Four decades of conflict in Afghanistan have led to massive displacement of Afghans into the neighbouring countries. Iran alone has received around three million Afghan refugees. Close to one million have been registered by the Iranian government; they are therefore afforded protection and are eligible for assistance. However, up to two million displaced Afghans remain undocumented and have neither formal legal status nor access to assistance. Up to 800 000 of them are considered to be extremely vulnerable.
The majority of Afghan refugees reside among host communities, whereas less than 3% are hosted in 18 refugee settlements. Without legal status undocumented Afghan refugees live under the permanent threat of deportation and are ineligible to access basic services such as health, education, and legal jobs. Registered refugees enjoy a higher degree of protection and have legal access to certain jobs and services. However, the current combined resources of the Iranian refugee agency (BAFIA) and international donors cannot subsidise access to health 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 enrol 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 enrolment card and books, as well as overcoming social and linguistic obstacles. Children often speak only Pashtun and are sometimes the breadwinners of their families. Having children in school affords undocumented families a certain protection from deportation, but it still does not improve their access to other basic services.
Currently, the EU's assistance in Iran is channelled through three international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and one UN agency that support BAFIA in providing a basic package of assistance to the most vulnerable refugees. Initially, this was largely aimed at providing registered refugees with protection, shelter, water and sanitation, food security, and access to basic education and health services. Support includes the provision of cash to the most vulnerable refugees to allow them to pay the premium for the government-run universal public health insurance scheme. This enables documented Afghans to access the comprehensive health package that already exists for Iranian nationals.
Particular efforts have also been made to help the children of undocumented families take advantage of the access to education granted by the Supreme leader in 2015. This involves direct assistance to get the children into school, as well as 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 this amount targeted the integration of Afghan refugee children into the Iranian education system. The European Commission's Directorate General for Development has also included Iran as one of the beneficiaries of a €200 million package to help countries in the region address the issue of chronic displacement. Furthermore, the UN Refugee Agency and the European Commission have provided a platform for Iran to highlight the plight of Afghan refugees to EU Member States and other potential donors.
Since 1997, the EU has funded humanitarian projects targeting Afghan refugees in Iran, providing a total of almost €51 million in humanitarian aid, as well as responding to natural disasters. This amount includes €5 million allocated in 2018 for essential support to those most in need in the country.
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.