Rafsanjan Settlement is situated about 15 kilometres outside of Kerman city in southern Iran. It hosts 5,500 Afghan refugees, making it the largest refugee settlement in the country. Picture: Hamid Sadeghi/NRC
Coronavirus

Dreams on hold in Iran

For a group of Afghan refugees in Iran, 2020 was going to be the year they prepared for a brighter and more prosperous future. Training courses in their refugee settlement offered a ray of hope for overcoming the challenges they have faced. But these hopes have now been brought to a standstill due to Covid-19.

For more than 40 years, Iran has provided a sanctuary to Afghan refugees. Many have grown up in exile. Iran is the only home they have ever known.

The busy Rafsanjan settlement in the south of the country hosts around 5,500 Afghans, making it the largest refugee settlement in Iran. Those living here are all considered de facto refugees by the Government of Iran . Despite the efforts of the government and aid agencies, many of them are still struggling to secure a reliable income, making it difficult to afford basic necessities such as food, medicine and health care.

Iran's de facto refugees

Iran has been hosting Afghan refugees since 1979. Currently, there are between 3 and 3.5 million Afghans in Iran. Nearly one million are considered to be de facto refugees. This population has a renewable document called an “Amayesh card” which gives them access to free primary and secondary education, subsidised health care, temporary protection while in Iran and the right to work in certain job categories, among other rights. Nearly half a million have Iranian visas, and the rest are considered to be undocumented.

 

Hopes for the future

Alireza, 33, provides for his family of four and supports his parents and siblings. This makes him the sole breadwinner for a household of ten.

“It would really help us to find better work if we could learn new skills,” says Alireza.

To respond, in 2018 the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) teamed up with the Technical and Vocational Organization of Iran (TVTO) to host training courses preparing Afghan refugees for a range of occupations. With financial support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), this programme enrolled 24 Afghan adults on courses including architectural design, and advanced plumbing technology and practice.

“We were introduced to these courses through NRC’s announcements in the settlement,” adds Alireza.

Shortly after Alizera and the other students completed the first round of basic classes in 2018, some successfully found jobs in Rafsanjan city, a great improvement for them and their families. However, some soon realised that they needed to upskill further to find a job in a competitive market.

Afghan refugees attend a vocational training course on theories of architectural design at a settlement in Kerman, Iran. The training was funded by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). Photo: Roya Maleki/NRC
Read caption Afghan refugees attend a vocational training course on theories of architectural design at a settlement in Kerman, Iran. The training was funded by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). Photo: Roya Maleki/NRC

Taking the reins

Alizera initially completed the architecture course so that he could be employed in the construction sector. But he and his fellow students from this course found it difficult to find work with just this certificate. They saw that their fellow settlement dwellers found it easier to find work with additional skills. Therefore, Alizera and his peers initiated discussions with the settlement manager and NRC to offer their observations and suggestions for how to increase their skills.

“We learned the theory and some practice in 2018, but more practical classes are now needed for us to get better jobs,” says Alizera.

NRC received funding from DANIDA to begin this second round of courses and planned to begin them in early 2020. These courses would cover advanced electrical work and welding. They were due to include 12 participants and last for seven months.

But the programme came to a sudden halt as the Covid-19 epidemic broke out in the country in February. Most group activities had to shut down immediately.

“We were promised a second round of these courses at more advanced levels, and we signed up for them, but now everything has been put on hold due to coronavirus,” Alireza explains.

Afghan refugees attend a vocational training course about methods of piping, which included practical exercises in Kerman, Iran. The training was funded by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). Photo: Roya Maleki/NRC
Read caption Afghan refugees attend a vocational training course about methods of piping, which included practical exercises in Kerman, Iran. The training was funded by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). Photo: Roya Maleki/NRC

Coronavirus in Iran

Iran has one of the highest numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases in the Middle East and Asia. The first two deaths from Covid-19 occurred unexpectedly on 19 February 2020, and the virus quickly spread.

NRC rapidly adapted its programmes to focus on the immediate needs of vulnerable populations at risk of Covid-19. We have been ensuring that households and health centres have the appropriate hygiene facilities to protect themselves against the virus.

In order to respect social distancing recommendations, our vocational training courses have been put on hold. The unexpected break to the much-awaited advanced courses before they even began has been a let-down to those who were relying on this training to boost their skills and job prospects.

With support from NMFA, NRC is providing thousands of soaps to Afghan families living in settlements in Iran to encourage hand washing, the most effective preventive measure for COVID-19. Distribution is paired with hygiene promotion messaging through different leaflets reinforcing key points provided by the Ministry of Health. Photo: Shahin Shadian/ NRC
Read caption Our teams preparing hygiene kits for distribution in Tehran province, Iran. Photo: Shahin Shadian/ NRC

Plans on hold

Coronavirus prevention measures have dramatically transformed our daily lives and can create a sense that life has been put on hold. Without knowing when the prevention measures may be lifted, millions of people across the world are unable to plan for the months ahead. This is a feeling shared by this group of Afghan refugees who struggle to make ends meet and had been eagerly waiting to further develop their skills and knowledge.

When the Covid-19 emergency stabilises in Iran, NRC will be looking at resuming some of its learning activities, including the TVTO courses. For the time being, our priority is to protect the people we serve with preventive measures such as social distancing and avoiding unnecessary gatherings. We are also actively advocating for the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) activities, and are providing soap, hygiene kits and information about coronavirus preventative measures.

We look forward to the resumption of TVTO courses and other learning activities that require gatherings in Iran as soon as the world begins to heal from the coronavirus pandemic.

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In 2019, NRC supported over 91,000 vulnerable people in Iran, including displaced Afghans and Iranians affected by natural disasters. A total of 5,332 individuals benefitted from our livelihoods programmes in 2019.

Read more about our work in Iran