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Iran forces Ahwazi migration in Asaluyeh through deliberate environmental pollution

While it’s true that all parts of the world are facing critical levels of environmental pollution, the problems facing Ahwaz in southwest Iran are unique.  On a global scale, urbanisation and industrialisation, along with economic development, have led to increasing manufacturing, soaring energy consumption and waste disposal problems, with the environmental pollution from all these factors causing pollution of the land, air and freshwater, as well as the seas and oceans. All this pollution has a direct negative impact on human health, as well as on the ecosystem.

While mismanagement, corruption, internal crises and lack of state facilities are primary causes of environmental pollution in many nations, the pollution is usually an incidental by-product of those problems. In Ahwaz, however, the massive pollution is widely viewed as part of a deliberate policy by the Iranian regime to drive the indigenous Ahwazis from their once-verdant lands in a form of ethnic cleansing by stealth. With Ahwaz housing over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by the Iranian regime, the presence of the Ahwazi people and their claim to their ancestral lands is seen by the regime as a threat to its control and wealth. For the regime, using oil and gas drilling and refineries, industrialisation and the resulting pollution, in addition to relentless persecution, as tools to make this land uninhabitable for its native people, is a way to drive the indigenous Ahwazis away, either to other areas of Iran or overseas before repopulating it with ethnically Persian Iranians.  

As well as seizing large swathes of land across Ahwaz for oil and gas drilling and the construction of related refineries, with massive pipelines snaking across the landscape, the regime in Tehran has also made the region a heavy industry centre. The indigenous Ahwazi people have received none of the benefits from these initiatives, being denied employment, which is reserved for ethnically Persian Iranians brought to the region especially, except for a very few menial jobs, and receive none of the billions of dollars in profit; the only thing they’ve received an abundance of is the resulting choking pollution. While many Ahwazi villages and towns have been razed to make way for industrialisation, with their people fleeing to ghettoes which have mushroomed around the region’s cities, those who remain often live cheek-by-jowl alongside refineries and petrochemical plants which belt out thick black smoke around the clock. Adding insult to injury, the regime is also engaged in an ongoing policy of dam-building on the region’s three large rivers, diverting much of their waters to other regions of Iran.

The terrible environmental effects of these disastrous policies are felt by all Ahwazis, including the people of Asaluyeh and Kharj Island where ill health due to the choking pollution from the oil and gas refineries and petrochemical manufacturing plants is the norm rather than the exception. 

Nearly 90,000 Ahwazi citizens in Asaluyeh county and Kharj Island both in Abu Shahr province (Bushehr in Farsi) live in unimaginable conditions due to this pollution, with the vast majority living next door to or near the aforementioned refineries. As always, despite owning these facilities and being aware of their horrendous environmental effects, the regime refuses to introduce any measures to protect citizens’ health, to save their community or to repair the pollution-wracked ecosystem in those areas.

According to official state reports from Iran, the routine and massive air and marine pollution resulting from the mismanagement of these state companies in Kharj Island have caused an existential threat to the island’s population, numbering 8,000 in total, who face a high risk of malignant diseases and ultimately of displacement as a result. Kharj Island is one of the most polluted areas in all of Iran, so the citizens and the coast of the island face serious danger due to the presence of oil companies that do not adhere to international protocols to protect health and the environment from any kind of pollution. 

Kharj Island, located 57 kilometres northwest of the city of Abu Shahr can be considered the most important economic zone for Iran in crude oil exports, with more than 90% of Iran’s oil being exported from this island. The massive pollution resulting from these operations is having a devastating effect on the local people and on the island’s surrounding coral reefs and marine environment, which is one of the most distinctive marine areas in the Arabian Gulf. [1]  

The Director-General of Environment in Ahwazi region of Abu Shahr, Farhad Gholinejad, has acknowledged this problem, stating, “The spread of high levels of oil pollution in the Arabian Gulf, specifically Kharj Island, causes problems for marine life, as well as for coastal residents, which requires serious measures to prevent such pollution.” Gholinejad further noted that the town of Bid Khun in  Asaluyeh county is considered the area worst affected by pollution in Ahwaz and the whole of Iran. [2]

Despite the severe pollution in  Asaluyeh due to the density of industrial facilities there, the Iranian regime refuses to provide statistics on diseases in the county. In a further cruel twist, the authorities have also prevented the people of  Asaluyeh city from donating blood for citizens of Bid Khun suffering from diseases resulting from the pollution, with Farhad Gholinejad citing the area’s exposure to malaria as the reason for this decision. 

