In the event of a war on Iraq, neighbouring Iran, which shares a 1,458-km border with the country, could be on the receiving end of a major influx of refugees. In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, some 1.3 million Iraqi refugees crossed into Iran, making it the primary host country, while another 500,000, mostly Iraqi Kurds, fled to Turkey.
Iran currently hosts over two million refugees, most of them Afghans. In an exclusive interview with Ahmed Hosseini, the director-general of the interior ministry’s Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs Office, the coordinating body for refugee affairs in the Iranian capital, Tehran, shared with IRIN his concerns over a possible new influx of refugees, as well as what efforts his government was making to deal with such a crisis.
QUESTION: In the event of an influx, how many refugees do you feel might enter Iran?
ANSWER: Approximately 900,000 refugees.
Q: How prepared are you for such an event?
A: In accordance to our experiences during the years 1990 and 1995, a Refugee Crisis Management Organisation has been designed and established.
Q: Do you have any contingency plans in place? If so what are they?
A: The main axis of our executive programmes are to set up temporary refugee camps at or along the borderland to provide services, preferably inside Iraqi territory. Nineteen places have been specified inside the country [Iran] and topographic surveying, as well as the site design, is nearing completion.
According to the programmes of the organisation, the necessary coordination among the central and regional administrations in the borderland provinces has been established. Additionally, the central provinces will support provinces along the border with their regional facilities in case of need. There are 18 central provinces, which will act in two stages. Ten of them will act in the first stage and eight in the second.
Q: How many refugees could you actually accommodate?
A: Approximately 450,000 refugees in the territory of Iraq and along the border of the country.
Q: There have been reports of camps being set up inside Iraqi territory? If correct, how many camps would be built and where exactly would they be?
A: This matter is under consideration.
Q: Would Iraqi refugees be allowed to enter Iranian territory?
A: If the possibility of settling them in their own territory is not provided, following instructions by the Islamic Republic of Iran high-ranking authorities, under some conditions, such permission could be issued for specific regions.
Q: What in your view would be the main immediate needs in such a crisis?
A: Shelter, drinking water, food, medical care, hygiene and security.
Q: What role do you envision the international community playing? UNHCR[office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees]?
A: Countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran are active in helping innocent people on humanitarian grounds. However, they have already accepted a considerable number of refugees. During such events - which are the result of international and transnational decisions - it would be expected that international bodies - the United Nations and particularly UNHCR would support such countries like Iran from political, food, drug and family provision points of view.
Q: Do you perceive a role for NGOs to play? If so what?
A: Experiences which Iran has had during previous crises have shown that NGOs can play a very positive role regarding the reduction of the problems of refugees. Unfortunately, [however,] it seems the NGOs who have low financial capacity will not be able to reach necessary targets, i.e. providing urgent and wide-ranging help. But experienced and powerful NGOs will be very successful.
Q: How many Iraq refugees are currently living in Iran?
A: Two hundred and two thousand people.
Q: Iran has one of the largest [number of] refugees in the world today, what is your country’s main concern now?
A: Increasing political, social, economic, security and bureaucratic problems, as well as the spending of national resources on this issue, are just some important issues which are caused by such a huge number of refugees. Given the fact there are already 2.2 million refugees in Iran, accepting or providing assistance to another one million who would enter in a short time, would have negative effects for the government. [Such an influx] would adversely impact [on] the environment and result in the transmission of disease.
Further employment of national services would result in the reduction of normal services provided to citizens. An influx of people into less populated and developed areas would create social and political problems, and there is the possibility of terrorist attacks carried out by terrorists who entered the country under the guise of being refugees.