Substance use among migrants: the case of Iranians in Belgium

Research Period

1 January 2005 - 31 December 2007


Special Research Fund (BOF)


Marjolein MUYS

Key Words

dynamic patterns of drug use, qualitative methodology, refugees, Iran, hidden populations


A Case-Study among Iranians in Belgium: Methology

From 2005 to 2007, a qualitative study was carried out on substance use among Iranian migrants in Belgium, funded by the Special Research Fund of Ghent University. Data collection occurred through ethnographic fieldwork methods. Starting snowball chains (24) through different channels (low threshold drug treatment, refugee reception, refugee organisations and social services), contact has been established with 129 Iranians, most of whom were in Belgium as a refugee or as a student. Information was gathered in open interviews, informal encounters and social gatherings of Iranians. Nearly one third of the respondents (38) were female. One hundred and thirteen respondents (87.6%) had come to Belgium as refugees. The vast majority of the refugees (98 respondents, 86.7% of the refugees, 76% of the total sample) had arrived in Belgium around the year 2,000 or after.

Close contacts were established with Iranians in order to become familiar with their social and personal realities. During data collection among the Iranian community in Belgium, the issue of gaining trust was very important. As substance use is a taboo topic, I spent a lot of time with the respondent s, organising contacts on different occasions. I engaged in participant observation in the Iranian community in Belgium, in and around several Iranian settings and circuits (restaurants, migrants’ organisations, social and cultural events). The ultimate goal of taking part in the daily lives of Iranian migrants was to find access to Iranian substance users through ‘normal’ social networks. In doing so, contact was established eventually with groups and individuals who have been part of an ‘Iranian drug scene’. In addition, Iranian  (ex-) substance users were recruited through low-threshold treatment centres for substance users. Furthermore, ethnographic fieldwork data were supplemented during open-ended discussions with opinion formers and representatives from the Iranian population. Contacts were also established with ‘outsider’, ‘professional’ Iranian privileged access informants on substance use among Iranian migrants: social workers, a psychologist, a generalist medical doctor, and a psychiatrist

Iranian Refugees in Belgium

Iranian refugees have come to Belgium in two waves. The first waves of Iranian refugees to Belgium easily managed to obtain a residence permit. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the political situation in Iran was sufficient ground for asylum seekers to be granted a residence permit. Since the 1990s, asylum applications have been received more critically. Due to the ever-increasing (since 1998) numbers of asylum seekers, Belgian migration policy has become more and more strict to generate a dissuasive effect on people considering migrating to Belgium. In this way, recently arrived Iranians are excluded from society in many ways: they are excluded from the labour market, they are ‘spatially’ excluded, and they are excluded from participating in society in general.

Within the Iranian community, especially second wave refugees are thought to be substance users. Second-generation and particularly undocumented Iranian refugees are easily linked with substance use. All Iranians (refugees and students) referred to the risks and opportunities for those who do not have a residence permit but who nevertheless remain in Belgium

Substances Used

Opium is reported to be available all over Europe. It comes to Belgium in three different ways: by plain, by boat and by lorry. Finding opium is reportedly not difficult (for Iranians). The opium market has been growing over the last few years, which makes it ‘easily’ available in cities. There are criminal organisations involved, as well as people who start selling opium on a small scale. Exclusion mechanisms, peer pressure and pre-migration opium use give rise to a high demand for opium among Iranians. At the supply side, it is important to consider that Iran is located on the opium transport routes between Afghanistan and Western Europe. Opium is reported to be relatively expensive in Europe, so financially deprived opium consumers are vulnerable to start selling opium so they can afford their own use. Most Iranians involved in opium distribution are reported not to be afraid from formal drug control ‘as long as opium use remains among the Iranians’. However, Iranian respondents mentioned it is also consumed among other (Middle Eastern) migrant groups and Belgians.

I was told that substance use in general and opium use in particular, is not a topic of conversation among Iranians. Users are told to keep their consumption hidden and not to talk about this (to non- users), not even to family members and friends. Substance use outside the cultural context of old men using opium together to relieve the inconveniences of old age, is taboo. Regardless of this taboo on substance use, opium users are represented as not perceiving opium as a ‘drug’. Especially second-wave refugees seem to think that opium is a natural product and they are convinced that it has an effect on the body only, not on the brain. They think they can put it aside quite easily and quit whenever they want. Some distinguish between opium and other substances. They do not perceive opium use as harmful. Opium does not have a bad name because it helps to prolong people’s lives. Many have seen their (grand)fathers and (grand)mothers smoke and are generally not afraid to use it. The long tradition in Iran and its popular use in pre- medicinal times, still has an impact on current views. However, opium users are aware of the negative views of the Iranian community.
Despites its illegal status, almost all respondents stated that alcohol is (easily) available in their hometown and throughout Iran ‘illegally’ on the ‘black market’. Most second wave refugee men had developed a personal pattern of alcohol use, and most of them maintained this patterns. However, there were reports of Iranians having started alcohol use in Belgium.
Refugees from earlier waves and students generally did not smoke in my presence, and even when they did, they smoked less. Most male second-wave refugees did smoke cigarettes in my presence.
I was told, by both first and second-generation refugees, that a majority of the second -wave young Iranian single men smoked cannabis. Some claimed that such use only occurred at parties (probably because they witnessed it on such occasions).
Prescription drugs
Although prescription drugs are not well-thought of in Iran, several male respondents reported using them. This shift in (self) medication of mental health problems can be explained by the easy medical accessibility in Belgium, where problems of refugees are medicalised. Most opium users in the sample had started using methadone in Belgium. Some were using it as part of a treatment for their opium use. Others were just using methadone alongside other substances or were substituting opium with prescription drugs when opium was not (financially) available. People who switch to methadone generally do so because of a lack of money. Taking methadone is a way of maintaining their use: they take it as a preliminary substitute.

