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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 14:53 GMT
Iran's Afghan refugees feel pressure to leave

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Tehran

Subadeh Nasseri and her cousin
Afghan refugees now have to pay for their children's education
Thirteen-year-old Sudabeh and her sisters sit glued to the television watching a Hindi pop star tossing her long silken hair around in time to the gyrating music.

It's the middle of the day and their Iranian friends are at school but as Afghan refugees they have to pay for education this year for the first time.

That meant only one child in the family could go to school and predictably Sudabeh's brother Khusrow was chosen.

For a man who works as a gardener in the municipal parks, $150 for every child is a lot.


"This decision by the Iranian government will force Afghan refugees to go back to their own country because we simply cannot afford these fees," says the childrens' father, Ghasser Nasseri.

Though he has a university degree he's spent the last 12 years in exile in Iran doing manual labour because he wanted his children to have a better future.

"Every time I see Iranian school girls in their uniforms going to and from school I get really upset. Tears come to my eyes because for an educated person it's very hard to have uneducated children," he says.

The family has reluctantly decided to return to Afghanistan next spring because of this problem of education.


At the Khane Koudak-e-Shoush (Shoush Childrens Home), a literacy centre for street children in South Tehran, the number of Afghan children has doubled this school year.

They have nowhere else to go and the centre offers free education.

Like the Iranian government, the organisers blame the United Nations refugee agency for creating the problem.

They say UNHCR's decision to withdraw their subsidies for refugee education triggered the crisis.

"When it comes to the facilities and budget that UNHCR should have allocated to the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran... naturally when that's cut then education stops as a result," says Ali Akbar Esmailpour from the Society for Supporting Childrens Rights that runs the centre.

A school in the Shoush region of Iran
Afghan refugees have been denied access to public services in Iran
But the UNHCR says at best the subsidies were only about $8 per child, a tiny fraction of the real cost.

They say they withdrew the subsidy because the Iranian government said it was going to charge fees.

The huge difference in quality of life between Iran and Afghanistan means that UNHCR believes some incentives to repatriation are acceptable.

Denial of basic education is not, however.

"I think physical threats, psychological pressures are not acceptable - such as arrests and detention - and I would say that education - particularly primary education - are part of those pressures that are not acceptable," says UNHCR's head of mission in Tehran, Philippe Lavanchy.


Step by step Afghan refugees in Iran are being denied basic services - they're not allowed to buy medical insurance any more, to rent a house without government permission or open a bank account.

It's official Iranian policy that all the remaining one million Afghan refugees in Iran should go home within the next 18 months.

The education policy has sparked small protests by Afghan women and children outside UN offices and the Afghan Embassy.

"The sin of our children is only that they are refugees," read the banner in one such protest.

And in a sign of how desperate Afghan refugees are for education, informal schools have begun to open up in recent weeks.

They are given a licence to open to teach the Holy Koran - not offer a primary education.

In one such school in south Tehran nearly a thousand children study in two different shifts.

The building is a gymnasium with cotton curtains dividing the different classes. Younger children sit on the floor, there are no toys, no playground and only one toilet.

"They were always asking for money all the time and calling us Afghans," said one little boy who went to an Iranian school until this year.

Born in this country he now knows he no longer belongs here.


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