Afghans in Iran: Contradictory State Policies and a Grassroots Anti-Racist Movement

Part III of a series on Afghan refugees in Iran.

Earlier this year, I begun a series highlighting the experiences of Afghan refugees in Iran. By focusing on cultural production, particularly film and literature, I wished to elucidate the conditions of 2-3 million individuals making a living away from their war-torn homeland as well as to explore the various narratives produced by their migration. While the previous posts dealt with Afghan and Iranian cross-cultural production in order to demonstrate an inter-connectivity between peoples, in this post I seek to discuss the contradictions in state policy towards the Afghan refugee population and the grassroots efforts to combat racist enforcement.

Iran is home to one of the the largest and oldest refugee population in the world, with over 1 million registered refugees and another 1.5 million residing in the country without documents. Since 1983, Iran has been working with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide shelter, food, housing, and repatriation for many of these migrants. The Islamic Republic often lauds itself for what it views as its benevolent treatment of refugees, particularly for allowing them to work in the country as low-wage laborers and covering their expenses. The clip below from the IRI’s English news agency PressTV highlights the official line towards refugees– one of accommodation, acceptance, and good will.

The clip makes a clear distinction between those documented refugees and those who have entered the country without obtaining documentation. Whereas documented Afghans are provided with basic needs such as housing in refugee settlements, undocumented refugees do not receive the same benefits as their registered compatriots and are forced to live in the shadows of urban areas to avoid deportation. As the clip suggests, there are many Iranians working to alleviate the conditions of these undocumented refugees, but the state itself has taken a harsh stance towards unregistered Afghans.

The Islamic Republic has done a commendable job incorporating documented refugees into the Iranian economy and providing for their needs. Since 2008, the IRI has issued conditional workers permits to those long-term refugees who have been guaranteed by a local citizen. This move has provided a sizable portion of the Afghan refugee population with financial security without fear of deportation. Additionally, the Government of Iran’s Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA), has invited several state-run and non-governmental organizations to be based in the capital in order to strengthen regional responses to the displacement of documented refugees. The UNHCR video below shows the success of the workers permit program in Iran.

While documented refugees are fortunate enough to be aided by the state, the same cannot be said by the 1.5 million undocumented Afghans that have arrived more recently. As the numbers of those displaced have swelled in recent years, Iran has refused to issue refugee status to those migrants arriving post-2005. This has increasingly incorporated a good Afghan/bad Afghan prism: while good Afghans are indeed given access to a wide range of social services and occupational opportunities, the undocumented face widespread discrimination.

Over the last decade, the Islamic Republic has stepped up its campaign to expel undocumented refugees, which make up approximately two-thirds of the Afghan population living in Iran. In 2007, Tehran announced that it aimed to expel approximately 1 million unregistered refugees by March 2008. While IRI was unable to transfer such a substantial population due to a lack of resources and logistical concerns, it did manage to deport up to 360,000 undocumented residents in 2007 alone.

The Islamic Republic had also begun taking “security measures” at the Iran-Afghanistan border in order to prevent the influx of new refugees. In the clip below, Afghans near the border share their experiences at various border crossings, often mentioning maltreatment at the hands of border guards and the use of live ammunition.

Even more recently, Iran revamped its plan to remove the unregistered population, this time offering $150 for a volunteer repatriation and free transportation. However, there are documented instances of violence and coercion towards detained refugees. In the video below, military personnel are seen humiliated a group of undocumented refugees; the officer in the video orders the Afghans to hit themselves on the head and to shout “We will never come to Iran anymore,” while the other guards laugh.

While there are many examples of Iranians welcoming their neighboring brothers and sisters, these clips illuminate instances of intolerance and abuse towards incoming refugees. It is important to note that this issue is not specific to Iran, for many countries with substantial migrant populations (such as the US and European states) have quite vocal segments of society who view new comers, documented or undocumented, as economically destructive and culturally threatening. This antagonism and fear of migrants is generally wildly overplayed; indeed, these working migrants have been beneficial for both the home and host nation: afghan laborers have played an active role in rebuilding Iranian infrastructure following the ceasefire with Iraq while remittances from these workers have helped bolster Afghanistan’s economy. Despite this mutually beneficial coexistence, absurd and often borderline comical fear-mongering persists.

In a rather hilarious clip, Iranian cleric Mehdi Daneshmand, voices his concerns about the growing population of Afghan refugees during a rather informal sermon. In the video, Daneshmand claims that the situation of the Iranians is more dire than that of the Palestinians, and that Afghans are secretly planning to take over Iran through immigration and martial arts training.

While this viewpoint has been articulated in a rather ridiculous fashion, Iranian lawmakers and officials have also brought these intolerant perspectives into legislation. On March 30, 2012, Isfahan’s Committee to Facilitate Travel, banned Afghans from Sofeh Park in order “to ensure citizens’ welfare” several days before Sizdeh Bedar, an Iranian and Afghan holiday celebrating the 13th day of the New Year. Several weeks later, the deputy governor-general of Iran’s northern Mazandaran Province, Hadi Ebrahimi, announced that all Afghans had to leave the province by July 2nd, irrespective of their legal status.

Almost instantaneously, social media outlets and the Iranian blogosphere erupted and condemned the policies implemented in Isfahan and Mazanderan. Two Facebook pages in particular, titled “We Iranians fiercely condemn racism against our Afghan friends” and “We are all Afghan” have denounced the recent bannings and expulsions as racist, insulting, and discriminatory. This grassroots backlash caught the attention of several Iranian celebrities and filmmakers who have voiced their own opinions about the racial discrimination directed towards Afghans.

Asghar Farhadi, the academy-award-winning director of A Separation, was quick to make a statement criticizing the legislation passed in Isfahan and Mazanderan. In an interview with Shargh on April 29, Farhadi stated that “such undignified behavior against immigrants in Iran – a country which itself has one of the highest number of emigrants in other countries – leaves a bitter taste.” Furthermore, Farhadi screened a film in support of Afghan refugee rights on May 11 and 12, which was followed by a discussion between Afghans and Iranian citizens. Others have also expressed solidarity with Afghans, including director Dariush Mehrjuyi and actress Leila Hatami, while even more are planning to show their solidarity by traveling to Mazandaran to meet with them.

Though the IRI’s stance toward Afghans can be labelled as contradictory at best, thousands of Iranians have been willing to denounce the racist policies directed towards refugees. As with all societies that experience multicultural encounters through migration, discrimination is quite extensive in Iran; however there are those who are combating the marginalization of their Afghan brothers and sisters through social media and physical acts of protest.

For more information, please check out:

One Tongue, No Tongue: ‘Return’ and Afghan-Iranian Dialogue

The Situation of Afghans in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Nine Years after the Overthrow of the Taliban Regime in Afghanistan

Afghans in Iran: Asylum Fatigue Overshadows Islamic Brotherhood


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