Undocumented People in Iran – The Plight of the Baloch People
A Baloch Family in Kerman Province, Iran. Image: Sajedeh Zarei/Shutterstock
“I examined 60 patients in Zahedan– that’s the central city of Sistan and Balochistan province in Iran. There were enough vaccines [for everyone], but 50 of my patients did not have any identity documents, so they could not get vaccinated. What a sad moment it was as they left the clinic without getting protected.”
GP Fatemeh Kikhah, quoted by Hamshahri Online.
It’s an all too common problem for the poor, displaced or dispossessed worldwide: those who don’t have identity documents face a serious struggle to gain social, educational, and medical support. Without an ID, one often can’t get a driving license, can’t rent a home, and will even struggle to get a SIM card for a mobile phone. Tragically and most topically in Iran, it seems that even getting a vaccination can be prevented by the lack of valid paperwork. Iran has so far received over 6,000,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX alliance that aims to ensure that even the poorest global populations receive a jab. That remains a relatively tiny number compared to Iran’s total population of over 85,000,000 people, and the country has been one of the ‘world’s leading refugee hosts for over 40 years’ due to spill-over from many regional conflicts in the Middle East. However, reports suggest that, despite assurances, Tehran is not always upholding the WHO’s key principle that refugees and migrants should receive universal, equal access to vaccines regardless of migration status. More to the point, it seems that many of those who are being refused inoculations for lack of papers are not (or claim not to be) migrants at all. Yet, they have found it hard or impossible to obtain ID registrations. Anar Tabrizli looks at some of the cases.
How Many Undocumented People?
Government statistics for the number of undocumented people in Iran have not been released, and figures from other sources vary considerably. Country-wide, there could be as many as one million undocumented children, according to Tayyeba Siavashi, a member of the 10th Iranian parliament. Massoud Rezai, a former member of the Iranian Parliament's Social Commission, offered a somewhat lower estimate in an interview with the Khane Mellat News Agency, repeating a rumour that there could be an overall total of around a million undocumented people of which perhaps 400,000 are children. Some researchers have estimated that there are around 100,000 in Sistan and Balochistan province alone.
Balochs off the Ballots
The ‘paperless problem’ seems to disproportionately affect the Baloch (aka Baluch) people who traditionally inhabit the arid regions straddling Western Pakistan and Southwestern Afghanistan, as well as Southeastern Iran.
“I do not have an identity document.” Image: www.Snn.ir
The government of Iran claims that most of the undocumented Baloch people in Sistan and Balochistan are not Iranian at all but migrants from neighbouring countries. It’s an outwardly easy claim to make given the similarity of language and ‘look’ that Iranian Balochs share with their brethren in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, Baloch activists strongly disagree and see such claims as clear racial and religious discrimination against Balochs (who are typically Sunni). Such activists also insist that long-established places of residence along with distinct dialect and dress should make it relatively easy to identify which of the undocumented Baloch people are long-term residents of Iran and thus eligible for Iranian citizenship. Such factors could be established by a "simple local inquiry plan." However, at present, for the unregistered, the process of identification to achieve citizenship requires a complex series of enquiry procedures involving the provincial security council, the civil registry, and the police/security agencies. In addition, a mandatory DNA test costs some 5,000,000 Rials (over US$100) which is way beyond the pockets of the already vulnerable applicants. Most live below the poverty line. The sheer expense of such a series of procedures often makes it impractical for them to pursue their cases even when they would eventually be fully eligible for IDs. For those who can and do fight, it can take years before they are successful.
Many more are caught in a bureaucratic no man's land, for example, children born to women after ‘temporary marriages’ with non-Iranian fathers. Such children are also likely to be denied birth certificates. Without ID, they will be refused treatment from government hospitals or entry to most schools, ensuring a continuous cycle of economic hopelessness. The result has been a growing problematic emigration to the outskirts of Iran’s megacities, where the undocumented adolescents become street kids.
Children in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province, March 2017. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The lack of ID even affects one’s death. One report interviewed a young girl without ID papers called Shafi, bitterly noting that people like herself, after succumbing to COVID, were even denied a proper burial. “When they were alive, they did not have a document to live, when they die they are buried without any ceremony; Every day from the cemetery next to our house comes the sound of wailing and moaning; we have become neighbours with death.”
A few have found alternative ways of getting papers. Some claim that being a Shiite rather than a Sunni Muslim can help. Others have found that joining the Revolutionary Guard can do the trick, but that’s a very tough route. As Baloch activist Abdul Sattar Doshoki puts it, “Unfortunately, during recent years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has promised some undocumented families that if they join the IRGC, they will be given an identity card. This means exploiting the people of poverty by IRGC. This is a violation of the human rights of people who have been born in Iran for generations but are not considered Iranians.”
A Different Twist on the Same Problem for Iran’s Azerbaijani Minority
Iran operates a list of ‘approved’ options from which all Iranian parents are expected to select the forenames of their offspring. While the list is long, it misses plenty of names that would seem fairly standard choices to Azerbaijani families. When such a name is selected, the registration authorities will not automatically issue a birth certificate, instead suggesting that the parents choose an approved name – typically Persian and/or with Shiite religious connotations. For those who insist on sticking with the originally chosen Azerbaijani name, what can follow is a long bureaucratic battle. Eventually, many cases have been won eventually – for example, Elhan and Elnar were eventually added to the official list after a long fight. However, the unnecessary legal hurdles are widely perceived as being a tool to discriminate against overtly Azerbaijani names and part of a system of long-term Persianisation of Iran’s minorities. Meanwhile, many names are still being disputed, leaving babies including Oghuz, Tarkan, Sevgi, Ayil, and Anar undocumented, in contravention of article 7 of the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.