The inquiry is based on qualitative methodology. Iranian refugees are invited for an (open) interview concerning their life history (pre-migration trauma in Iran, post-migration stress in Belgium and the role of substance use as a coping strategy).

Motives for Use

When asked about reasons for using substances most respondents gave answers that pointed towards self-medication. Several reasons for self-medication were given: nervousness, thinking about the future and the past, not having to think, ‘making yourself free’, forgetting problems, being ‘away’ from problems, loneliness, stress, boredom, sleeping problems, depression, ... Some of those self-medicating patterns remain, even though the respondents’ situations change. For example: first the stay in the asylum seekers centres is given as a reason for substance use, but once people are regularised their unemployment becomes a problem that requires self- medication.

Opium use among Iranians is generally associated with their adverse situation in Belgium. Many find that their high expectations are not met, they do not obtain a residence permit and they suffer discrimination in Belgium. In such a situation, people may get the feeling they have lost all purpose in their lives. They get homesick and start suffering from nostalgia. Developing nostalgic feelings towards the past is related to the process of ‘othering’. They select images of the past, based on a static construction of Iranian culture as warm and caring in contrast to the construction of Belgian culture as cold and distant. When one cannot feel at home in the new context, one tries to create an imaginary homeland that is ‘there’, ‘back home’. Substances, especially opium, are a recourse during such nostalgic moments and may reinforce them, especially when used in the company of other Iranians

Contexts of Use

According to second- wave refugees, substance use is related to loneliness, as it helps to pass the time. Given their group-oriented culture, Iranians do not like to live alone. They prefer to have company, rather than being alone all day. Some people may start consuming together with people who then become friends. In general, second-wave refugees stressed the social context in which (initiation in) substance use occurred. Substance use among Iranians is to a large extent related to consuming together with friends. This social, recreational contact may result in wide-spread use, as inexperienced people who are invited to such occasions may be offered substances as well. Iranian men use opium as part of a social event: opium is the basis for social contacts. Friends sit together and opium use is part of making fun together and enjoy each other’s company. One respondent compared this kind of use with Belgians who go to a bar together or who smoke cigarettes together.

Another environment second-wave refugees typically end up in are deprived urban areas, where rents are low. Even those who live in centres of Local Reception Initiatives in rural or suburban areas still spend a lot of their time in the city. Most of my appointments were in such deprived urban areas, where substance are easy to find and where unemployment rates among the inhabitants are high. There contacts are being made with equally unemployed, but  ‘lower class people’. People from higher classes in the home country, may become part of a marginalised population of co-nationals due to exclusion processes. Thus people from all kinds of background come together and substance use may be passed from the one to the other. Undocumented Iranians may be encouraged by dealers to use drugs. An Iranian woman told me that sometimes opium is distributed on social occasions.

Iranian substance culture and habits come into the picture when Iranian migrants cannot connect to the mainstream native culture of the host country. In many Iranian social  gatherings, opium is used as part of this Iranian (ghetto) tradition and culture. In some cases, social pressure may force people to join their friends in using opium, in other cases opium can be presented as comfort (also by drug dealers). Initiation into opium use always occurs in a group situation.

In some cases, the social setting of use in Iran is no longer present in Belgium. Once people are no longer financially capable of sharing opium with their friends, they are forced to use alone. Thus migration can lead to intensification of the culturally sustained pattern. A higher proportion of the newly arrived was said to use opium in a less culturally fit manner, like using alone, at a younger age or daily. Because people can no longer use opium in the same atmosphere as in Iran, where opium use is more or less tolerated, opium use becomes increasingly less sociable in Belgium. Some people switch from using with friends to using alone. Reports on use alone were limited, but this might have been a consequence of the fact that people wanted to hide such undesirable behaviour. To consume on your own is very negative behaviour according to Iranian views and traditions.

Valorisation: publications and lectures

  • MUYS, M. (2009). Substance Use among Migrants: The Case of Iranians in Belgium. Brussel: VUBPRESS.
  • MUYS, M. (2008). Drugsgebruik door (recente) migranten: een casestudie van Iraniërs in België, Kwalon, 13, 51-64.
  • MUYS, M. (2006). Theoretisch kader en uitdagingen voor verder onderzoek. Presentation at the studiedag Middelengebruik bij asielzoekers, Broechem (België), 12 December 2006.
  • MUYS, M. (2006), Substance use among refugees: review of existing literature and challenges for further research. Presentation at the Common Session on Criminal Justice and Critical Criminology, Gent (België), 6-8 November 2006.
  • MUYS, M. (2005), Substance use among asylum seekers and refugees: review of existing empirical data within a comprehensive theoretical framework. Paper presented at the 16th ESSD Conference, Manchester (UK), 27-29 oktober 2005.
  • MUYS, M. (2007). Characteristics of life in exile: vulnerability factors for substance use. In FOUNTAIN, J & KORF, D.J. (eds), Drugs in society: a European perspective. Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing.