Four decades of conflict in Afghanistan has led to massive displacement of Afghans across the surrounding sub-region. Iran alone has received around three million Afghan refugees. Close to one million of these have been registered by the government and are thus, afforded protection and are eligible for assistance. However up to two million remain undocumented and therefore have neither formal legal status nor access to assistance. Up to 800 000 of these undocumented refugees are considered to be extremely vulnerable.
The majority of refugees reside amongst the host communities, less than 3% are hosted in the 18 Afghan refugee settlements. The main problem for undocumented Afghan refugees is that the lack of legal status leaves them permanently under the threat of deportation and ineligible to access basic services such as health, education, and legal jobs. Registered refugees have more protection and have legal access to certain jobs and services but apart from the most vulnerable, they have to pay for these services. Unfortunately the current combined resources of the Iranian refugee agency (BAFIA) and international donors cannot subsidise access to services for more than 10-20% of the most vulnerable registered refugees.
The Supreme Leader’s decree of May 2015 allowed all children in Iran, regardless of their legal status, to access formal education. Since then, at least 77 000 undocumented Afghan boys and girls, have become eligible to enroll in schools, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). However, even if education is free there are still many barriers to access, as undocumented children need to pay for an enrollment card and books, as well as overcome the social and linguistic impediment. Often children speak only Pashtun or are vital breadwinners. Having children in school affords undocumented families a certain protection from deportation but it still does not solve their problems with regard to access to other basic services and they remain amongst the most vulnerable of refugees.
The EU has funded humanitarian projects targeting Afghan refugees in Iran since 1997, providing a total of almost €46 million in humanitarian support for Afghan refugees, as well as responding to natural disasters.
Currently, EU support is channelled through three INGOs and two UN agencies that support BAFIA in providing a basic package of assistance to the most vulnerable refugees. Initially this was largely aimed at supporting the registered refugees with protection, shelter, water and sanitation, food security, and access to basic education and health services. Support notably covers the provision of cash to the most vulnerable refugees to allow them to pay the premium for the government-run universal public health insurance (UPHI) scheme, which enables documented Afghans to access the comprehensive health package which already exists for Iranian nationals. As the government strategy has evolved to open up access to undocumented refugees, the EU and its INGO partners have been increasingly working to provide basic services for this group. A particular effort has been made to help the children of undocumented families to take advantage of the access to education granted by the Supreme leader in 2015. This not only involves direct assistance to get the children into to school but also support to keep them enrolled and to help their families obtain alternative sources of income.
In 2017, the EU allocated almost €10 million to deliver vital assistance to Afghan refugees in Iran, up to half of which supports the integration of Afghan refugee children into the Iranian education system. The European Commission Directorate General for Development (DEVCO) has also included Iran as beneficiary of a €200 million package to help address the issue of chronic displacement in the region. Furthermore UNHCR and the Commission have provided a platform for Iran to highlight its refugee problem to EU Member States and other potential donors.
In the past, the EU also provided humanitarian help in the relief efforts after the 1997, 2002 and 2003 earthquakes. In April 2016, the EU and Iran agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation in support of better prevention, detection and response to natural disasters.