Rafsanjan Settlement in the southern province of Kerman hosts aboud 5,500 Afghan refugees. Photo: Hamid Sadeghi/NRC

What quarantine looks like in a refugee settlement

The busy Rafsanjan settlement in the south-east of Iran is home to thousands of Afghan refugees. When the pandemic reached the settlement in early June, everyone was put under quarantine so that those who contracted the virus could be identified, contact-traced and attended to. Other settlements quickly followed suit.

But while the quarantine measures were appropriate for protecting health, they meant no income and no food for an unknown period of time for the refugees living there.

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, many refugees in Iran were struggling to secure a reliable income and afford basic necessities such as food, medicine and healthcare. Many of them were day labourers, who set out every morning to find paid hourly work.

Their chances of finding this type of informal work have been significantly reduced due to the worsened economic situation that the coronavirus outbreak has brought. Now, with the quarantine on top of everything else, life has become unimaginably difficult for some.

The Mohajerin Settlement in Semnan is home to almost 4,000 refugees. Photo: Mahmoud Ghahremani/ NRC
Read caption The Mohajerin settlement in the central province of Semnan is home to almost 4,000 refugees. Photo: Mahmoud Ghahremani/NRC

Assistance where it’s needed most

“Our situation was already dire, but we could work periodically and earn some money to buy food. The coronavirus outbreak has really worsened our situation, not only for my family, but everyone that I know,” says Matin*.

He is a day labourer in the Mohajerin settlement in the central province of Semnan, and has not been able to leave the settlement to find a job for over a month.

In response, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) stepped up to provide much needed financial assistance to nearly 10,000 Afghan refugees inside two settlements, in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs. The work was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NMFA) and the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO). The aim was to provide the refugees with enough funds to sustain themselves until the quarantine was lifted.

A banner at the door of the settlement's community council announces distribution of cash cards to the residents in Rafsanjan, Kerman. Photo: Javid Rostami/NRC
Read caption A banner at the door of the settlement's community council announces the distribution of cash cards to residents in the Rafsanjan settlement. Photo: Javid Rostami/NRC
Iran hosts over 3 million Afghan refugees

Iran has been hosting displaced Afghans since 1979. Currently, there are between 3 and 3.5 million Afghans in Iran. Fewer than one million are considered to be de facto refugees.

These refugees have a renewable document called an “Amayesh card” which gives them access to free primary and secondary education, subsidised healthcare, temporary protection while in Iran and the right to work in certain job categories, among other rights. Nearly half a million other Afghans have Iranian visas, and the rest are undocumented.

Even those who had regular work felt the pressure from the settlement lockdown. Zeinab, 25,  used to sew uniforms and outerwear to support her family of seven. She says that she has not been able to buy materials or deliver completed products because she could not leave the settlement and go to the city, as she normally would.

“It's become very hard to meet our needs in terms of food and medicine. I used to receive tailoring orders from outside the settlement, but I have not been able to collect orders or deliver clothes since the lockdown began,” she explains.

People line up to buy food and groceries at the market in Mohajerin Settlement in Semnan following the cash distributions by NRC via WFP cards, generously funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: BAFIA
Read caption People line up to buy food and groceries at the market in Mohajerin settlement following the cash distributions by NRC, generously funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: BAFIA

The urgent assistance from NRC came as a relief to the settlement dwellers. Zeinab says she immediately bought basic food items such as rice and beans that could last them for the next couple of weeks. “It has really been immensely helpful and has also allowed us to buy some fruit for the first time in a long while,” she says.

The price of Covid-19

“The cash assistance has saved my family and children,” adds Matin. “We spent this money to buy food for maybe a month, but everything has become more expensive.”

The inflation rate has been increasing in Iran over the past few months. For instance, the price of rice has increased by up to 40 per cent. This has affected the ability of vulnerable families to meet their basic needs.

What worries the refugees now is what happens next time they run out of the items they have bought and whether the quarantine will be lifted by then. Some also worry about finding a job even if there is no more quarantine.

“We do not know what we will do once we run out of food again if the lockdown persists. Someone should come up with a more permanent solution,” Zeinab says.

Unable to protect her children from Covid-19

Mina* has a family of four and has just recovered from Covid-19. She says her husband is the breadwinner but has not left the house for over a month.

“We live in really cramped conditions here. When we get sick, we cannot self-isolate like we’re told, so it was hard to avoid getting my children sick,” shares Mina. “We have all recovered now, but we’ve not been able to leave the settlement to earn money.”

Mina is grateful to receive assistance from NRC. “Although the cash assistance is a temporary fix, it was still a big help. We have now bought essential items such as rice and pasta to keep us going for a while longer.”

But she says that they now need to think about what they will do if the settlement stays quarantined for more weeks. “We cannot rely on this for too long.”

NRC in Iran and our Covid-19 response

Since 2012, NRC Iran has assisted displaced Afghans as well as their Iranian host communities. We work to improve protection and access to basic humanitarian services across nine provinces, and coordinate closely with NRC operations in Afghanistan. In 2019, NRC assisted 89,519 individuals in Iran.

In April 2019, we expanded our operations to provide assistance to those affected by floods, and since early 2020 we have been expanding our programme further to support the Covid-19 pandemic response.

Our efforts have focused on providing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions which include restoring or establishing appropriate facilities in schools – for example critically needed hand-washing stations. Additionally, we are providing cleaning kits for schools and urban health centres. We have also scaled up our cash assistance to vulnerable Afghans to help them to maintain quarantine when required to prevent further spread of the virus.

Despite the Covid-19 outbreak, the challenges and the adjustments required for programme implementation, NRC Iran has assisted 28,103 people in the first quarter of 2020 through our various activities in the areas of water, sanitation and hygiene, education, infrastructure, livelihoods and food security, protection, and information, counselling and legal assistance.

As the Covid-19 outbreak continues and other refugee settlements proceed to go into quarantine, NRC is planning to continue the distribution of cash cards and personal hygiene items through late July and early August in a third settlement in Bardsir, Kerman province. With the generous support of the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and additional support from GFFO, 1,200 families, or nearly 5,000 individuals, will be able to buy basic food items while they are quarantined.

Read more about our work in Iran

* Name has been changed to respect the individual's wish for anonymity.