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Iran's Interior Minister Admits Ahwaz's Social Crisis

Ahwaz has this week been singled out by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as one of three cities in Iran facing a crisis in living conditions.

On June 6, Fazli told a parliamentary session: "There are 11 million people who live in shantytowns in Iran, three million of whom live on the outskirts of Tehran, Mashhad and Ahwaz. We have about 2.7 million people in marginalized neighbourhoods, which is a problem that can threaten the country; and the government must monitor their condition and be more watchful about changes in the communities."

He also admitted that the fault lay with the government's budgeting system, which allocated 52 per cent of the resources to Tehran while provinces on the periphery, such as the Balochi populated Sistan va Balochistan and the Kurdish majority Ilam, suffer from a severe lack of resources.

Cities with the highest unemploymentOn the issue of unemployment, he noted: "About 3.5 million people are unemployed in the country and its distribution is not balanced and normal.

"There are areas across the country where more than 60 per cent of people are unemployed, and we should note that an unemployment rate of over 50 or 60 per cent can cause irreparable social damage."

Official government statistics routinely underestimate the true level of unemployment as they are based on the welfare claimant rate, which is likely to be well below the level indicated by standards used by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). But even official statistics cannot hide the uneven nature of poverty in Iran.

According to official figures, of the top 20 cities for unemployment, 19 are in Arab, Kurdish and Balochi areas. While Balochistan has long suffered under-development, the Ahwazi Arab region contains much of the country's oil, petrochemicals, metallurgical and agricultural industries and poverty can only be explained by systematic discrimination.

In Kurdistan, Ahwaz and Balochistan, official unemployment rates are in the 30-47 per cent range, demonstrating that indigenous populations are being subjected to institutional discrimination. Actual unemployment rates are likely to be far higher.

The worst unemployment rate at over 50 per cent, according to official statistics, is in Bashagard in Hormozgan, which is populated by the small Bashagardi ethnic group. Hormozgan also contains a significant Sunni Arab population, which suffers similar rates of poverty due to under-employment and forced displacement.

In the Ahwaz region, the effects of joblessness are compounded by forced displacement for industrial projects, including the development of oil fields, sugar cane plantations and the industrial Arvand Free Zone.

Members of parliament in the Ahwaz region have consistently argued that 1.5 per cent of oil revenues should be held in the area to improve living conditions. However, repeated attempts to secure the money through legislation have been rejected over the past decade or so.

Local politicians have also called for an end to discrimination in the workplace, which they believe is contributing to poverty. According to member of parliament Habib Aghajari, the unemployment rate in the cities of Mashour (Farsi: Mahshahr), Handian (Hendijan) and Emediyeh (Omidiyeh) has risen above 25 per cent. Aghajari called for a moratorium on recruitment of non-local people and reserve all jobs for residents of the area in order to resolve the unemployment problem. Last month, Ahwaz's Friday prayer leader lambasted the authorities for discriminatory labour and housing policies.

Facing ethnic discrimination, many Ahwazi Arabs are resort to the informal sector working as street hawkers to earn a living. However, they are routinely harassed and their stock is confiscated by the authorities, leading to destitution.

Ahwazi workers have sought to confront workplace ethnic discrimination through industrial action, but with little legal recourse this often represents a futile last-ditch effort. Trade union organising is repressed by the Iranian government and politically well-connected employers will often refuse to pay workers.

Groups in the Ahwazi Diaspora are now seeking to establish a corporate social responsibility charter for foreign investors in order to address discrimination and ensure that investment projects enhance quality of life.