What is it like to live on the margins of a metropolis in Iran today? Those who do are confronted with some of the most serious crises facing the country today, with social, economic, political and security repercussions. Various groups and organizations have reported on and collected data about the predicaments of margin-dwelling in Iran but, despite the significance of the subject, the reliable statistics needed for in-depth political, social and economic analyses either do not exist or have not been made public.
This is the fifth in a series of reports about living on the margins in Iran. Here we look in depth at margin-dwelling in the province of Hormozgan, and especially its capital Bandar Abbas. IranWire will aim to use available statistics and data, as incomprehensive some of it might be, to arrive at an accurate picture of the phenomenon of living on the margins in Iran and the crises emerging from it.
With 1,000 kilometers of coastline and 14 islands in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian province of Hormozgan sits on top of one of the most strategic waterways in the world. Every day, more than 17 million barrels of oil, or 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments, pass through the Strait of Hormuz. And yet, to the north of the coastline there is poverty and despair as far as the eye can see.
The geography of this region has played a cruel joke on the people of Hormozgan. To the south of the same waterway sit the prosperous United Arab Emirates and Qatar, with booming economies, while the provincial capital of the Iranian province, the ancient port city of Bandar Abbas that was supposed to become the Persian Gulf’s commercial hub, is now a visible symbol of poverty and margin-dwelling. The weight of poverty in the city is so heavy that even the government-supported Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation has raised its voiced in protest. While on average five in 100 families in Iran look to the foundation for survival, in Hormozgan it is eight in every 100 families.
Today, instead of being a symbol for development, Bandar Abbas has turned to a long chapter in margin-dwelling and urban ills — a city that even the World Bank’s financial assistance could not save from misery [PDF]. For two years from 2004, the World Bank financed the building of clinics, schools, paved streets and parks. After that it was left to provincial and local government organizations to continue the work and attend to unauthorized dwellings and shantytowns, but the crisis was so deep that 13 years on after the World Bank’s project, there is little sign of improvement.
Many projects have come and gone, and today Bandar Abbas serves as the pilot for a government project called “Renewal of Decayed Urban Areas and Unauthorized Dwellings.” But, if the past is any indication, it is likely that Bandar Abbas will not be better off after this government project is complete. In a city where one out of every two residents lives on the margins, bandaids are not going to heal the wounds.
A Brief Chronology
1. The Starting Point
When it came to the central government’s investment and attention, this small town was first overshadowed by the port of Bushehr under the Qajar dynasty, which ended in 1925, and the first Pahlavi king, Reza Shah (1925-1941) and then by the ports of Abadan and Khorramshahr in the Persian Gulf under Mohammad Reza Shah. In 1956, the population of Bandar Abbas was less than 15,000.
Bandar Abbas got its chance for development in the second half of the 1970s under the shah. The project aimed to turn Bandar Abbas into a hub of shipping in the Persian Gulf, but the 1979 Islamic Revolution and then the war with Iraq (1980-1988) disrupted the process.
2. Forced Development
In the second half of the 1970s, tensions between the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the shah’s government rose to new heights. The two most important Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf, Abadan and Khorramshahr, were close to Iraq and authorities knew they would be vulnerable in the event that hostilities between the two countries broke out — as was later proven by the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. So Tehran decided to create a safe alternative to those ports, especially Khorramshahr.
Four years before the revolution, Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization presented a project to turn Bandar Abbas into a full-fledged port and commercial hub. It was far from Iraq, was closer to international shipping lanes and sat on top of the Strait of Hormuz. Dutch consultants did the research and planning, and the job of constructing the port was given to Italians.
The revolution interrupted the construction, but in early 1980, it was resumed and the first terminal was opened in September 1984. During the war this port played a very important role. The west of Iran was engulfed by war, the southeast was in disarray and the north had neither the required infrastructure nor a gateway to international waters, so most of the imports came through Bandar Abbas.
“It was the war that drove the development in Bandar Abbas,” says Malek Reza Malekpour, the first administrator of the port after the revolution. “Were it not for the war in Khuzestan, companies in the service sectors would have refused to come to Bandar Abbas from a well-developed area like Khuzestan. These companies were experienced in banking, insurance, unloading and cargo transportation. So the urban development of Bandar Abbas was not due to a grand national plan but happened because of pressure to exploit the port without delay.”
