Friend or foe? The plight of Afghan refugees in Iran

Iran was once hailed as an exemplary hosting country, due to its acceptance of Afghan refugees fleeing the 1980s Soviet War. But after 40 years, is Iran’s generosity running out?
Frode Bjorshol/ CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Iran and Afghanistan have a rich shared history. Parts of Afghanistan were once jewels of the Iranian Empire and the country’s population, particularly Persian-speaking ethnic groups, still share many cultural practices and references with Iran. However, Afghanistan’s recent history, in which it has been plagued by war and conflict, has created a huge influx of refugees into Iran, occurring non-stop since the 1980s.

Today, Iran hosts roughly one million Afghan refugees officially (the unofficial number might be as high as 3 million), 97% of whom are urban dwellers and only 3% remain in settlements, according to the UN. The vast majority live around Tehran, Iran’s capital. Most of these Afghans arrived during the 1980s and the Persian-speaking ethnic groups of Hazaras and Tajiks represent about 70% of all Afghans in Iran.

Iran’s generosity in hosting such a vast number of refugees, with virtually no support (financial or otherwise) from the international community, should be acknowledged. But the prolonged conflict in Afghanistan has kept refugees from returning home and even pressured more to cross the border into Iran.

The living conditions and rights of refugees in Iran have deteriorated and a 2013 Human Rights Watch report stated that, since at least 2002, Iranian authorities have made it difficult for Afghans to register as refugees in the country and the border between the two countries has been sealed by Iran since 2001. Still, Afghans continue to seek refuge in Iran.

The involvement of some Afghans in drug trafficking in Iran has led to increased discrimination against them. Iran has a severe problem with drug addiction and Afghanistan’s drug production and smuggling is a key contributor to the growing number of addicts. Since well-paid job opportunities for Afghans are low, in Iran and Afghanistan, some become traffickers, which in turn damages the Iranian society’s perception of their presence.

Problems with registration

In 2003, the Iranian Government re-registered all Afghans that had come to Iran during the 1980s and 1990s, providing them with an Amayesh card, that regulates their legal status in the country. This status is limited and cardholders must renew it several times, undergoing complex bureaucratic processes. In case they miss the deadline for registration and are found using an expired card, they risk being deported back to Afghanistan immediately.

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Those asylum-seekers who arrived after the 2002 Amayesh registration process, find it almost impossible to lodge a refugee claim, according to the same Human Rights Watch report, and remain unregistered, constantly at risk for deportation.

Instead, they must attempt to register with the government as migrants and present a passport, an Iranian residency visa and a work visa, if they want to be employed. A costly process for many Afghans who are already financially strained.

Lack of freedom

Even if you are registered as a refugee in Iran, Afghans still face heavy restrictions, as indicated in this Human Rights Watch map. For example, they are officially banned from several provinces in Afghanistan, such as Lorestan or Mazandaran and are partially banned from many others, such as Fars or Kerman. The only provinces where they have freedom of movement are in Tehran and Qom, which explains the number of urban refugees in those areas (an estimated 97% live in urban areas).

They also face barriers to employment, access to citizenship and education. Afghans are required to give up their refugee status if they wish to enrol in a university degree, and not all programmes are made available to them. If they want to marry, particularly with an Iranian national, they will also find it challenging.

Leave or go to Syria

For young Afghans in Iran, there are little-to-no job opportunities. They are not allowed to go to university and retain their refugee status and are discriminated against. Even if they have never stepped foot in Afghanistan and were born in Iran to Afghani parents, they might be at risk of deportation.

Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war requires soldiers, so the Iranian Government can offer a deal: If Afghans fight in Syria by joining the Fatemioun, the Afghan military unit of the Revolutionary Guards, they will regularize their status in the country permanently, thus avoiding deportation.

According to Human Rights Watch, some Afghans are coerced into joining the unit, some do not receive any training before being deployed and may also not be given the promised amount of money. If they attempt to flee, they are imprisoned.

A sign of progress

Despite the worsening situation for Afghan refugees in Iran, there has been some progress. A 2015 decision by the Iranian Government to make school mandatory for every child in Iran has finally allowed thousands of Afghan children to enter a classroom.

Since 2017, Iran has also allowed Afghan refugees to have access to healthcare, through a universal health insurance scheme, which the UNHCR deemed “trailblazing”.  

Two times a refugee

Iran is not alone in denying refugees their rights. From Brazil to Israel and Europe, many countries are guilty of abandoning refugees.

What makes Iran’s case particularly sad was its previous success in hosting vast numbers of Afghans with dignity and respect, even though there have always been some restrictions. Lately, however, the situation has deteriorated to the point that many Afghan refugees coming to Europe are actually Iranian-born and raised. They are second-generation refugees fleeing from their host country; a cycle that perpetuates itself as prolonged conflicts generate ‘host country fatigue’.

Iran’s case is now exemplary in the sense that shows us the consequences of poor integration policy and how it can fuel hate.

As Iran continued to limit the rights of Afghans, they became increasingly alienated by mainstream society and the only way some of them found to make a living – the drug trade – contributes to an even more negative image of Afghans in Iranian society.

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As decades of unregistered children were barred from receiving an education, those who are now coming of age might find that there is little opportunity for them in Iran and be enticed by participating in the Syrian civil war, in exchange for stability and rights.

When Afghanistan was being ravaged by the Soviet troops and later the Taliban, Iran helped many Persian-speaking ethnic minorities and saw it as its duty to protect the Shia population of Afghanistan. But the overstretch of resources and the increase of sanctions led Iran to assume a more isolationist posture. Under the illusion it could completely control the flow of people into its territory, it created what are now generations of refugees born in Iran who cannot call the country home, but to whom Afghanistan is also an unknown land.

Europe is, therefore, the next stop for many such refugees. But if Europe should follow in Iran’s footsteps and is unable to offer this generation a future, leaving thousands stranded on its shores,  where should Afghan refugees go next to find refuge?

Human Rights
Margarida Teixeira

Margarida Teixeira works for a women's rights organization in Lisbon, Portugal, that advocates for gender mainstreaming in Portuguese society and works on a variety of topics. She has previously worked for human rights and humanitarian NGOs in France and Croatia.
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