By Aryaman Bhatnagar
Iran hosts close to 2.5 million Afghan refugees – both registered and unregistered. Iran recently announced its willingness to sign an agreement with Afghanistan and Pakistan which would put an end to the forceful deportation of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan. In light of this pending agreement, this commentary seeks to understand the approach of the Iranian government towards the Afghan refugee population. Has the attitude of the Iranian government towards the refugees hardened over the years?
Iran followed an ‘open door’ policy towards refugees throughout the period of Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Ayatollah Khomeini wanted Iran to be seen as a champion of oppressed Muslims and to spread the message of Islam having no frontiers. As a result, the Islamic Republic considered it a ‘religious duty’ to protect the Afghans from a ‘godless Communist government’. They were granted the status of mohajerin or ‘involuntary religious migrant’ and were entitled to a number of advantages and privileges. They were not confined to refugee camps, and were allowed to settle down on the outskirts of towns and cities.
Following the death of Khomeini, Iran’s strategic outlook began to be guided more by pragmatism and ground realities than ideology. It is this pragmatism that transformed its perception of Afghan refugees from ‘religious migrants’ to ‘immigrants’; from deserving co-religionists to a social and economic burden. The fall of the Communist government in Afghanistan ended any ideological and emotional obligations the Iranian state had.
It is for this reason that the attitude towards Afghan refugees has undergone a significant change since the 1990s from integration to repatriation and prevention of future flows due to continuing instability and uncertainty in Afghanistan. The Iranian government has been attempting to induce repatriation by imposing several restrictions on Afghan refugees and taking steps to increase their cost of living in the country. Such measures include the cutback of subsidies on healthcare, unemployment insurance and access to free education, and passage of laws prohibiting Iranians from hiring undocumented Afghans. Simultaneously, the number of work permits issued by the government to Afghan refugees has been cut drastically and the cost for renewing the previously issued permits has been hiked. This has made more Afghan refugees susceptible to deportation. There has also been a substantial increase in the number of ‘Afghan-free provinces’ with them being prohibited from living in certain Iranian provinces or cities – the most recent being Mazandaran province. These measures have been denounced as being racist and discriminatory by critics of the government.
Iran has carried out a number of forcible repatriation drives in recent years and though it claims that it only seeks to deport unregistered refugees, there are reports citing the deportation of Afghans with proper legal documents.
The economic situation in Iran has influenced the government’s attitude towards the refugees. The UNHCR Global Report for 2011 also claimed that the deteriorating economic environment presented difficulties in sustaining a large refugee population in Iran. The task of maintaining such a large refugee problem poses a severe strain on national resources – estimated cost at US$ 2 billion a year. Moreover, the lack of proportionate international assistance acts as a further burden.
The government’s perception has also been shaped by the socio-economic problems associated with the refugees. Unemployment, especially among the Iranian youth, has been on the rise. Afghan refugees have often been accused by Iranian workers and labour organisations of stealing jobs by underbidding them and are seen as unfair recipients of the limited social services and resources. The lack of integration of Afghans into the Iranian society – largely an outcome of government measures – creates further suspicion and distrust against them, which has occasionally flared into mob attacks on Afghan settlements. Consequently it is provinces with high unemployment and related social problems that have become ‘Afghan-free’.
Despite the burden associated with sustaining such large numbers of refugees and their regular deportation, it would be wrong to assume that Iran would want to deport the entire Afghan refugee population. Afghan refugees continue to form an important part of Iran’s unorganised economy, especially the construction and other labour intensive sectors.
However, it is the potential for using Afghan refugees as a political tool to exacerbate instability in Afghanistan and thereby wreck NATO plans that tends to increase their strategic importance for Iran. Iran is aware that Afghanistan is not yet in a position to accommodate a large number of returnees and mass deportations can trigger major problems for the Afghan government. For instance, in 2007, Iran had forcibly repatriated over eighty thousand Afghans, which triggered a major humanitarian crisis and led to the dismissal of two ministers in Karzai’s government. The deportation of refugees is therefore a threat that Iran readily issues whenever Afghanistan’s policies displease Tehran. The latest of these threats was issued following the signing of the US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement in May 2012.
Iran’s announcement of its decision to sign the agreement on refugees should be seen in light of its desire to retain a residual refugee population in the future, which can be used to increase its leverage over the Afghan government.
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]