The Iran Project

Pulling Back the Welcome Mat

By Keith Porter

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CRONKITE: Iran's neighbors face political and economic turmoil. As a result, Iran today hosts more refugees than any other country in the world and receives almost no international aid for them. Refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan are welcomed into Iranian communities—not held in refugee camps. But many Iranians now blame the refugees for the country's high unemployment and other economic problems. Correspondent Keith Porter visited Mashad, an Iranian city 150 miles from the Afghan border.

(Music from Afghan musicians)

KEITH PORTER: These Afghan musicians living in Mashad, sing mournfully of their homeland. They fled Afghanistan when the Taliban regime seized power in 1996 and banned all music as un-Islamic.

(music continues)

From 1979 to 1992, Iran accepted Afghan refugees both for humanitarian and political reasons. The government opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and later came to oppose the Taliban—an Islamic regime that is too fundamentalist even for the Iranians. Iran criticizes the Taliban for oppressing women and holds Taliban responsible for the murder of eight Iranian diplomats. But these days, Iran faces 17 % unemployment and 30% inflation. Many Iranians blame the refugees for these economic hardships.

(Sounds from the streets)

IRANIAN WORKER: Yes they take away the jobs from Iranians and they work for lower wages and they work harder than us and get paid lower wages.

PORTER: This is Shohada Square, a load and busy traffic circle in the middle of Mashad. On one side of the street, Afghan day laborers stand, hoping to get low paying construction jobs. Across the street, Iranians congregate, competing for the identical work.

IRANIAN WORKER: The government should either throw them out of the country or they have to do something about our situation. They have war in their country we understand but they come here and they take the jobs away from us.

PORTER: During economic hard times, similar resentment is often voiced in the United States and other countries. Arguments favorable to the immigrants have a familiar ring as well. Amina Safi Afzali (ah-MEAN-uh saw-fee off-ZAHL-ee) is a leader of the Afghan Islamic women's movement in Mashad.

AMINA SAFI AFZALI: Afghan refugees are not taking away jobs. Afghans work the hardest and lowest paying jobs, which the Iranians won't do. Unemployment among Iranians is mostly among the educated people and they won't do these jobs.

PORTER: Scapegoating immigrants is partly the result of shifting political priorities inside Iran, according to Carrol Faubert, head of the United Nations High Commission for refugees in Iran.

CARROL FAUBERT: The attitude has changed. During the early 80's, the struggle of the Afghans was looked upon as a jihad and there was a lot of spontaneous sympathy. Solidarity was stressed. Now we're very much in a state of civil war and a situation that is now entering its third decade. So in a sense, there is what I would call asylum fatigue.

PORTER: Mohammad Ali Abtahi (AHB-tuh-hee), first secretary to Iran's President Mohammad Khatami (HAH-tah-mee) expresses the new, wary attitude of the Iranian government.

MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI: The world cannot expect us to host this many refugees without any help and without any aid. The fact is that they have taken away a lot of jobs from Iranian workers. Unemployment which is relatively high in the country, it would be natural for us to want to repatriate some of these refugees back to their own countries.

PORTER: About 2 million Afghans live in Iran today. In 1992, Iran stopped issuing identity documents to Afghan refugees that means hundreds of thousands live illegally and are subject to deportation. Last year the government of Iran and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees began a voluntary repatriation program that offers Afghan refugees a free trip back to Afghanistan—and 20 US dollars, the equivalent of several months pay.

HAKIM: After the invasion of Afghanistan I came to Iran, which is almost 20 years.

PORTER: Hakim, along with his wife and four children, has accepted the offer to return home. Hakim and his sons have barely scraped by working low paying jobs. They're among hundreds of Afghan refugees at a repatriation center outside of Mashad preparing to board busses for an all night journey.

HAKIM: We had a fair life in Iran, but since recently it's getting difficult to get work and in the media we hear that they tell the Afghans they should go back to their country. So we decided to go back before anything, you know, else happens.

PORTER: The UN and the government of Iran try to insure that these refugees are returning voluntarily and that genuine political refugees can apply for asylum. So far, officials say about 4,500 refugees' return to Afghanistan every week. But officials can't say how many immediately come back to Iran.

AMINA SAFI AFZALI: I don't think the refugees can endure the difficulties in Afghanistan.

PORTER: Afzali, from the Islamic Women's Association, believes the repatriation program will fail because Iran and the UN can't solve the underlying problem: political and economic turmoil inside Afghanistan.

AMINA SAFI AFZALI: I don't think this program will be successful. People are fleeing the Taliban rule. I don't think the Taliban have changed their attitude toward women, and they have not changed their policies. As long as we have the original problem people are fleeing from we cannot solve the repatriation problem.

(Afghanian music)

PORTER: Back at the Afghan refugees' home, the musicians play a plaintive song about eternal wandering. Iranians have always been famous for their hospitality. Refugees were welcomed here on humanitarian grounds and as a way of spreading the Islamic revolution. But not Iranian hospitality is running out. For the Iran Project, I'm Keith Porter in Mashad, northern Iran.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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