1156 GMT June 19, 2019
Addressing a ceremony held in Tehran to commemorate 30 years of partnership between UNHCR and the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants' Affairs (BAFIA), Sivanka Dhanapala recited a poem from eminent Iranian poet Sa'di in both Persian and English.
"Plant the tree of friendship for it brings boundless joy,
Uproot the sapling of enmity because it brings endless suffering."
Dhanapala said UNHCR and BAFIA have planted a tree of friendship over the past 30 years to relieve the suffering of refugees.
The UNHCR official noted that Iran has had a long tradition of providing asylum and humanitarian assistance to those in need.
“The country showed tremendous generosity without any hesitation to millions of refugees fleeing the war in their countries during the 1980s,” he said.
Dhanapala also said talks were initiated in the early 1980s with Iran and the first UNHCR office was established in July 1984 to extend support and allocate resources to refugees.
"Since then, so many projects have been developed in collaboration with Iran in such an innovative way that refugees took the utmost advantage," he said.
The UNHCR official said over the past 10 years, many refugees have voluntarily repatriated to their countries of origin, however 1 million of them are still living in Iran.
"Iran has one of the largest populations of refugees in the world, mostly Afghans," he said, naming Turkey and Lebanon as the top two with regard to the number of refugees, most of whom are Syrians.
Dhanapala said many Afghan refugees are not ready to return to their countries because of their specific needs, vulnerabilities, protection and safety concerns.
Refugees pose challenges
Ahmad Ahmadifar, the head of BAFIA, praised all benevolent people around the world for their humanitarian works.
"These people work to alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity," he said.
Ahmadifar said there are many reasons for people’s migration.
"On the one hand, wars and living under the threat of terrorism and on the other hand, the dream of achieving well-being force people to leave their countries and move to others," he said.
The BAFIA chief noted that the rising number of migrants, asylum-seekers and war refugees could present numerous challenges to the hosting nations and impose heavy costs on them.
"The largest population of refugees arrived in Iran in the late 1970s. People displaced by wars entered Iran in groups of more than 100 people," he said, noting that the country met their basic needs immediately for humanitarian purposes.
Ahmadifar hoped Afghan refugees would return and be welcomed by their compatriots in a respectful manner.
More than 1.5m refugees
Deputy Interior Minister for Security and Law Enforcement Hossein Zolfaqari said 1.5 million legal Afghan refugees are living in Iran.
"As many as 1.5 million undocumented ones are also residents of Iran,” he said.
"There is adequate evidence showing every 24 hours, 1,500 Afghans enter Iran illegally, adding to Iran's domestic woes."
Zolfaqari declared that Iran is serving legal and illegal refugees equally with respect, meeting their needs.
"A total of 17,705 Afghans have graduated from Iranian universities and an additional 11,000 are studying in different universities," he said.
“About 22,000 Afghans have been covered by health insurance, the number of whom will increase to 94,000 in the near future.”
Noting that 36,000 Afghans are studying in Iranian schools, Zolfaqari said Afghan students do not face any discrimination.
The deputy minister criticized certain media outlets and powers for distorting the image of Iran concerning refugees and said Iranians are very hospitable and have a high sense of empathy for people worldwide.
Zolfaqari said powerful nations are behind the surge in the number of refugees and those who are fleeing their countries as a result of wars.