the participants of this stay, they used to repeat with crying eyes that they never met such hospitality. I think the Iranian people are the people who feel the other person.”

Narration:Iran’s kindness and sympathy towards the war refugees can be found in the memoirs and narratives of those who have lived through it. 

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