Our world is becoming increasingly violent and unjust--despite promises made by World War II veterans and leaders of "never again". There may no longer be world wars in the conventional sense, but the New World Order has been characterized by anything but freedom, peace, and justice. This has been made abundantly clear by one of the most glaring political and economic inequities of our fragmented world today: the growing refugee crisis. The problem is worsening year after year displacing millions of people because of wide spread violence and persecution resulting from war, ethnocide, and communal conflict. 35.1 million people are uprooted as either refugees or internally displaced persons, according to the World Refugee Survey 2000, a report published by USCR (U.S. Committee for Refugees).
What is especially alarming is that of the 14.1 million refugees in the world, half of them come from Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan alone, according to USCR. All three of these places have suffered directly or indirectly by stringent U.S. foreign policy in recent years (increased military support for Israel, severe sanctions against Iraq, and almost two decades of the Afghans fighting a U.S. war against the Soviet Union).
Despite the repatriation controversy taking place in Iran over refugees, the Afghan crisis in particular has been given little media attention. As usual, most American mainstream news coverage has chosen to focus on a perceived threat of militant Islam (i.e., Taliban), void of historical context, rather than to discuss the very real problem of Afghan refugees created by the long war with the Soviet Union. The fact is the Afghans had outlived their utility according to U.S. policy, and with the Cold War finished, little, if any, sympathy is afforded to the Afghan refugee plight. Twenty years of war ravaged the country, leaving millions of homeless Afghans to seek asylum in Iran. Now that a large part of Afghanistan has been politically stabilized by the Taliban, Iran is telling them to go back home.
Iran alone has hosted over 1.8 million refugees (1.4 million Afghanis and roughly a half million Iraqis) in 1999, the country with the largest number of refugees in the world. Most Afghans and Iraqis have lived in Iran for over a decade. However, since 1997, the state now claims that the refugees are getting to be too expensive and burdensome, especially given Iran's recent drop of oil prices causing economic stress and an unemployment rate of 25%. One Iranian English newspaper, "Iran News" claims that the costs of keeping refugees are $1 billion a year.
According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), in recent years especially, Iran has been less tolerant of the Afghan refugees, and has denied them refugee status, labeling them as illegal aliens, subject to deportation. At the end of 1997, Iranian officials were forcibly deporting roughly 1000 Afghans a week. In the year 1999 alone, 100,000 Afghans were deported forcibly. The Iranian government has also stopped letting Afghans reside with the general population by enclosing them in camps, and has subsequently denied health and education subsidies to those not living in camps.
Many Afghans, however, are also repatriating voluntarily, and recently are being given the incentives to do so. In February of this year, the Iranian government and UNHCR signed a repatriation agreement with the explicit goal of returning documented and undocumented Afghan refugees. According to the agreement, those Afghan refugees who repatriate will receive the equivalent of $40 and 50 kg of wheat. Those assessed as still in need of protection will be allowed to stay in Iran until conditions in Afghanistan permit their repatriation.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been overwhelmingly supportive and hospitable towards the Afghan refugees, and it is sad to see how those circumstances have changed dramatically with growing economic hardship. Iran is right in asking the international community in relieving them of some of the burden. It has been overlooked by NGOs despite many international organizations that have been helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
When reading and rattling off statistics, it is easy to forget that the hardship Afghani refugees face are man made. Refugees, as defined by the USCR, are the victims of persecution and violence, not natural disaster. In the Western hemisphere, as we celebrated the new millennium with our hopes and dreams, little do we realize that the new millennium has proven to be a crueler beginning for so many others--people who have been denied their right to live in a peaceful homeland.
Sarah Waheed is a freelance writer in Chicago, Illinois.