Deadly attacks and fighting have scattered Afghans across the world. And with more than half of all registered refugees coming from just three countries, Afghanistan is at number two, with 2.5 million people.
Nearly one million of those refugees are hosted in Iran, where it is estimated that up to 2 million more Afghans live undocumented, with no legal documentation at all.
European Commision, refugees in Iran factsheet
UNHCR fact sheet on Iran
Kerman is among the Iranian provinces with the highest proportion of immigrants to residents. About 10% of the three million local population are Afghans. But some of these immigrants first settled in the province forty years ago.
About 130,000 Afghans in Kerman are estimated to be undocumented, leaving them with no or little rights, irrespective of how long they have been in the country. We met Saeed, who is 13 years old and was born in Iran. He is an undocumented child. This left him without the right to go to school until 2015, when Iran adopted a decree that opened public schools to all refugee children. It was a milestone in the management of immigrants and it gave hope to thousands of children who could then begin to learn.
“I can read everything, whatever I want, for example the street signs, or the doctors prescriptions in the hospital”.
Putting into practice the 2015 decree began by guaranteeing undocumented families that enrolling their children wouldn’t trigger any deportation procedures. Then, the schools had to be adapted to cope with the pressure of thousands of new students. This is when the EU scaled up its financial support through its partners in the field.
Oliver Vandecasteele is the country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iran,
“We’ve supported around forty schools in the country. It was essentially supply of equipment and renovations in order to re-open some schools. This one in particular was closed for several years. We also organized access to education programmes to help children who were out of the school system in previous years. They needed accelerated learning classes in order to integrate into school”.
The EU allocated almost 10 million euros in 2017 to assist Afghan refugees in Iran. Commissioner Chrístos Stylianídis has visited the country twice, reinforcing how important the support that Iran is giving to Afghan refugees is for the EU, especially whilst the diplomatic situation remains delicate.
Caroline Birch from EU Humanitarian Aid is positive about the changes that taken place in recent times.
“I think things have changed very much since afghans first arrived over 30 yrs ago. And we are not looking at basic survival now, the idea will be very much to keep them enrolled in primary school so that they can look forward into going into secondary school and possibly even to University”.
The Ministry in charge of refugees estimates that in the province of Kerman alone, 10,000 children are still out of school. Reaching the right level of education is among the reasons. Saeed could enroll at his regular grade after attending NRC summer courses. But financial constraints do the rest.
Fatemeh Sadat is Saeed’s mum. Even now they have access to school, she still struggles with the financial commitments of getting her children into education.
“Last year we enrolled them in the 4th grade, they attended for a few months and then I had to take them out. It was because of the cost of the transportation and school fees”.
But this year things are working differently for the family.
“Until today we haven’t been asked to pay for anything at school. I started working, I go to a pistachio farm, and my husband works as well and Saeed asked to start working too. This is how he managed to pay for the school bus. Every afternoon he goes to work in a motorbike shop close to our house from 4 until 9pm”.
School capacity is still way below the need. The province of Kerman had a total of 30,000 enrollments in two years, one third are of these are undocumented children. Classes today host an average of 40-44 students, while they should have a maximum capacity of 25 pupils.
Hamid Shamsaldini from Bafia Kerman estimated that it would take 1200 classes if they were to be able to put the 30,000 students into more acceptable sized classes.
We left Kerman to travel to Zangiabad. The school complex here acts as a school hub for many isolated villages sprinkled around this desert region. Here the NRC has just finished the construction of a new school:
NRC country programme in Iran
Olivier Vandecasteele showed us here how the NRC was able to make a real difference,
“There was a capacity problem here that we could solve by building this school behind me. We built 10 classes that will allow 300 new students to have access to education”.
90% of the students in the Zangiabad school we visited were Afghans and half of them are undocumented, like Amir Hossein who is 10 years old and was born in Iran. His grandmother is proud that, after her many years of hardship, some of her 21 grandchildren can finally go to school.
“We came from Afghanistan 30 years ago, but a year later I lost my husband. I couldn’t send the children to school. We had a lot of difficulties and suffering. We were homesick, having no husband and having no one taking care of us. My children were orphans”.
By enrolling, but also by trying to keep undocumented Afghan refugees in school, the doors are now open to a whole ghost generation of Afghans, enabling them to live up to their potential in society.