Robin Nandy, Representative for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the I.R. of Iran, in an exclusive interview with Khabaronline.
Up to 1.5 Million Afghans immigrated to Iran after coming to power of Taliban/COVAX didn’t reach its objective in equitable distribution of vaccines
There are children without proper access to water, education and health care and their lives are affected by crimes and sometimes they themselves commit the crime; different social harms threaten them. Poverty, addiction and diseases are there to find their victims and who is a better prey than vulnerable children and women. Those fleeing from a war or living in less advantaged areas are usually more prone to victimization. Education and health are basic rights of each human being, regardless of his/her race or ethnicity. Humans have basic rights that need to be secured and securing these rights cannot be made possible with endeavors of one government, one group, or one international organization, it requires joining hands towards one goal, i.e. to secure children’s rights, and that is why this year’s Humanitarian Day theme is “it takes a village.” In an interview with Khabaronline, Dr. Robin Nandy, UNICEF Representative in Iran explains why this day is chosen as the World Humanitarian Day. He believes that we all have to join hands to reduce the vulnerabilities of the children and women. COVID-19 and its impact on children and women is among other topics of this discussion. The complete interview follows.
Q. Why is today (19 August) named as World Humanitarian Day (WHD)”?
A. In 2003, an explosion happened in one of the centers of the UN in Baghdad, killing a number of UN staff including Mr. Sérgio Vieira de Mello, one of the senior officials of the UN humanitarian programs. Since then, 19 August is commemorated as World Humanitarian Day to pay tribute to the humanitarian UN workers who lost their lives in this incident. It is estimated that around 300 million people in the world are affected by crises and war and so do governments, people and NGOs that try to help them, therefore the theme of this year is “it takes a village”, which means we all have to join together to help these people, as only one organization cannot help on its own.
Q. You explained about the theme of 2022, that is “it takes a village”, and that everyone has to get involved to confront the crises, including governments, however many of these crises are created by governments themselves, e.g. wars … there are several examples of such wars in the Middle East. Given to WHD 2022 theme, what is your message to governments for such crises?
A. My message to governments is to avoid the occurrence of crises, as any crisis in a country will have incredible impact on communities. But if I want to give a message as Representative of UNICEF, my main concern in all these crises is definitely women and children, because these groups are the most vulnerable of all. Therefore, in the first place, the crisis should be avoided and secondly, if it happens, there should be a comprehensive response to the needs of the most vulnerable groups.
Q. What is your response in such crises?
A. In UNICEF, we look for a quick and comprehensive response to the needs of women and children from different aspects, including health and nutrition, WASH, protection against maltreatment, and of course education. In other words, we try to make sure that in a crisis, children can still continue their studies. In fact, what we do is to create a secure and protecting atmosphere for the children and women so that they are less affected by these crises.
Q. These crises affect the refugees as well, specially those fleeing from the war. Last year the government that took power in Afghanistan caused migration of many Afghans including women and children to Iran. Do you have any idea how many Afghans entered Iran?
A. The reality is that even before last year and Taliban’s takeover, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been hosting Afghans for several decades and it is estimated that before last August, there were 2 to 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran, however in the year Afghanistan faced the crisis, between 500,000 to 1.5 million new refugees entered Iran. I take the opportunity to appreciate the hospitality of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and of course along with the government’s support, the host community should be acknowledged for accepting refugees amongst themselves.
Q. How does UNICEF support Afghan refugees in Iran?
A. There is a coordination mechanism in the United Nations, which is not only for UNICEF, but also involves WHO, UNHCR and a few other agencies, that works in coordination with the MoI’s Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants(BAFIA) in Iran. We have different programs such as increasing the access of children and women to health and nutrition services, protecting them against maltreatment, support to increase their access to education, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Of course, our support to Afghan refugee children and women generally covers the whole community; in other words, these refugees are living in the host community and therefore our programs cover all the children and women, part of them Afghans.
We try to strengthen the servicing systems in the country in order to respond to the demands of these refugees. People living in the border areas of Iran are also among the most vulnerable in the society, and when Afghan refugees join them via borders, the servicing system for this community including education and WASH will be under pressure. We try to strengthen the system so that more people can benefit from their services. In Iran, UNICEF cooperates with the Ministry of Health and nine other line ministries and we try to make the servicing systems shock resistant, as Iran is a country very much prone to natural disasters and it is crucial that systems are strengthened against such events, in a way that even during crises, the servicing could continue.
Q. As you said, you are trying to strengthen servicing systems to support Iranian and Afghan vulnerable children and women. For such supports, you may need to provide educational or health items to them. But on the other hand, Iran has been under sanctions for several years and has problems in importing such items, specially medicine. How has the sanctions impacted your interventions for the vulnerable groups?
A. The recent years have been very challenging for Iran. The impact of sanctions were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic along with economic situation, and this combination affected procurement of medical equipment and other items from global markets. In response to this issue, the UN designed a support package to contribute in different areas, e.g. what UNICEF did to dispatch COVID-19 vaccines to Iran through COVAX mechanism. About 16 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were imported to Iran, 1.6 to 2 million of which was for refugees and the rest were used for Iranian community.
UNICEF imported a series of other items such as cold chain equipment to keep the vaccines in proper conditions as well as the highest quality nebulizers for the children suffering from Cystic Fibrosis disease. We imported these devices at the request of the Ministry of Health, because due to sanctions it was not possible for the government to procure any. Also with the cooperation of UNICEF, EB bandages were also procured and delivered to the Ministry of Health, which was again impossible to procure due to sanctions. It is noteworthy to say that such humanitarian measures are not only limited to UNICEF, but all UN agencies including WHO, UNFPA, UNDP and others, collectively provide similar support.
Q. Do you remember when were the 16 million doses of COVID-19 imported to Iran?
A. The vaccines were gradually imported from mid-2020 to the first half of 2022.
Q. How do you assess the quality of services such as education and health to vulnerable groups in Iran, specially in border areas, compared to other countries in the world?
A. The health and education service provision systems in Iran are generally good and have made a lot of progress since 1990s, however you are right that this is not equal in all parts of the country, and there are certainly areas with higher deprivations. And that is exactly why UNICEF is here to support the government in service provision in such vulnerable areas that require more attention.
Q. Were the health and education services proper after COVID-19 pandemic?
A. After the COVID-19 pandemic, the education system of the country came under pressure, the schools were suddenly closed, children didn’t go to school and education became online in some areas, but in many areas, online education was not feasible. The truth is that in many of the border areas, the children could not continue their education virtually. From now on, we need to try to return those out of school children back to classes. This is the same for health services, if there are children that have not yet received their routine vaccinations, the conditions for their vaccination need to be provided. Also, the pandemic brought a lot of psychosocial problems to the children and adolescents, which in turn impacted our servicing system.
Q. You talked about capacity building to offer services to the vulnerable groups, specially at times of crisis, and you seem to believe that such servicing system should be shock resistance. Does the Iranian government’s measures and cooperation for capacity building meet your expectations so far?
A. Yes, we have a close cooperation with the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Capacity building towards turning shock resistant against probable crises has been the government’s request, which we support. We do our best to make the servicing system sustainable, which is the framework of our activities from 2023 to 2027, however the main pillars of our program will be response to crisis, strengthening servicing systems, economic revival, supporting health service systems after the pandemic as well as taking measures in water shortage. In this regard, we not only work closely with the government, but also with the communities, the IRCS and with the people, as really “it takes a village” to provide services to the vulnerable groups. It cannot be done only by one organization, but it requires collaboration.
Q. Sustainable programs and cooperation require statistics and data. You said you are in good terms with the government. Does the government of Iran provide you with the data about vulnerabilities that children and women face with?
A. You are right. We need accurate and disaggregated data and we are in touch with the government in this regard. We have very good collaboration with the Statistics Center of Iran, and provide them with global best practices and techniques for data collection in the area of children and women, as well as reading and interpreting such data in order to strengthen the data collection capacities. Right now, we have several programs in data monitoring with different ministries.
Q. Like you, I also think that humanitarian issues are transnational, therefore I would like to raise this question: we know that governments may not provide precise details and data, in order to show positive achievements. I ask you whether your organization verifies the data it receives from the government?
