Can you explain to us what Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is doing in Zahedan?
Today, Iran hosts 900,000 legally registered Afghan refugees on its soil, and more than 1.5 million Afghans without a legal status - a figure impossible to verify. Most of them arrived in the early 80's, fleeing the war with the USSR. Today, they keep on arriving mostly for economic reasons, such as the draft that affects several provinces in Afghanistan. In 2001, MSF started to provide free health care to Afghan immigrants who had no access to medical care, and provided new arrivals with some material aid to help them settle down.
We are now working in three health centres in the poor neighbourhoods of Zahedan, capital of Sistan Baluchistan province. We have also set up a referral system for patients who need to be admitted into hospital or who need to consult a specialist. A mobile team seeks out people who are newly arrived to provide them with aid, as they are more vulnerable on a medical, social and economic basis. In this town, located near the Pakistan and Afghan border, one third of its 600.000 inhabitants are supposed to be of Afghan origin.
How can Iran absorb this migration flow?
For several years, authorities have been worrying about the great number of immigrants in their country. Their first response was to promote voluntary returns, but they then adopted a more aggressive policy by escorting people back to the border.
In 2007, more than 350,000 illegal Afghan immigrants were forced to go back to their country, where the economic and security situation remains difficult. In the past five months, at least 150.000 people, mostly men, have been sent back to Afghanistan.
Zahedan has been declared a 'no-go' area for foreigners, as have all other regions bordering Afghanistan. Claiming insecurity, suspicion of terrorist activity, and trafficking of all kinds, Iranian authorities now forbid foreigners to stay in that part of the country. To keep benefiting from their status, legal immigrants have to renew their residence permits and then move to other areas of the country, where there is no structure able to cater for them.
Although authorities officially grant them this renewal, they are very discrete about the process and provide few means to carry it out. In order to stay in Zahedan or in other forbidden provinces, we fear that many legal Afghan refugees fall into an illegal status, which would expose them to raids and forced returns. Recently, authorities have indeed announced a massive operation to escort people back to the border, but commit themselves not to expel patients suffering from chronic diseases whom we take care of.
Do other actors provide aid to these populations?
One would think so, taking into account that Iran 'absorbs' a great deal of the total number of Afghan refugees abroad with 900,000 officially recognised refugees, not to mention those residing illegally who are far more numerous. Yet, Iranian authorities handle, almost alone, the influx of immigrants into their territory. Whereas international funding agencies have promised US$ 20 million in assistance to help reconstruct Afghanistan, Afghan refugees still receive very little aid.