Iran has a duty to take in Syrian refugees

If Iran is helping to sustain the Assad regime, then why should it not accept its share of Syrian refugees?

A Syrian refugee feeds his daughter after they arrived on a dinghy, from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece [AP]
A Syrian refugee feeds his daughter after they arrived on a dinghy, from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece [AP]

The photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy, whose body was discovered on a beach near the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, will haunt the world for generations to come. Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan, are the most recent victims of a global tragedy in Syria, a disaster with more responsible parties than can be counted. Having failed to flee to freedom, their dead bodies were returned for burial to their hometown of Kobane.      

According to one report ,  the conflict in Syria has produced upwards of four millions Syrian refugees outside the country (even more are internally displaced), from a total population of 22 million. Nation states outside the region have pledged to resettle less than two percent of the refugees.

If, like me, you have been transfixed by your screens, watching the plight of a fraction of those crossing European borders from Hungary to Germany you will experience only an inkling of the horrors Syrians have faced.

Crisis response

Inside Story – Desperate journeys

Europe claims it faces its most serious refugee crisis since World War II. The question which arises is what are the countries in the immediate vicinity of Syria doing in response to this crisis?    

Of the more than four million Syrian refugees, almost half of them, the largest concentration, have gone to Turkey . In addition to Turkey, Camp Zaatari in Jordan has received tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. There are also Syrian and other refugees scattered throughout the Arab and Muslim world, particularly in Lebanon.      

There is one glaring case of a Muslim country that is heavily involved in Syria but has yet to accept a single Syrian refugee, and that is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iceland, which has a population of just over 300,000 residents, has accepted scores of Syrians, but not a single refugee has been admitted to Iran. Why not?

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Iran’s influence over the conflict in Syria is wide-ranging and direct. The Iranian ruling regime has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad no matter how murderous his war crimes against Syrian people.

Iran does not have a particularly rosy record of hospitality towards people who have sought refuge within its borders.


There are of course many other countries directly and indirectly responsible for the catastrophe in Syria. From Turkey to Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies, from the United States to other European and regional allies, there is scarcely any county that is exempt.    

But in order for that fact not to become a mere truism, we must hold specific countries responsible for their actions. If Iran is so directly involved in sustaining the atrocities of the Syrian regime which have caused this humanitarian disaster, then why should Iran not accept its share of Syrian refugees?      

The fact of a political phantasm

Iran does not have a particularly rosy record of hospitality towards people who have sought refuge within its borders. Afghan refugees have been subject to racism by both the ruling regime and by certain segments of Iranian society.

As soon as Iranians travel to Europe or to the US they are very quick to criticise signs of Islamophobia and racism, but they scarce cast a critical gaze at their own behaviour.    

Iran’s protection of the murderous Assad regime but unwillingness to accept any responsibility for its role in Syria raises another more serious dilemma.

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Syrian and other refugees from the Arab and Muslim world are drawn to Europe and to Germany in particular, by the spell of a political phantasm which is informed by more than just social realities, economic forces, and political intransigence. They are drawn to Europe, a continent sometimes alive with right-wing neuroses, because they look at their own immediate neighbours, from Turkey to Iran to Saudi Arabia, as chiefly responsible for the bloody predicament from which they are running away.      


The Arab and Muslim world faces a debilitating moral crisis today, particularly exacerbated by the aftermath of the Arab Spring which initially raised high hopes. Those ideals are now in despair due to the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The record of the ruling regime in Iran in aiding and abetting the Assad regime and yet refusing to accept responsibility for its consequences, is emblematic of a revolting political culture in which human lives mean very little, and the survival of tyranny means everything. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.