A. The data are categorized differently; some are regular data, such as the number of people enjoying health services each year. We also have periodic data, such as headcounts or census, but some countries have certain mechanisms for verification. Some countries use different types of data collection and compare the data, however what is more important than the data itself, is how to use the data. There are many countries that have lots of data, but do not apply those in planning. The important point is that even if the data is not 100% accurate, it can give an overall idea about the whole pathway ahead, and can be relied upon to plan accordingly. I think that several factors are important for the data: its accessibility, quality and accuracy, and proper application.
Q. Are you happy with the accessibility, quality and accuracy of the data your are provided with in Iran?
A. Yes, but there is always room for improvement, and it is the same for all countries. We as UNICEF support countries to better collect and analyze the data.
Q. Based on the data you have, what is the most important social harm threatening children in the Iranian community? I mean a social harm that is at a warning level?
A. We have an integrated approach to social harms. There are children that are affected by violation of law, children that witness a crime, and children that are even prone to committing a crim. In this regard, we work with several partners, including Prisons Organization, Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary, towards capacity building for these organizations on how to behave with each group of these children and what standards should be maintained.
Q. But you do not have any data about the impacts of witnessing or committing a crime on children?
A. As I already said, we really have a holistic approach. Our focus is supporting the children, no matter which of the child rights are violated. A harm is a harm and a child should enjoy all his rights. If a child right is violated in any area, it means that the child is at risk of harm.
Apart from the governments, the families and people in the society play an important role in dealing with any such harms and in fact the parents and the society are the first to react to the children’s harms and deprivation of their rights.
Q. How much are you in contact with the NGOs? Are they qualified and prepared to deal with the harms?
A. We have a long history of cooperation with IRCS and a few NGOs. About these organizations, the same points apply, that they should be resistant to probable shocks. If anything happens in the country, these NGOs are the first responders, even before the government enters the field.
Q. Let’s discuss about another area than the harms. I know that you are an epidemiologist. Today the world is struggling with a pandemic. What would happen to the world and COVID-19 eventually?
A. It is difficult to predict. COVID-19 is unstable by nature and it is probable that more variants will pops up in future. But the important point is that vaccination has prevented many deaths, although it was said from the beginning that vaccination can only prevent death and severe infections. Iran is facing the 7th wave at the time being. The number of infections are high, but the number of deaths is still low. Therefore, vaccination should be emphasized and encouraged, specially for the vulnerable groups.
Q. Today vaccines are not fairly distributed in the world. What is your opinion in this regard?
A. Yes, there is no equitable access to vaccines and that’s why COVAX mechanism was initiated. Of course it has been the same in the course of history. It has taken a long way from production of the first vaccines to mass production and maximum use. This is the same for COVID-19 vaccine, while with the COVAX mechanism we could help the poorer countries in the first year of pandemics, but it did not achieve its final goal and the equitable access to vaccines was not maintained as it was planned. Even many manufacturing companies could not enter the market. These are lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic for future.
Q. There are some countries like China that follow Zero COVID-19 strategy, and announce lockdown with the first signs and symptoms. And on the contrary, there are countries that have reduced protocols. Which way you prefer?
A. Well, complete lockdown has its own costs; during the first months of COVID-19, we saw the negative and psychological effects on the society when a whole country was quarantined and the country’s economy was paralyzed. Therefore, full quarantine is costly. We should be happy that vaccines could prevent a lot of deaths shortly after the outbreak. I think there should be a balance between the infections and the decisions made in the social health area to have the least damages and negative effects. Maybe the “best option” doesn’t exist, but the countries should only control the pandemic with the minimum impact.
Q. As the last question, it is one year from your assignment in Iran. Has your mindset changed to Iran before and after this one year?
A. 31 August is exactly one year that I have been in Iran. I am originally from India, and we share many commonalities with Iran. Before I came here, I had read books from Iranian great poets and what has very much impressed me is the hospitality of Iranians. I am comfortable here and this is admirable to me that Iranians are so much resistant against many problems such as the COVID-19 and economic problems, and yet they are still so civilized and cultivated.