Ivo Freijsen, Representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the I.R. of Iran, in an exclusive interview with Iran Newspaper.
From long ago, the hospitality of us Iranians has been well known. Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, during these many years, Afghans have sought asylum in Iran and have started living here. Now they love Iran like their own country. Their children study here and go to the university. They get married here and start families. The government and people of Iran have always done what they could to serve them with kindness. The latest example to prove this statement is the vaccination campaign to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the refugees were vaccinated just like all the Iranian citizens. Providing access to higher education, employment opportunities, and healthcare through the Universal Public Health Insurance for refugees are all proof of the hospitality of us Iranians. According to the data of the government, as of October 2022, Iran hosts 800,000 registered refugees ( Amayesh card holders). Of this number, approximately 780,000 are Afghan, and about 20,000 are Iraqi refugees . Also, around 586,000 Afghans possess passports and Iranian visas, including those who had Amayesh cards before and later received student visas to continue their university education. Of course, approximately 2.1 million Afghans live in the country without documentation. On World Humanitarian Day and Week, we had an interview with Ivo Freijsen, the representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which you can read below.
— We are in the World Humanitarian Week. Iran is a country that has hosted a high number of refugees for many years. Due to the war in Afghanistan for a long time, we have hosted our neighboring country's dear people and served them like Iranian citizens. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we treated them like Iranian nationals, regarding vaccination. What do you think about Iranian humanitarianism? How do you define the role of Iran in promoting the spirit of humanitarianism?
Iran is an exemplary country that has acted very well in hosting refugees and has been hosting them for a long time. Forty years have passed since Iran started hosting them [refugee]. As we have always said, Iran has had positive approaches toward refugees, we appreciate that, and we are honored to support Iran's efforts. In fact, Iran provides wide-ranging services for refugees: such as, basic healthcare services, education, and vocational trainings. And as you said, during the COVID-19 pandemic, those who were in Iran, whether the ones that had passports or the ones that had documentation and were [registered] refugees, received vaccination. We have always said that Iran has positive approaches toward refugees, and this is commendable and we are proud to support Iran's initiatives.
— Many international days are celebrated worldwide, only one of which is World Humanitarian Day. Please tell us about the importance of these days in general and World Humanitarian Week in particular.
I would say that every day should be the World Humanitarian Day, but some days should be explicitly named to bear a particular message. In recent years, many people have moved to[international] borders due to various conditions that have affected their lives and have become refugees in other countries. On World Refugee Day, there is an opportunity to remind other organizations that there are situations that force people to leave their homes and their countries. Therefore, we should have more cooperation in this area. However, we [ humanitarians] should not be the center of attention. It is the vulnerable people in need who should receive the attention, and we should provide [the needed] services to them.
In addition, governmental organizations, individuals from institutions, international NGOs, and ministries also support refugees. For instance, our employees support the refugees in Iran and have heavy responsibilities. Our offices in Mashhad, Shiraz, Esfahan, and Kerman are active, and we are managing refugee issues on a daily basis. We talk to [refugee] fathers, mothers, and children and assess their needs. Of course, we are not able to answer all their needs and [we] require support and funding , especially for people who need it the most. In fact, there are economic constraints alongside other issues. On this specific day, the people who support the refugees should be cherished.
— As the representative of the UNHCR in the Islamic Republic of Iran, please explain this agency's work, missions, and goals.
We need to create favorable environment for those people [refugees] who have recently entered the country or those who have been in Iran before. This means that they should be able to stay in Iran and not be returned to their own country because Afghanistan is still not safe. The main part of our work is to support the government to attend to the needs of refugees, we cooperate in the areas of registration, data collection, and provision of documents.
Moreover, as long as these people [refugees] are in the country, they need work. So, we should help them access the job market. For this purpose, we assist both the government and the relevant organizations. We are also involved in the area of education for children and adolescents, and even adults. We have vocational training programs so that refugees can first be trained and then start working. Another focus is the area of health and medical care. We believe that healthy refugees are productive and resilient, refugees can both be a helpful person in Iran and be beneficial to their country when the situation improves, and they can return. In short, I can say that three sectors are very important for us: access to aid, meeting basic needs, and livelihood, and we are always active in these areas and support the governments and organizations involved in them.
— How can the public support humanitarian actions? Many want to help but do not know much about humanitarian aid. What is your suggestion for them?
One does not need to be a professional humanitarian worker to support people in need.. Everyone can provide humanitarian support. Around us, there are always opportunities and situations where we can help others. If someone asks a question or needs some information, we could help them by answering. We can make a monetary donation, or if someone needs something, we can provide it. It is not always about money; one could work as an intern at humanitarian organizations or, more specifically, help privately. For example, if you're going to the supermarket and someone is waiting for your help, don't reject them. If someone needs help, definitely help them.
On the other hand, there are charity funds in different areas of the city, and you can provide your help through those funds. Meanwhile, there are also reputable organizations that you can transfer money to help target populations. The first things we should understand is why these people are in such situations. If someone, doesn't have money, , or a person is ill or has become a refugee, there is a reason behind it: we shouldn't see the individual as a problem. We should realize that these people are struggling due to special situations. I think it is most important to recognize the situation of these people. If we see them as a threat, no problem could be resolved . On the contrary, the situation will worsen, and we won't even be able to help. Finally, it will create xenophobia and cause distance between refugees and us [those who are not refugees].
It is especially important to understand refugees. We should realize that these people, like us, have many positive potentials. Refugees are not people who sit idle in a corner doing nothing. On the contrary, refugees want access to the job market, employment, and education, in order to help the societies in which they have sought refuge. They want to be able to travel, have access to medical care, get married, start families, and in the end, when the situation allows it, return to their country. These people probably have more hope and motivation than us. They only need to be well understood.
— Please explain the theme of WHD (World Humanitarian Day), its importance, and the goal of the campaign.
This year's message in English is "It takes a village", which has been translated to Persian as “یک دست صدا ندارد” (Yek dast seda nadarad). The sentence means that to raise a child in the best way possible, to care for its health, education, and needs, the whole community should be involved to reach a desired goal. By using this phrase, we want to convey the message that in order to help someone in need, we require everyone's cooperation. To meet the needs [of refugees], it is necessary to have the support of others so that we can help these people [refugees] and finally meet their needs.
— How can people specifically support this campaign?
The first point is that we should be attentive individuals with open eyes and ears to see the people who need support. We should also help those affected by climate change or who need help due to conflict and economic hardship. If we have something to offer, whether it is money, food, or even our time, we should not hesitate. Some might think the refugees' situation is not good and want to do something for them. This is very nice. They can join the humanitarian efforts. For example, 90 percent of the people working in our office are Iranians. They help non-Iranians, this way we are also helping the host society, which means we are helping Iranians as well.
— What has been done to encourage humanitarianism and increase the humanitarian spirit in the world, and what can be done from now on?
You are asking a good question. Some measures have been taken through official channels to transfer the message of humanitarianism. For instance, some conferences have been held at the United Nations. And another part is projects that we, the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and other NGOs undertake. These measures, in a way, encourage others to also take humanitarian action, and one can say they also attract the attention of others. One of the issues we face in achieving all of this is funding. We receive some funding, but the amount is minimal compared to what is spent, for instance, on the defense or entertainment industry. On international level, humanitarian aid should become a higher priority. Recently, we saw a lot of aid gathered for Ukraine, but we are interested in witnessing multilateral assistance to all emergencies. Humanitarian aid should increase in Africa, the Middle East, including in Iran.
— Continuing on this discussion, do you think, in a way, it is because the Ukrainians are white that enormous amounts of aid have streamed in? We have seen wars like this in other countries like Afghanistan, Lebanon, etc. But it seems as if white people have a more special position. These topics are constantly discussed. Do you confirm this? What do you think about it?
At the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, our High Commissioner made a very clear statement and also talked about how good it was that the borders were open, and the Ukrainians could enter other countries and how they received shelter and access to healthcare. However, aid should not be limited to the color of your skin or which country you come from. The borders should be open to all in an equal manner. To reach this goal, we should better understand the reason for asylum-seeking. When we contemplate it, we realize that asylum-seeking has the same root all over the world. Discrimination, war, conflict, and other problems are the major reasons behind it. It is understandable if some countries are not interested in accepting refugees or refuse to do so. But at the same time, they can help the countries involved in the conflict in that region.
For example, in the case of Afghanistan, in addition to helping Afghanistan, support should also be provided to Pakistan, that hosts over a million refugees, and to Iran so that with these support, the countries that have accepted refugees could continue offering them services. It is unfair that Iran solely should have a significant share in paying for the costs of refugees. We call this burden sharing and responsibility sharing, and it should be done in a right manner. What we're looking for is open borders with open minds so that refugees can be received easily and that these individuals can receive the required support.
— We witness that powerful countries become involved in many wars, leading to many innocent individuals being displaced and seeking asylum in other countries. In fact, these powerful countries are responsible for the displacement. What is the message of this day for these countries?
This is also a very good question, but the main answer should be given by politicians or analysts. However, many documents exist that show conflict to be the main reason for displacement [of people] either within countries or outside, and this is an obvious fact which is not unknown. What is new is that conflict has been combined with other elements—for example, climate change or lack of natural resources such as water.
These elements have been combined together like a chain which has increased negative impact on people. In the end, people are forced to move and leave their countries. Small solutions are not enough to overcome these crises, and we should look for constructive solutions to resolve these issues. When the situation is not good, it is not strange that a person would enter Iran from another country or go to Turkey or seek asylum in other countries.
It is very natural: if I or you were living in an unfavorable situation, we would do the same. If you were a farmer and had no land to farm or no water, or your rights are violated in your own country, you would be forced to migrate. Our humanitarian support is not the main solution but only temporary relief. The main solution is peace, tranquility, development, and access to human rights. All world leaders are aware of this and should only start acting according to it.