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Refugees to be repatriated to ease unemployment

By Bill Samii
Vol. 3, No. 1,
January 3, 2000

On the heels of a melee in Qom, where 200 Iraqi refugees left their camp and staged a demonstration, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari promised that the Iraqis would not be forcibly repatriated. Moreover, he said, no Iraqi refugee had ever been sent back against his wishes. But like many other Iranian officials, Musavi-Lari was being economical with the truth.

The Iranian parliament recently adopted a law compelling the government to "expel all foreign workers with no work permits by the end of the next Iranian calendar year [20 March 2001] and transfer them to their home countries," IRNA reported on 16 November. Anybody who employs an illegal worker after that date will be fined up to 10 times the minimum daily wage of the worker for every day he or she was employed illegally.

The adoption of such a decision while parliamentarians consider the Third Five-Year Development Plan reflects their concern about Iran's high unemployment rate and the Plan's call for the creation of 700,000 to 850,000 jobs a year. The roughly two million refugees Iran hosts are a drain on scarce government revenues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report,"31 May 1999), but they also are seen as an additional factor in the unemployment problem. According to observers in Iran, however, the refugees are not the cause of unemployment and expelling them will not serve as a long-term solution.

Afghans, who make up about three-quarters of the refugee population, are seen as the greatest threat, because they work very cheaply and supposedly take jobs from Iranians. "There must be an end to the employment of foreign workers, and the fact that some 500,000 to 600,000 Afghan workers are currently working here has become a very complicated matter for our workers," Kuh-Dasht Parliamentarian Esmail Dusti said in the 25 September issue of Shiraz's "Nim-Negah." Dusti, who is second secretary of the Labor and Social Affairs Committee, expressed a widespread concern that an Iranian worker can be easily replaced by an Afghan who will work more cheaply. In Sistan va Baluchistan Province they form a third of the total population, "Guzarish-i Ruz" reported on 20 October, and they use forged documents and buy property.

Other refugees, including the Iraqis, also face discrimination. "Few people know that Iraqis in Iran have been stripped of all their human rights," according to an open letter to President Mohammad Khatami published in London's Arabic- language "al-Hayat" newspaper in October. Harassment and forced repatriation of Iraqi refugees has increased recently, but they have faced legal problems for many years. The Saudi-owned pan- Arab "al-Wasat" weekly detailed some of the problems in a late- October issue. When the Iraqis arrive in Iran, they are usually given a "Green Card" valid for one year. Card-holders must stay in the town where the card was issued, and they may not buy property, open bank accounts, marry Iranians, or enter any legal contracts. They do not have any employment rights, according to "al-Wasat."

Faleeh Baghdadi, chairman of the board of Tehran's Islamic Union of Iraqi Engineers (IUIE), described other problems faced by his compatriots in an interview with the 20 November "Iran Daily." Baghdadi said regular identification documents are not issued to people of Iraqi origin, which makes pursuit of higher education "a virtual impossibility." Work permits are not renewed, nor are new ones issued to Iraqis. Also, the Labor Ministry has imposed a cap on salaries for Iraqis. Baghdadi claimed that the salary ceiling for an Iraqi supervisor is 500,000 rials a month (about $285 at the official rate), while the ceiling for a West European, North American, Brazilian, or Japanese is 4,270,000 rials a month (about $2440 at the official rate).

The harassment refugees encounter led "al-Badr" a publication affiliated with the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- to say that President Mohammad Khatami's "dialogue of civilizations" should be preceded by a "dialogue of neighborhoods." Baghdadi of the IUIE rejected suggestions that foreign workers are to blame. He said: "The question of unemployment among Iranian youth is real enough, but the real culprit is unstable management and not the Iraqis or Afghans."

Other observers do not blame refugees for Iran's unemployment problems, either. Economist Farshad Momeni, Azad University head Abdullah Jasbi, and Parliamentarian Alireza Mahjoub, who is also Secretary-General of the state-affiliated Workers House and a founder of the Islamic Labor Party, described some of the most serious causal factors in interviews with the 19 October "Iran Daily." Among them are inappropriate monetary and commercial policies, insufficient capital investment, and unattractive interest rates. Deputy head of the Plan and Budget Organization Masud Nili is one of the main architects of the Third Five-Year Plan. He said: "If we want to have a more tolerable unemployment rate of 10.5 - 12 percent by the plan's end, we must boost investment."