3. The Revolution’s Whirlwind
So for a while after the revolution, Bandar Abbas was booming due to war. But then things slowed down for several reasons.
In the years after the revolution, the economic growth in Iran has lagged far behind the population growth. According to Masoud Nili, President Rouhani’s economic advisor, the per capita income of Iranians is 30 percent less than what it was before the revolution.
But unbalanced development started even before the revolution. The shah’s White Revolution in the early 1960s, which included a nationwide land reform and redistribution, overturned the population balance between the villages and the cities. But after the Islamic Revolution this creeping imbalance turned into a crisis when waves of migrants from villages and small towns decided that even marginal living in big cities was preferable to the conditions under which they found themselves. The factors driving these waves of migration included the revolution, the war, continuing political and economic instability and the polarization of Iran between centers of industry and trade on one hand and vast underdeveloped areas on the other.
So while Bandar Abbas had a booming economy after the revolution, at the same time, the cities and villages in the southern parts of the neighboring provinces of Fars and Shiraz, and even in the Hormozgan province itself, were stagnating. The result was a “lose-lose” acceleration of migration. In such a situation, the sources of migration lose their chances for revival and the target cities are faced with the enormous task of accommodating and absorbing the destitute migrants.
The Islamic Revolution contributed to this process in another way as well. Almost immediately after the revolution, in what has been referred to as “Shack-Dwellers’ Revolution,” many villagers rushed to illegally occupy areas along the shores of Bandar Abbas, offering the justification that “the land belongs to God.” This “revolution” succeeded in creating shantytowns around Bandar Abbas that, 40 years later, still persist and constitute some of most problematic neighborhoods of margin-dwelling in Iran.
Hormozgan Province (Source: Google Maps)
II. Margin Dwelling and Urban Decay
According to official estimates, 46 percent of the population of Bandar Abbas, or more than 240,000 of its inhabitants, live in decayed urban areas and unauthorized dwellings. The situation in other towns in the province is not much better. Available statistics show that in six other cities of Hormozgan — Minab, Rudan, Hajiabad, Bandar Lengeh, Bandar Kong and Bandar Khamir, as well as on Qeshm Island, more than 126,000 people live in decayed urban areas and shantytowns.
Looking at these two sets of figures, it can be concluded that somewhere around 400,000 of Hormozgan’s inhabitants live on the margins of the city. This is close to 40 percent of the urban population, or 25 percent of the province’s total population.
1. Population Changes in Bandar Abbas and Hormozgan
According to the 2016 census, around 2.22 percent of Iranians live in the province of Hormozgan. Of these, 55 percent live in urban areas; Bandar Abbas’ share of the urban population of the province is likewise 55 percent.
According to the same census, the population of Bandar Abbas was more than 526,000, while the population numbers for 2011 and 2016 were around 435,000 and 367,000 respectively. By comparing these numbers, it is clear that the rate of population growth in Bandar Abbas has been twice the growth rate of urban population in Iran as a whole. In other words, in the five years between to two latest censuses, the population of the city increased by more than 20 percent, a major part of whom have ended up in unsafe shantytowns and decayed urban areas.
The average population density in Hormozgan is 25 per square kilometer, and around 12,000 in the city of Bandar Abbas. The population density in Bandar Abbas is 3,000 less than Tehran, and 3,000 more than Mashhad, a city known for the vast number of its margin dwellers. But to better understand these numbers, it’s important to take another factor into account. The problem of population over-congestion is felt much more in cities with low buildings than in cities like Tehran and Mashhad with their numerous high-rise apartment houses. The lower the height of the buildings, the less space is available to people.
2. The Causes of the Population Increase
The statistics show that the increase in the urban population of Bandar Abbas and Hormozgan is driven less by native births and more by migration, which still continues in force. According to the latest census, between 2011 and 2016, around 116,000 migrants were added to the population of the province, of whom more than 91,000 settled in urban areas. Of this number, more than 52,000 migrated to Bandar Abbas while, during the same period, the city’s population increased by 94,000 in total, meaning that the majority of the increase was due to migration.
