Closing the door.

Author:Anvari, Haleh
Position:Current Affairs - Afghan refugees in Iran - Statistical Data Included

Iran is host to the greatest number of refugees in the world but with a rapidly increasing indigenous population - putting additional demands on an already stretched economy the quality of mercy is becoming strained.

Haji Yaaghoubi is in his late 70s. He arrived in Iran with 10 members of his family last October from Mazare-sharif. They were among thousands of refugees who fled the ethnic cleansing of Shiite Muslims, carried out by the Taliban when the city was captured.

Once a respected and affluent citizen, he arrived in Iran with nothing but the clothes he stood up in. His family were crammed into a small room at the end of a yard in a house in Mashhad. They were frightened and exhausted by a journey that had taken almost a month by road and on foot through Pakistan. The memory of the horrors they had witnessed was still fresh in their minds.

Haji Yaaghoubi went into hiding last year as the Taliban sought out the men of his neighbourhood and executed them in the most barbaric way.

Since the Soviet invasion of their country 20 years ago, many Afghans have chosen to move to the safety of neighbouring countries; Iran is an obvious choice for many of the northern Afghanis, who share a similar culture. But Afghans are not the only refugees who find refuge in the Islamic republic.

Iran is the host to the greatest number of refugees in the world, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Sheltering 4.5 million exiles during the 1990s, Iran currently handles the largest refugee caseload in modern times; the number of refugees living in the country is twice the amount recorded anywhere else.

At present over two million refugees live in Iran. The Afghans from the east, the Kurds and the Iraqis from the West. Proud and isolated on the world political scene, Iran initially got on with task of handling these arrivals unaided. Finally, international help was requested in 1986 and UNHCR began its operations in the country. However, the bulk of the financial burden remains squarely on Iran. Whereas Pakistan received over $1 billion through UNHCR between 1979 and 1997, to help with the cost of playing host to its refugee population, Iran was given just $150 million over the same period.

By far the greatest numbers of the refugees in Iran are from Afghanistan. Even if they have not been subjected to violence themselves, they have all been affected by it. Shortage of food and lack of security are the main reasons cited by most...

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