Islamic Republic of Iran and the Issue of Refugees

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dr. Safinaz Jadali
Lecturer at Islamic Azad University

Active ImageThe Iranian government acceded to 1951 Refugee Convention and its protocol (1967) on July 28, 1976 with reservations on articles 17 (wage-earning employment), 23 (public relief), 24 (labor legislation and social security) and 26 (freedom of movement).

The issue of refugees is of special importance to Iran because the country hosts one of the largest and longest staying refugee population in the world (1). According to the latest figures released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Iran played host to about 976,500 refugees in 2009, of whom 933,500 were Afghans and 43,000 were Iraqis. The Iranian government has also identified about 4,200 Iraqi refugees on a prima facie basis. During mass flight of Iraqi Kurds to Iran, the country accepted hundreds of Kurd refugees in a day. The Iranian government first accepted all of them, and then looked into their refugee status and applications on an individual basis. If qualified, they were issued refugee booklets; if not, they were expelled.

Iran has a long history in accepting refugees which dates back to well before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Before the revolution, Iran had to deal with refugees influx as a result of political crises in neighboring countries. Following the escalation of political and territorial disputes between Iran and Iraq in 1960s, the Iraqi government expelled thousands of Iranians as well as Iraqi citizens of the Iranian origin after confiscating their properties. During 1970s, there was civil war in the Iraqi Kurdistan which made thousands of its inhabitants leave for Iran.

What happened after the Iranian Revolution in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, has given a particular importance to the issue of refugees in Iran. The Communist coup d’état in Afghanistan during 1970s followed by that country’s occupation by the Soviet troops in 1979 created a constant flow of Afghan refugees toward neighboring countries, especially Iran and Pakistan. Although the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989, continuation of the civil war among rival political groups and absence of central government further exacerbated refugee problems. During recent years and subsequent to 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, many Afghan citizens have sought assylum in other countries. The civil war in north and south Iraq following the end of the occupation of Kuwait by the Iraqi forces made a large number of Kurds in north and Shias in south seek refuge in the neighboring countries, especially Iran. A new wave of refugees was initiated following the military invasion and occupation of that country by the United States in 2003.

Most refugees have settled down in urban areas in Iran. According to UNHCR’s 2010 report, only 3 percent of refugees live in settlements.(2) Also, due to concerns about security issues in Afghanistan, the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees has declined in the past three years. Based on the same report, 70 percent of Afghans and Iraqi nationals have been living in Iran for more than 20 or 30 years and more than half of the refugee population has been born and educated in Iran. It should be noted that women account for a large portion of the refugee population.

Iran’s treatment of refugees

As said before, Iran has been hosting Afghan and Iraqi refugees in the past 30 years and has provided them with many services despite heavy costs entailed. The Iranian government has even gone beyond its duties and responsibilities set in 1951 Convention while serving refugees. For instance, although Iran has held reservation about Article 17 of the Convention (wage-earning employment), it has taken effective steps in the past years to promote quality of life of Afghan refugees. During an enrolment drive for Afghan refugees in 2008 (Amayesh registration) work permits were issued to them. Based on Article 122 of the Iranian Labor Act, the government is authorized to issue work permits to foreign nationals, including refugees. According to Article 3 of the same Act, refugees having valid refugee or asylum cards can apply for work permits after confirmation by the Iranian Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thus, although the Iranian government has not actually accepted Article 17 of 1951 Refugee Convention and has just accepted it as a recommendation, the country has proven its goodwill by practical compliance with the contents of Article 17. In the course of Amayesh registration of 2009, the Iranian government also exempted those refugees with low income, from paying taxes.

The Iranian government has also taken another positive step since last year by allowing children of irregular refugees to enrol at the Iranian schools. Before that, children of illegal refugees could not study at the Iranian schools, but they have been authorized to do that from the academic year 2009-2010. Authorizing foreign students to continue their studies at the Iranian public universities is another goodwill gesture by the Iranian government which aims to improve situation of refugees in the country.

The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran strongly believes that the international community should take necessary steps to facilitate return of Afghan refugees to their homeland. To do this, countries should make more investments in Afghanistan and encourage its nationals to re-integrate in the country and take advantage of opportunities created there. Unfortunately, issues like insecurity in Afghanistan have greatly reduced the number of Afghans opting for voluntary repatriation to their country of origin in the past three years.

Active ImageIn some instances, when a refugee stays in the host country for a long period of time, they may opt for naturalization. Therefore, naturalization is a common way to end the refugee status. According to Article 13 of the bylaw for naturalizing foreign nationals in Iran, those refugees who have fully complied with the Iranian laws will be favored. Based on Article 979 of the Iranian Civil Code, foreign nationals residing in Iran and fulfilling the following conditions may apply for naturalization:

1. Ageing 18 full years;

2. Having been in Iran for five consecutive or alternating years. Living in other countries at the service of the Iranian government is considered as equal to residence in Iran;

3. Having fulfilled their compulsory military service; and

4. Having no previous record of crime or prosecution for nonpolitical offenses in any country.

Foreign nationals who have married Iranian women and given birth to children can also apply for naturalization. Applications for naturalization should be added to required papers as per Article 983 of the Civil Code before being forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

An important issue with regard to nationality of foreign nationals, in general, and refugees in particular, is situation of children born to non-Iranian fathers. According to the act for “determining nationality of children born to Iranian women married to foreign men” which was passed in 2006, children born to the Iranian women married to foreign men who have been born in Iran or, at most, born one year after passage of the above act may apply for the Iranian citizenship when they turn 18. Their request will be granted if they have no criminal or security records by that time and after rejecting their non-Iranian nationality.

The above facts prove beyond any doubt that Iran has taken remarkable measures not only for acceptance of the largest population of refugees in the world, but also in terms of facilities considered for them and even naturalization under certain conditions. Therefore, Iran can be a role model for regional countries in this regard.


(1) 2010 UNHCR Country Operation Profile: Islamic Republic of Iran

(2) 2010 UNHCR Country Operation Profile: Islamic Republic of Iran

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