About a third of these migrants came from other areas of the Hormozgan Province, followed by migrants from the neighboring provinces of Kerman and Fars.
3. Economic Blessings
Although Bandar Abbas did not become the booming economic hub that was promised, it has received enough economic benefits to remain a magnet for migration, even though it has not been very successful in accommodating them.
According to the latest statistics, in 2015, Hormozgan’s share of Iran’s gross national product was 2.13 percent. More than 55 percent of Iran’s imports and exports go through Bandar Abbas, and Hormozgan is the base for Iran’s fishing industry as well. In addition, the most important of Iran’s free trade zones — the islands of Kish and Qeshm and Bandar Rajaei — are part of Hormozgan. Put together, these make the province one of the most active areas in Iran’s economy.
Hormozgan’s industrial sector is performing well overall. Close to 2,170 industrial units are located in the province, employing more than 65,000 people. According to employment statistics for 2017, Hormozgan’s rate of labor participation is 39 percent, one percent lower than the national average, and the province’s rate of unemployment stands at nine percent, 3.1 percent lower than the average rate for the whole country. In absolute terms, this is a negative picture, but in relative terms it is better than many other Iranian provinces.
4. Social Ills
Margin-dwelling and social ills are closely connected. Margin-dwelling is very widespread in Hormozgan and, as a result, the province suffers from widespread social ills and crimes too.
According to Hormozgan’s law enforcement officials, the top social ills in the province include: “drug addiction,” “personal quarrels,” “unemployment,” “motorcycle theft” and “family disturbances.” And sociologists have also expressed concern about the rate of divorce in Hormozgan, which, according to 2017 statistics, was 1.6 per thousand marriages in the province and 2.2 per thousand in the city of Bandar Abbas.
In 2017, the newspaper Ghanoon Daily published a shocking report about woman addicts and so-called “card-boarders,” women who live in streets and alleys without any shelter other than cardboard boxes. Entitled “Bandar Abbas’s Alleyways of Shame,” the report painted a harrowing picture of girls and women who are the victims of predatory drug dealers and who are mostly ignored by the government and healthcare centers except when they become eyesores in more prosperous neighborhoods or thoroughfares and are removed by the police.
“According to an official report by the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development’s Center for Studies, 13 margin-dwelling neighborhoods have been identified in Bandar Abbas,” said Mohsen Bakhtiar, member of the board of directors of the Institute to Save Southern Victims of Social Ills in October 2017. “But, unfortunately, the studies have missed a very important neighborhood that I believe is a factory for social ills in Bandar Abbas. In this neighborhood, almost 400 people live under 60 tents without water, electricity and other amenities. According to statistics gathered by our NGO...320 of them are women and children and 80 are men. Most of time the men remain in tents while the women and the children are working.”
5. Natural Hazards
Hormozgan is highly vulnerable to natural hazards. Besides the threat of floods, earthquakes, landslides and even tsunamis, in recent years, drought has posed a threat to society in southern Iran. With 33 geological faults, Hormozgan is the third highest earthquake-prone province in Iran. Add these threats to the vast areas of urban decay and unsafe dwellings, authorized and unauthorized, and a very unsettling image of Hormozgan emerges.
And it is not only the 400,000 people who live in decayed urban areas and shanty towns who have reason to fear natural disasters. The villagers and the residents of small towns in Hormozgan are also in danger.
III. Is the Situation Inevitable?
The phenomenon of margin-dwelling and people living in shantytowns is one of the biggest crises Iran faces and Hormozgan, with close to 400,000 margin- dwellers, is one of the more fragile Iranian provinces. The extent of poverty, social ills and the threat of natural disasters in the province are causes for concern.
But natural disasters and drought can account for only so much deprivation. So to answer the question “is this situation inevitable?” it is useful to look 100 kilometers to the south at flourishing towns in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and even Oman to see that geography does not explain everything, and cannot be blamed for poor social conditions.
Read the full Living on the Margins in Iran series:
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