One year after Covid-19 first arrived in Iran, thousands of Afghan refugees are struggling to deal with the financial impact. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has been present on the ground providing much-needed cash assistance.
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Reyhaneh* lives in Rafsanjan settlement in the southeast of the country. She is a mother of two and is pregnant with her third child.
Many women in this settlement used to work to help support their families. Even before Covid-19, the economic situation was not easy for many Afghans in Iran. But when the pandemic reached the settlements the situation got worse, forcing many refugees to use their savings, borrow money and reduce their food consumption.
“When my husband was not working, we had to use our savings,” says Mahgol*, another Afghan refugee in the settlement and a mother of five. “When there is no money, our food consumption decreases. Families like ours were unable to buy fruit and vegetables. I tried to make at least one proper meal per day.”
Mental and financial pressure
In order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the refugee settlements in southern Iran have been placed in quarantine twice: once in June and once in November and December. During these periods, nobody was allowed to enter or leave the settlements – unless they needed to reach a health centre.
As most Afghans work outside the settlements in casual and seasonal jobs, such as construction and agriculture, movement restrictions meant they could not earn any money during that time.
“My husband used to work outside the settlement every day or sometimes three to four times per week. But during the quarantine we all had to stay at home for 40 or 45 days, which put us under pressure both mentally and financially,” says Mahgol*.
Quarantining in a crowded environment is not easy. Families here share toilet facilities, and houses are very near to each other. But even when the movement restrictions were lifted, it was challenging for the residents of the settlements to find work.
When the first quarantine was lifted, residents went back to work outside the settlements and were in contact with people that had the virus. Inevitably, the virus soon reached the settlements and people got sick. When it became known that Afghans residing in Rafsanjan settlement had coronavirus, employers did not want to hire workers from there.
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 documented and have either Iranian visas or a 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.
The other Afghans in Iran are considered to be undocumented. Only 3 per cent of Amayesh cardholders live in refugee settlements, while the rest live in urban and semi-urban areas, alongside Iranians.
“Even though we are not in quarantine anymore, the job opportunities have decreased,” explains Mahgol*. “Covid-19 has impacted the financial situation all over the world, and Iran has been more affected than most because of the sanctions. This also has affected the refugees. We do not earn much and I cannot afford to buy food and fruit anymore because the prices have increased by five or six times.”
She continues: “My husband and I cannot meet our needs in the way that we could one or two years ago. For me, providing food, clothes and internet access for my children who are studying online are the priorities. I try to give my children nutritious food so they become less sick, as we would be unable to pay for any medical costs.”
Cash assistance provides a lifeline
In order to help Afghan refugees meet their most urgent needs during the Covid-19 pandemic, NRC has provided two instalments of cash assistance to thousands of families living in the settlements in Kerman province. This was possible thanks to the generosity of the German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO) and was done in cooperation with the World Food Programme, using their multi-purpose cash-based transfer (CBT) system.
“We spent the cash assistance on food – for example, rice, meat, grains and cheese – and cleaning materials. The assistance was good and helped us solve some problems. For some families, the food lasted for around a week or ten days but for my family it lasted for a month,” says Reyhaneh*.
“NRC’s cash assistance helped people when the situation was at its worst,” adds Mahgol*. “I know a family who could not work regularly and were in a very bad situation. The children were suffering from poor nutrition but they did not let anybody know. There are many families like this in the settlement.”
“With NRC’s help, they could buy the food they had not been able to afford. I could see the happiness in the eyes of the people in the settlement after they received the assistance.”
Sustainable work is needed
While the assistance has been very timely, Afghan refugees now need support to find sustainable and regular work. “The assistance was good but now the situation is getting bad again and help is needed,” says Mahgol*.
Reyhaneh* adds: “Now, if my husband finds a [day] job we can make ends meet for one or two days. It has been very difficult to save money. Anybody in the settlement who does casual work has the same story as ours.”
Meanwhile, inflation continues to impact families in different ways. In 2018, the United States reintroduced economic sanctions against Iran, causing a devaluation of the Iranian Rial, unprecedented levels of inflation and general economic decline.
“I cannot find the materials I need in the market or else they are very expensive, and because of this it is more difficult to fulfil my tailoring orders. I hope that the situation might improve one day,” says Reyhaneh*.
“When there is no construction and materials become more expensive, the demand for daily workers decreases,” adds Mahgol*.
* Indicates that name has been changed to respect the individual's wish for anonymity.
GFFO support to NRC Iran
Activities funded by the GFFO have included the provision of multi-purpose cash assistance, which was distributed in refugee settlements and among displaced Afghans in urban areas. Additionally, under GFFO funds, NRC’s cash assistance also reached Afghans and Iranians affected by floods in Sistan and Baluchestan province through our emergency response team.
Thanks to support from the GFFO and through our education, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), information, counselling and legal assistance and livelihoods activities, we helped more than 40,000 individuals between 2019 and 2020.
NRC in Iran
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.
Despite the challenges brought by Covid-19, our teams have been able to adapt, respond, and continue supporting vulnerable people during the pandemic. In 2020, NRC Iran reached over 120,000 individuals (a 33 per cent increase from 2019), supporting both Afghan women and men as well as vulnerable Iranians affected by natural disasters.