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The challenges and problems of Afghan refugees in Iran

Iran has hosted the largest population of Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. Periodically, there have been governmental pressures on the migrants and widespread anti-immigrant sentiments. Following the fall of the Afghan government in 2021 and the return to power of the Taliban, the number of Afghan refugees has increased in Iran. Recently, a hate campaign against Afghan refugees has swept through Iranian newspapers and social media. As a result, violence against Afghans in Iran, including attacks on their homes and even mob harassment has become far more common. Some Iranian writers and artists have advocated support for these refugees.   

At the same time, Iran’s restrictions on migrants (including those with and without residency permits) have escalated. Daily, the government is expelling thousands of refugees back to Afghanistan. This is occurring despite Iran having ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.  

The primary question that this article seeks to address is: What factors and backgrounds have fueled these negative sentiments against Afghan refugees in Iran? 

In a broad categorization, the factors and backgrounds of anti-refugee sentiments in Iran are divided into two categories: organized and unorganized.  

  1. Factors behind anti-migrant sentiments in Iran 

It appears that segments of both external and internal opponents of the government, as well as some governmental authorities in Iran are all contributing to anti-migrant sentiments in the population, though they have different objectives for their actions.  

Opponents of Iran’s government want to disrupt social order and destabilize the government. Additionally, the domestic opposition in Iran, known as the reformists, sees Afghan refugees as a tool that can be used to weaken the social base of the ruling faction (conservatives) in the upcoming parliamentary elections and demonstrate the government’s inability to ‘manage refugee affairs.’  

For Iranian nationalists with racist inclinations, the presence of Afghan refugees in Iran is intolerable under any circumstances as they hold negative views of their origins and culture. The Iranian nationalists, make parallels between the refugees and Shah Mahmud Hotaki’s occupation of Isfahan in 1722 and the extinction of the Safavid dynasty.  

Some government officials are exploiting such xenophobia to divert attention from economic problems. 

The anti-Afghan refugees fearmongering about their increasing number and the size of their population, their birth rates, the number of their children in schools and universities, and exaggerating concerns about Iran’s future, even hinting at a potential occupation of Iran by these migrants and refugees. For instance, on August 10, 2023, a major reformist publication, the Islamic Republic newspaper, ran a headline, “South Tehran under the occupation of Afghans; this is a serious security issue,” which triggered extensive anti-refugee sentiments.  

Mashriq News, another Iranian media outlet, has sought to illustrate the fictitious nature of this supposed threat. On October 2, it stated, “In 2023, we witnessed the sudden use of various archival footage to inflame the atmosphere and scare people about migrants, and unfortunately, some official newspapers and journalists promote this and frame the refugee question as a security issue.”  

Nine days later, Mihan Newspaper published an investigative report into the xenophobia against refugees from Afghanistan in Iran. It concluded: “Anonymous individuals with fake accounts suddenly emerge and fuel this wave by distributing or reposting various videos and clips. Some of these videos are entirely fabricated, and the organized and continuous content production indicates that this is not the work of ordinary people; the information against these individuals in cyberspace seems organized. They even spread rumours, claiming that the Taliban wants representation in the Iranian parliament.” Mihan Newspaper further said that the onset of violent actions against Afghan refugees can be traced back to statements of Iranian government officials, including the violence that occurred on October 6 in in Qazvin, where mobs attacked homes of Afghan refugees, throwing stones on their windows.  

At the same time, other Iranian media outlets have sought to raise tensions and fears, even going so far as to suggest that there is a risk of an uprising by Afghan refugees in Iran. On August 7, Ensaf News stated: “If Afghan refugees residing in Iran decide to rebel, we are finished.” Such claims have intensified anti-refugee sentiments.  

  1. Backgrounds of anti-immigrant sentiments 

A multitude of reasons underlay such anti-immigration sentiments, including: a recent increase in the migrant population; rising inflation; and economic hardships experienced by Iranians, including that some industries prefer to employ immigrant workers due to their lower wages and lack of insurance; the relative improvement in the living standards of some migrants; border tensions and disputes over transboundary water rights from the Helmand River; online clashes between users of the two countries; refugees continuing to wear native attire in some cities; and the Iranian government’s inability to deal with this situation. 

While the people of Iran are dealing with economic hardship brought on by drought, foreign sanctions, and internal mismanagement, the increase in the migrant population and the relative prosperity of some of them have proved to be sensitive issues, which provide fertile grounds to be used by organized propaganda campaigns. The competition for jobs between Iranians and refugees has also contributed to a sense of pessimism, as the poor strata of Iranian society have come to view migrants as rivals and a cause of their unemployment. 

The improved living standards of some refugees is also a source of tension, especially for poorer Iranians, as they see migrants using private vehicles, working as doctors, and as managers in industries, rather than take jobs as labourers, which was common during the past few decades. Indeed, a small percentage of second-generation refugees have been able to surmount legal obstacles to create better jobs and businesses. And as some migrant families are supported by relations in the West, their lifestyle seems almost lavish compared to those of their Iranian neighbours.  

Another source of tension is border conflicts between Iran and the Taliban, as well as the dispute regarding Iran’s water rights from the Helmand River. Some take to social media to argue that refugees in Iran consume more water than what should be released from the Helmand River to Iran. Mutual accusations between Iranian officials and the Taliban have been used to exploit tensions and deepen the gap of understanding. As well, many people from Afghanistan dress in traditional attire as they visit Iran for tourism, pilgrimage, or trade purposes. Some Iranians do not like their clothing and presence in places such as the Tehran Metro, Chitgar Lake, Mashhad National Park, and Imam Square in Isfahan. 

In addition to all those underlying factors, Iran lacks comprehensive immigration laws. As a result, in the past few decades, it has selectively accepted refugees with temporary plans and various travel and residence permits from Afghanistan and Iraq. The refugees are concentrated in cities such as Mashhad, Tehran, Kerman, Shiraz, and Isfahan. Some Iranian experts have referred to the imbalanced distribution of refugees in different provinces/states as “social overweight.”  

Conclusion 

The interaction between the Iranian government and the refugees from Afghanistan during the last four decades has been characterized by anti-Afghan sentiment. The recent intensification of such negative sentiments targeting Afghan refugees in this country has occurred following the return of the Taliban to power and the increase in migrants arriving in Iran. On the other hand, given Iran’s bleak political and economic outlook and the persistent underlying factors contributing to anti-immigrant sentiments, there isn’t a promising prospect for refugees from Afghanistan residing in Iran. It appears that legal and official restrictions on all refugees living in Iran will intensify.  

Omid Sharafat is the pseudonym of a former university professor in Kabul and a researcher of international relations.