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Iran & Afghan immigrants: My brother's keeper

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Message Abbas Bakhtiar

“Now my friends, I am opposed to the system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural equipment to do for myself but because I am not satisfied to make myself comfortable knowing that there are thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the barest necessities of life. We were taught under the old ethic that man's business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked; ''Am I my brother's keeper?'' That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society.

Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death.” (Eugene V. Debs: 1908 speech)

For close to half a century, Afghanistan has been a battleground for foreign armies and local warlords. The country survives on international aids and opium cultivation. The central government controls only Kabul. There is heavy fighting in the south and east of the country. The northern and some western parts of Afghanistan are relatively quite but are ruled by warlords. On the western side, only Herat seems to have any stability and economic growth.

Afghanistan with a population of 35 million people consumes only 782.9 million kWh of electricity. Compare this to Iraq’s 33.3 billion kWh (Population: 27 million, 2007). Afghanistan has only 280000 (land-lines, 2005) telephones, and only 8229 km of paved roads. Close to 50% of the workforce is unemployed, and the rest, if not serving in national army or warlords’ private armies, are working in the fields (agriculture). The life expectancy of an Afghan is only 43.6 years, one of the lowest in the world. Similarly Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest (10th place) infant mortality rates (19.6/1000). In other words, Afghanistan is a failed state, poor and chaotic. The government can not provide the most basic services to its people, let alone accommodate a few million returning refugees.

The arrival

In 1973, a military coup headed by Daoud Khan and PDPA (Afghan Communist Party) ousted the Afghan king Zahir Shah. Daoud Khan abolished the monarchy and declared himself the President of the Republic of Afghanistan. In 1978, the communist party of Afghanistan staged a coup and took over the government. It also signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. Shortly after, with the help of United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the Mujahedin (guerrilla) movement was born. The internal fighting and subsequent arrival of Soviet forces started a mass exodus of people to neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

At that time Iran was in the middle of a war with Iraq and under sanctions. Nevertheless, it accepted the arriving refugees, first housing them in camps and later giving them work permits, allowing them to move to towns and cities. Later fighting between Taliban and the Northern alliance simply increased the number of refugees seeking safety or a better life in the neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. By the end of 1980s Iran and Pakistan hosted 3 million refugees each [1]. In addition to refugees, there were a large number of people entering Iran illegally seeking work. Iran’s GDP is over 11 times that of Afghanistan and hence a magnet for those seeking a better standard of living.

As the numbers kept rising, Iran requested help from UN. However, the UN help when it arrived was not only insufficient, but also nearly always late. As time passed, the refugee numbers kept increasing. The government began to restrict its liberal refugee policies; work-permits became harder to obtain. But lack of documentation did not restrict the movement of the unregistered immigrants/refugees within the country. Many simply moved to large cities and became illegal aliens. There was some hope that the American invasion and subsequent occupation would lead to some improvements in Afghanistan, thereby facilitating the return of some of the refugees. However, things did not improve and the continuing fighting between NATO forces and Taliban has worsened the situation even further. War, draught and lack of investment have only increased the number of people seeking a better life abroad.

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Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar lives in Norway. He works as a management consultant.He is also a contributing writer for many online journals.
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