Shokrallah Farokhi, Head of the Oil, Gas and Energy Pollution Control Secretariat at Bushehr University of Medical Sciences, has even reported the presence of heavy metals in the urine of Asalouya Elementary School students. He also noted the high prevalence of allergic eczema, allergic rhinitis and asthma among primary and middle school students. Farokhi said that the prevalence of asthma among  Asaluyeh students is around 10.89% with the risk of lung cancer being approximately 1.03%, the highest rate in all the regions of the Middle East. In other studies, Farokhi indicated that the prevalence of throat cancer increased by 23 per cent among citizens who live within a kilometre of petrochemical facilities, as most of the people in  Asaluyeh and many other Ahwazis do. [3]       

Iranian studies have reported that soil and water pollution in  Asaluyeh is widespread due to the presence of refineries and petrochemical facilities in the middle of residential and agricultural areas. According to some studies, air pollution in  Asaluyeh is 100 times worse than that in Tehran, with Iranian studies further stating that pollution caused soil erosion and the extinction of animal and plant species in  Asaluyeh and Kharj Island. [4]   

Among the most common conditions afflicting the people of Asaluyeh and Kharaj Island as a result of this chronic pollution are shortness of breath, migraines, anaesthesia, miscarriages, skin diseases, chronic bronchitis, cancer, blood disease, increased depression, lethargy, anger, and high rates of autism in children. 

Ali Omar, a British environmental expert, pointed out in an interview with DUSC that all these negative environmental factors, particularly such high levels of environmental pollution, pose a serious threat to human health and the ecosystem. Omar noted that pollution is responsible for rising rates of dangerous diseases in society, as well as forcing people to choose between involuntary or forced migration and enduring intolerable conditions and chronic illness for themselves and their families. He further noted, “forced migration is a violation of international law because it targets the social, heritage and economic rights of citizens,” with chronic poverty and unemployment adding another factor forcing people to migrate elsewhere. 

“There are three types of environmental migration according to the International Organisation for Migration, which force people to migrate because of environmental issues,” Omar explained. “These environmental issues can vary between different continents and regions. For example, extreme weather conditions which are uncommon cause forced migration such as climate displacement for people in Mozambique who have witnessed cyclones such as Cyclone Idai. This can affect them in a number of ways, but the social effects of immigration are the most common, such as the trauma for the elderly and family separation.” 

Omar also emphasised that forced migration has additional economic implications because those forced to migrate people tend to work in their ancestral trades, such as farming, raising livestock, fishing, or in local industries. Therefore, displacement literally targets the heritage and economy of these citizens, a double affliction in addition to the danger caused to their health and lives by pollution. Hence, he said, governments must observe international resolutions to protect humans and the environment from pollution or face escalating crises of migration. While international laws require states to strive to avoid intentional pollution or pollution caused by mismanagement so that human life and dignity are not affected, this legislation is treated with contempt and flatly ignored by totalitarian states like Iran’s. 

Conclusion

  Pollution is a major concern for the Ahwazi people generally, and the Ahwazi residents of Asaluyeh and Kharj Island particularly, having a disastrous impact on human health and the environment. While there are a number of different emission sources for this pollution in  Asaluyeh and Kharj Island and the rest of Ahwaz, as elsewhere, the mismanagement of industrial processes are responsible for by far the largest part of the pollution, with several reports revealing a direct link between exposure to poor air quality and increasing rate of morbidity and mortality mostly due to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among residents there. 

Pollution not only affects the ecosystem and the health of people, but also targets the economy, heritage and social aspect of citizens or forcing them to migrate. The Iranian regime’s indifference to the wellbeing of the Ahwazi people shows that it is deliberately harming the environment in Ahwaz generally and Asaluyeh and Kharj Island in particular. This has a devastating effect on the quality of life and on the ecosystem, blighting the lives of the indigenous people of  Asaluyeh and Kharj. Forcing people to choose between migration or living in an intolerably polluted contaminated environment leading to serious diseases is a violation of international law and a form of unofficial ethnic cleansing that amounts to a crime against humanity.

The Iranian regime continues to increase its oil and gas extraction operations in Ahwaz and to seize the land of the indigenous Ahwazi people, who are denied their ancestral heritage and forced to choose between living alongside these facilities in intolerable conditions, denied jobs, rights or any way of making a living, or to migrate elsewhere; this is not accidental, but a very deliberate policy designed to force people to migrate and destroy their local economy and culture. Iran’s failure to abide by international laws and regulations and to provide a healthy environment for Ahwazis makes it a party to ethnocide. 

By Kamil Alboshoka

Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka

References

[1] BBC Persian, November 2019. Link <https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-50559750>  

[2] Iran News, January 2020. Link <https://www.magiran.com/article/3999866>

[3] Ibid

[4] Asr Iran Newspaper, September 2018. Link <https://bit.ly/2RvecCv>

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