The preliminary 1986 national census figures included approximately 2.6 million persons listed as refugees of foreign nationality. The largest number, consisting of slightly more than 2.3 million, were Afghans. The refugees from Afghanistan were concentrated in several refugee camps in eastern Iran, but approximately one-third of them were living in such cities as Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tehran at the time of the census. In addition, there were nearly 300,000 refugees from Iraq, with which Iran had been at war since 1980.
The influx of foreign refugees was the direct result of war on Iran's borders. Since early 1980, the Afghan refugees had been fleeing the fighting in their country between various Afghan resistance groups and government forces assisted by more than 100,000 Soviet troops. The Iraqi refugees were expelled by their own government, which claimed that they were really Iranian descendants of persons who had immigrated to Iraq from Iran many years ago. In addition to refugees of foreign origins, Tehran has had to cope with several hundred thousand Iranian civilian refugees from the war zones.
The Iraqi advance into Khuzestan in the fall of 1980 resulted in extensive damage to the residential areas of two of Iran's major cities, Abadan and Khorramshahr, as well as the destruction of numerous small towns and villages. The intensive shelling of the large cities of Ahvaz and Dezful also destroyed residential neighborhoods. Consequently, tens of thousands of civilians fled southwestern Iran in 1980 and 1981, and the government set up refugee reception areas in Shiraz, Tehran, and other cities removed from the battle zone. During the Iraqi occupation of Khuzestan, the government had to shelter up to 1.5 million refugees. Efforts to resettle at least some of the refugees were undertaken in 1983 after Iran had recaptured much of Khuzestan from Iraq; however, continued fighting in the area and Iraqi air strikes on cities and towns in western Iran resulted in a steady stream of displaced civilians in need of food and shelter.
During the period 1980 to 1981, the government of Iraq expelled into Iran about 200,000 persons whom it claimed were Iranians. Most were Iraqi citizens, sometimes whole families, who were or had been residents of Iraq's Shia shrine cities and also were descendants of Iranian clergy and pilgrims who had settled in the religious centers as far back as the eighteenth century. In most cases, the refugees had never been to Iran and could speak no Persian (Farsi). Furthermore, they were required to leave the greater part of their possessions in Iraq. Thus, the Iranian government had to provide them with basic food and shelter.
Developing policies to deal with the Afghan refugees became a major burden for the government as early as 1984 because the number of Afghan refugees had continued to increase almost daily since the first group crossed the border in 1980. Iran, however, received virtually no international assistance for the Afghan refugees. It set up several camps in eastern Iran where the refugees were processed and provided with basic shelter and rations. These camps were located in or near towns in Khorasan and were provided with certain municipal services such as free access to public schools for registered refugee children. Although no data have been published on the gender and age composition of the refugees, press reports indicate that most were probably women, children, and men too old to fight, as in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Most of the young men probably remained with the Afghan resistance forces for the greater part of the year.
Although the Afghans were required to live in the special refugee camps, by 1986 an estimated one-third of them had left the camps and were living in residential areas of large cities such as Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tehran. The Afghans apparently came to the cities in order to earn money to support families who remained in the camps. They engaged in street vending and worked on construction sites or in factories. The Iranian press periodically reported on the roundup of such Afghans and their forcible return to the camps. The Afghans needed special work permits, but it was not clear whether these were difficult or easy to obtain or whether private employers required them as a condition of employment.
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