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Fundamental Role of International Cooperation in Supporting Afghan Refugees

Migrants and refugees, as persons who have crossed the international borders to escape conflicts, clashes, and violation of human rights, are seldom under the spotlight in international relations.
September 2020
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Seyed Ahmad Mousavi

Migrants and refugees, as persons who have crossed the international borders to escape conflicts, clashes, and violation of human rights, are seldom under the spotlight in international relations. In terms of links with the domestic aspects of the countries, the issue of protection of refugees is inherently a political case relating to the rights of non-citizens. It is deemed to be an international issue considering that cross-border travels would involve people of the countries. The basic international documents in support of the refugees are the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are two core principles in the convention and its additional protocol:

  1.  clarification of criteria for determining refugee status and the international definition of the term ‘refugee’ in the international law
  2.  principle of non-refoulement

 In the contemporary world, where far-reaching and inclusive force majeure at the international level has threatened the habitation of people and forced them to migrate in their millions, pressurizing the countries of the first asylum to honor the principle of non-refoulment --stipulated in the international Refugee Convention-- would place a burden on those countries in the absence of international cooperation. On the other hand, the criteria for determining refugee status in the convention have contradictory definitions. For example, the US war in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014, but large numbers of Afghans remained in protracted refugee situations in Iran.

 The other significant issues in the international relations about the refugees going to the other countries are the reflection of the security problems inflicted on the refugee-hosting country and the role of international organizations related to the subject. Among the relevant international organizations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the largest world organization mandated to protect refugees. With a staff of 5,000 and a budget of around $1 billion, the UNHCR supports the refugees all over the world (Steiner, Gibney, Loescher, 2012), and is tasked with safeguarding the 1951 Refugee Convention according to Article 78 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). But a very important fact that has usually received less attention is the subject of international cooperation and a universal regime that would assure the protection of refugees in the target countries and not place the burden of being a host country only on the neighboring states available to the refugees. Despite the advantages that make broader international cooperation inevitable, the details of such cooperation have not been well defined in the conventions and regimes in support of refugees and migrants.

 The occupation of Afghanistan for two times, by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and then by the United States, evokes the image of what some authors have described as an endless war (Goodson: 2001). There have been growing waves of refugees in the wars, while the heaviest burden of those displaced by the military campaigns has fallen on the neighbors of Afghanistan, specifically the Islamic Republic of Iran. When the political conflicts and clashes erupted in Afghanistan in mid-1970, Iran opened its border to the Afghan refugees in a measure seen as the basis of support for the Afghan refugees in Iran. The instability and conflicts in Afghanistan finally led to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, the year of victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The teachings of the Islamic Revolution highlighted the spiritual and religious aspects of hosting the Afghan refugees as Muslim brothers, allowing the refugees and migrants to stay in Iran indefinitely. However, after 1992 and the gradual emergence of consequences of the economic and social hardships of the war imposed by Saddam and considering the country’s security priorities, the strategies were gently shifted to restriction of accepting new Afghan refugees. In recent years, the American occupation of Afghanistan and the consequent war and insecurity have escalated poverty and created a new influx of Afghan migrants and refugees to the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the poverty rate in Afghanistan has risen from 36% in 2012 to 55% today. Afghanistan is also among the lowest-ranked countries on UNDP’s Human Development Index, at 169 out of 189 nations covered.

 The crisis of refugees in Afghanistan has become so severe that one in every nine refugees worldwide is from Afghanistan, and Iran is one of the main host countries for these refugees. According to reports from the UNHCR, 11 percent of the total number of refugees in the world is Afghan nationals, while 40 percent of them have settled in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 The UNHCR estimates the population of Afghan refugees in Iran at around 3 million, only one million of whom have been registered. 

 Right of access to housing and standards of living: According to the World Bank statistics collected in 2011,  the access level of Afghan refugee households to a private durable covered living space in Iran was over 98%, while the access level of refugees after returning to Afghanistan dropped to around 35%. The figures also show the access level of Afghan refugees in Iran to electricity and piped water was over 99% and over 98% respectively.

 Another major development surrounding the law on refugees, including the Afghan migrants in recent years, is the new Iranian Healthcare System that has allowed for the free treatment of Afghan refugees. In the new scheme, introduced after a cooperation agreement among Iran Health Insurance Organization, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs of Iran’s Interior Ministry, and the UNHCR, all foreign nationals, and migrants that are certified by the Interior Ministry of Iran and hold refugee identification cards (Amayesh) or valid identity documents will enjoy healthcare insurance coverage.

 Right to Education: Considering the right to education, recognized as a basic human right in the international conventions, the Leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution has issued a decree ordering the schools across the country to enroll all Afghan children, including the children of legal and even illegal migrants. The UNHCR has supported the progressive policies of Iran on education, saying 89 percent of primary school-aged refugee children in Iran were enrolled in school by the end of 2018.

 The recent intensification of the US sanctions, known as the policy of “maximum pressure”, has undoubtedly affected the lives of citizens and non-citizens residing in the Islamic Republic of Iran and on the process of hosting the Afghan refugees in Iran, although the statistics show a decent level of life for the Afghan migrants and displaced persons inside the Islamic Republic of Iran in recent years. It is obvious that the structure of the subsistence economy in Iran is based on subsidies, while the Afghan migrants and refugees also enjoy a considerable amount of subsidies on fuel and energy carriers in Iran. The UNHCR has admitted that the Islamic Republic of Iran hosts one of the world's largest urban refugee populations that have been supported perfectly. The UNHCR has always faced a shortage of budget for supporting Iran. In 2014, the financial requirements for UNHCR and its partners for the Islamic Republic of Iran stood at $64.8 million, but only $28 million in funds was received and spent. (UNHCR, ‘Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees. Progress Report 2014’, 12). Meanwhile, another neighbor of Iran, namely Turkey, has received €6 billion in complementary and generous funds provided by the European Union (more than six times larger than the UNHCR budget) to support refugees in that country.

 International cooperation plays a leading and significant role in the global refugee regime but has been disregarded in international relations. At present, a series of efforts have been made, particularly by the European countries, to exercise the common and fair responsibility to protect refugees, as the nature of such cooperation and the existing problems have become overplayed amid the disregard for them in the historical refugee regime in the international arena. The European Union acknowledges that it needs to work with countries outside the EU to better manage migration and mobility and respond to security challenges.

 Unequal distribution of supportive facilities for refugees in the world would ultimately affect the international community in its entirety given the political and international indices of seeking refuge and cross-border migration and requires a prospect that takes account of broader collective interests at the international level. The United Nations institutions must form a universal regime of international cooperation to support refugees, specifically for Afghanistan where the war and insecurity have dragged on for years. That regime should support countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran, which bear the brunt of pressures in protecting the rights of refugees.

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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