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"Sphere opened up a new world to the humanitarian community in Iran"

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The representative of the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran, Nazanin Kazemi has worked with refugees for nearly 16 years. In the following interview, she discusses the impact of Sphere principles and standards on the country's humanitarian community.

"The international aid community in Iran is very small," says Kazemi, "even though we have the most protracted refugee crisis in the world. It's now over three decades. At its peak, we had three million registered refugees. Now, we have one million registered and many more unregistered."

Struggling to help humanitarian organisations respond to a crisis "consistently overshadowed over the years," Kazemi has become the Sphere focal point in the country.

[Question] How did the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran (ICRI) come into being?

[Nazanin Kazemi] In 1992 for the first time, the Iranian government asked for international assistance to address the needs of the refugee population, which was mainly made up of Afghans and Iraqis.

The international NGOs that responded to that call felt that they needed a coordinating body, so they created the ICRI. Our mandate was not implementation but coordination, the dissemination of information about the refugee situation in Iran to the international community and also bringing in NGOs and donors to assist with it.

As the Iranian government wanted us to become more of an implementing agency, we decided that capacity-building would allow us to satisfy that requirement while being faithful to our original mission. And that's how we got involved with Sphere over the years.

How have you built capacity when it comes to Sphere?

We translated the 2011 edition of the Sphere Handbook as well as the previous one into Farsi. The launch of the 2011 edition took place last October and was attended by some 100 participants, including government officials as well as local and international NGOs.

Unfortunately, we were not given a permit to do training as soon as the 2004 edition was out. So this time, we made an effort to move into training immediately after the launch. We had already secured permission to hold training with funding from the Norwegian Refugee Council.

We have already implemented one workshop for the Iranian Red Crescent Society and another for international and local NGOs as well as UN staff. We have three more training workshops in the pipeline, including one for the Ministry of the Interior.

So far, everything has happened in Tehran, but we would like to take this to the national level, go to the provinces, do some training of trainers, because the interest is there. For instance, the Iranian Red Crescent Society uses the Sphere Handbook a great deal. And they would like to have their own Sphere trainers.

You mentioned the Ministry of the Interior. How is your relationship with the government?

The Iranian government wants the international community to come in to help. They are very keen on training and capacity-building, especially for disaster-preparedness, as we unfortunately experience a good deal of disasters every year. So the relationship is good.

One needs to understand that in comparison to what the government has spent on refugees over the last 30 years, the international community is bringing in very little funding. That means we don't always have the grounds to request much.

To work in Iran, like in any other country, you have to function within the parameters that are set for you. There are restrictions. For instance, everything requires a permit. However, training and disaster-preparedness, readiness, response, risk reduction - these are things that, with proper negotiation and funding, can be fruitfully done in Iran.

How has Sphere been received in Iran?

At the time of the launch of the Handbook, the representative of the Ministry of the Interior stated how important was to have Sphere incorporated into our national disaster-preparedness plan, as well as having training on Sphere nationwide. The Red Crescent Society echoed the same sentiment.

The Iranian Red Crescent Society, which is very highly placed in the national disaster plan, has been our partner in the translation of the Sphere Handbook and it is a very good sign that we are now negotiating to take the training beyond Tehran. This means that humanitarian standards and the Sphere spirit are somehow being incorporated at the disaster-preparedness level nationwide.

If you had to summarise what Sphere means in Iran, what would you say?

In many ways, Sphere is a new concept in Iran. Not that disaster response and training are new. But the fact that there can be an easy-to-read field manual is. Farsi is not a language for field manuals - that's why the translation of the Sphere Handbook was so difficult.

But it's not just Sphere as a handbook. The fact that humanitarians can get together and create such a product through such a participatory process - that is new too.

Humanitarian standards are something we don't talk about in Iran. International humanitarian law is rather an elite subject, only discussed at university level. The average person working in the humanitarian field probably knows nothing about the Humanitarian Charter or the Code of Conduct.

So the fact that what we do every day as goodwill, as volunteer work, as humanitarian response actually has a structure, a philosophy, a legality behind it in the global sense is something that not all the actors know.

Do you think that having the Sphere handbook in Farsi plus the training will help democratise these concepts?

Absolutely. These concepts haven't been hidden; it's just that they weren't readily available.

The Sphere Handbook has made this information more accessible. It's free of charge. It doesn't involve an agency having to buy something. Even the training is free. And for those who are hungrier, we refer them to the Sphere website and e-learning course.

So Sphere has opened up a completely new world to a sector that is known to actually take this information forward. I have no doubt that those who were trained have gone back to their organisations and, at the very least, have shared the website with their colleagues.

The trickle-down effect can be enormous and I think it has already started, which makes us incredibly hopeful.

What are the main challenges for the humanitarian community in Iran?

One challenge is the protracted nature of the refugee situation, compounded by the fact that the international sanctions have really hurt us. Despite the fact that humanitarian agencies are supposed to be exempt from the consequences of the sanctions, we have been very badly affected, be it because of banking restrictions or the difficulties of securing funding.

There is also the perception that Iran is a wealthy country, which means we don't qualify for international assistance. However, Iran needs more assistance for its refugee population and international donors should not forget that this protracted situation continues.

We understand that other emergencies take precedence when they're really hot, as Syria is right now, as well as Yemen. But Iran needs to move a little further up in the queue.