Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Politics of Refugee Policy in Post-Revolutionary Iran

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Politics of Refugee Policy in Post-Revolutionary Iran

Article excerpt

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has hosted the largest refugee population in the world. The Iranian experience with hosting, maintaining, and repatriating this large refugee population represents an important, yet underexamined, dimension of contemporary Middle Eastern affairs. This article provides an overview of post-revolutionary Iranian refugee policy and highlights some comparative lessons that can be drawn from Iran's experience with its refugee population.

Even as NATO bombs were still falling on Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999, that military onslaught was quickly overshadowed by the riveting spectacle of the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanian refugees. For scholars and policy makers alike, the sheer scale of human suffering once again served as a stark reminder of the consequences of the dislocation of such large populations. Those consequences range from the wanton violation of basic human rights on individual and group levels to the potential destabilization of entire regions in which such events take place. Despite the gripping despair of the Kosovar, Bosnian, Rwandan, Kurdish and Haitian refugees of the 1990s, the focus and political will of the international community has not yet coalesced enough for the formulation and execution of rapid and integrated responses to such events. Clearly, as a result of the intense glare of the modern mass media, the pressing need for the development of such a response by the international community is evident. While the prevention of such massive ethnic and demographic dislocations should be a priority, the immediate questions of assistance and more long-term considerations such as maintenance, repatriation, and integration remain highly problematic and need to be considered just as seriously. In addition, the need for such a response to integrate the capabilities and needs of developing countries into its processes is absolutely critical. Such countries are, more often than not, those which are most greatly affected, as recently demonstrated again by the Albanian and Macedonian experiences with the Kosovar refugees.

In an effort to underscore the need for a comprehensive took at the role of developing countries in refugee crises, this article examines the experience of one such country, Iran, with large-scale refugee flows. In particular, it seeks to clarify Iranian efforts to cope with the refugee question over the last two decades. Due to Iran's unique geopolitical environment it has been repeatedly forced to cope with large-scale refugee inflows. Little attention has been paid to Iranian policies toward those refugees. Over time, Iran's policy has reflected an evolving realization of, and response to, its political and economic limitations. This has altered its policy from being relatively open-door to one that is based on a clear unwillingness to take on more refugees. At the same time, current Iranian policy appears to have struck a somewhat successful balance between the limits of its capabilities and the pressing need to respond effectively. The primary objective here is to draw lessons relevant to the international community's efforts to formulate more effective ways of dealing with this issue, as well as to highlight the important contributions that developing countries can make to that effort. It is also important to note at the outset that while four case studies are addressed here, the treatment is far from exhaustive. Their inclusion, even in an admittedly general sense, is aimed at establishing the broad outlines of the evolution of Iranian refugee policy.

WHY IRAN?

No other country in the world is more intimately aware of the challenges of confronting large-scale refugee flows as the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the past 20 years, Iran has hosted the largest refugee population in the world, primarily rooted in the influx of over 2.6 million Afghans following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and including 1. …

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