Dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, several Afghan elementary students stood on stage singing a song about their love for Afghanistan. On the eve of the World Refugee Day, I was invited to speak at the opening ceremony of HAMI. HAMI is an NGO devoted the protection of refugee women and children. Since 1998, Fatemeh Ashrafi has led a non governmental effort to support refugees in Iran. According to the UNHCR official site reports Iran still hosts more than one million registered Afghan refugees. It ranks as the first country in terms of refugee number as well as duration of refugee stay. More precise statistics however, point to a number of 5-6 million Afghan refugees in Iran, most of whom do not have legal status and stay or work permit. Iranians have patiently hosted Afghan citizens for more than three decades when their country faced most difficult times of war, terror and insecurity. Their stay in Iran has been fruitful for both guest and host, although the burden has been mostly set upon Iranians and their government. Due to low economic status and low education, Afghan presence in Iran has been marred by significant records of unlawful activity resulting in some degree of negative perception among the Iranian society. This has led to certain unreasonable reactions in which for example a local authority in a northern province banned Afghan nationals from taking part in a certain public ceremony . This led to a strong reaction among some social activists .
HAMI has provided free education for Afghan children, through the establishment of two schools in Tehran and other cities and has supported their families now for several years. Stressing on the importance of providing education for refugees, Ms Ashrafi stated that when parliament elections were held in Afghanistan she felt proud to see that many candidates had announced in their campaign that they were educated in Iranian universities.
The commitment of the civil society to humanitarian assistance for refugees residing in Iran is indicative of strong social trends that have persisted in spite of official distaste and aversion, during the recent years specifically . In this particular case HAMI seems to receive some support from government officials.
At regional levels, while government support for neighboring states Afghanistan and Iraq has been significant and substantial the civil society has also been effective in strengthening ties between nations. I remember well that during the official visit of President Khatami to Afghanistan, after the installation of President Karzai, President Karzai made the point in a bilateral meeting that Iran had provided the greatest support for post war Afghanistan to that date.
In my speech last week I asked for more recognition and support for our precious civil society efforts from international organisations like the UNHCR and UNICEF as well as from the Iranian government.