Tehran, Iran, December 15
By Mehdi Sepahvand – Trend:
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been hosting refugees for almost four decades, Sivanka Dhanapala, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative in Iran told Trend.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran generously hosts one of the largest and most protracted refugee situations in the world. Estimates from the Government of Iran indicate that 951,142 Afghan refugees and 28,268 Iraqi refugees reside in Iran, in addition to 620,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas. The government also estimates that there are approximately 1.5-2 million undocumented Afghans also living in Iran,” Mr. Dhanapala said.
UNHCR Iran, in close partnership with the Government of Iran, works under the umbrella of a regional multi-year strategy known as the Solutions Strategy for Afghan refugees (SSAR) in an effort to find durable solutions for the country’s very large population of refugees.
According to the UNHCR Representative in Iran, activities revolve around increasing access to basic services in the areas of Health, Education, Livelihoods, including community-based and community-led activities. The SSAR particularly focuses on youth empowerment through education, skills training and livelihoods support, and recognizes the importance of durable solutions, advocacy, and coordination of refugee assistance with partners.
“Health, Education and Livelihoods, with a particular focus on youth are the key target areas. In regards to Education and Health in particular, over the past two years Iran has been exemplary in the initiatives it has taken towards increasing refugees’ access to these services during their stay in Iran,” he noted.
In May 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree to the Ministry of Education allowing all Afghan children of school age, regardless of documentation status, to attend primary and secondary school education, resulting in over 350,000 Afghan and Iraqi children being enrolled in the 2015-2016 school year. In addition, all refugees of school-age are now exempt from paying costly refugee-specific tuition fees (USD $70-90 per child), which encourages even vulnerable and economically challenged families to send their children to school.
Regarding health, Mr. Dhanapala said the Islamic Republic of Iran has set a global precedent by including all refugees into its Universal Public Health Insurance scheme (UPHI), which allows all registered Afghan and Iraqi refugees to take advantage of health insurance coverage similar to that of Iranian nationals.
The initiative between the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs (BAFIA) of the Ministry of Interior, and the Iranian Health Insurance Organization (IHIO Salamat) is supported by UNHCR and enables all registered refugees residing in Iran to have access to the insurance.
Rolled out for the first time in 2016, the second cycle of the UPHI offers refugees the opportunity to access a comprehensive health insurance package for both hospitalization services and para-clinical care, which includes medical assistance such as radiology, medicine, and doctor’s visits.
Mr. Dhanapala explains, “During this second cycle, with UNHCR’s financial support 142,000 identified vulnerable refugees are able to benefit from an exemption of enrolment fees, while other non-vulnerable refugees have an opportunity to access the insurance scheme, similar to the costs that Iranian nationals pay for their health insurance.”
“The implementation of the UPHI provides a significant protection dividend and plays an essential role in enhancing refugees’ social security and resilience status. It is anticipated that the second phase will evidence further progress in alleviating the challenges refugees are facing in meeting their medical needs, and will further improve refugees’ access to affordable healthcare.”
On the refugees’ aspirations to migrate to Europe, the Representative said, “Unfortunately many Afghans face a very difficult economic and security situation in Afghanistan, one which is not showing positive signs of improvement. Like many other refugees, some Afghan refugees are also attracted by the prospect of a better life in Europe, and are not necessarily deterred by the often treacherous and dangerous journeys they must typically undertake.”
A significant number of Afghans arriving in Europe have either used Iran as a transit country, or to a lesser extent, have come directly from Iran. UNHCR monitoring data reports that just over 20% of new arrivals by sea who arrived in Greece in 2015 were Afghan nationals; the second largest group after Syrians. Although displacement still continues from both Afghanistan and Iran, the number of Afghans arriving in to the Mediterranean has subsided this year - Afghans now account for 13% of new arrivals in 2016.