Now my friends, I am opposed to the system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural equipment to do for myself but because I am not satisfied to make myself comfortable knowing that there are thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the barest necessities of life. We were taught under the old ethic that man's business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked; ''Am I my brother's keeper?'' That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society.
Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death. — Eugene V. Debs: 1908 speech
For close to half a century, Afghanistan has been a battleground for foreign armies and local warlords. The country survives on international aids and opium cultivation. The central government controls only Kabul. There is heavy fighting in the south and east of the country. The northern and some western parts of Afghanistan are relatively quite but are ruled by warlords. On the western side, only Herat seems to have any stability and economic growth.
Afghanistan with a population of 35 million people consumes only 782.9 million kWh of electricity. Compare this to Iraq’s 33.3 billion kWh (Population: 27 million, 2007). Afghanistan has only 280000 (land-lines, 2005) telephones, and only 8229 km of paved roads. Close to 50% of the workforce is unemployed, and the rest, if not serving in national army or warlords’ private armies, are working in the fields (agriculture). The life expectancy of an Afghan is only 43.6 years, one of the lowest in the world. Similarly Afghanistan has one of the world’s highest (10th place) infant mortality rates (19.6/1000). In other words, Afghanistan is a failed state, poor and chaotic. The government can not provide the most basic services to its people, let alone accommodate a few million returning refugees.
The arrival In 1973, a military coup headed by Daoud Khan and PDPA (Afghan Communist Party) ousted the Afghan king Zahir Shah. Daoud Khan abolished the monarchy and declared himself the President of the Republic of Afghanistan. In 1978, the communist party of Afghanistan staged a coup and took over the government. It also signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. Shortly after, with the help of United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the Mujahedin (guerrilla) movement was born. The internal fighting and subsequent arrival of Soviet forces started a mass exodus of people to neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
At that time Iran was in the middle of a war with Iraq and under sanctions. Nevertheless, it accepted the arriving refugees, first housing them in camps and later giving them work permits, allowing them to move to towns and cities. Later fighting between Taliban and the Northern alliance simply increased the number of refugees seeking safety or a better life in the neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. By the end of 1980s Iran and Pakistan hosted 3 million refugees each . In addition to refugees, there were a large number of people entering Iran illegally seeking work. Iran’s GDP is over 11 times that of Afghanistan and hence a magnet for those seeking a better standard of living.
As the numbers kept rising, Iran requested help from UN. However, the UN help when it arrived was not only insufficient, but also nearly always late. As time passed, the refugee numbers kept increasing. The government began to restrict its liberal refugee policies; work-permits became harder to obtain. But lack of documentation did not restrict the movement of the unregistered immigrants/refugees within the country. Many simply moved to large cities and became illegal aliens. There was some hope that the American invasion and subsequent occupation would lead to some improvements in Afghanistan, thereby facilitating the return of some of the refugees. However, things did not improve and the continuing fighting between NATO forces and Taliban has worsened the situation even further. War, draught and lack of investment have only increased the number of people seeking a better life abroad.
Image problem Afghanistan has an unemployment rate of close to 50%. Add war, draught, lack of basic services such as healthcare and education and one can see the pressure on the population to emigrate. Iran has a GDP that is 11 times higher than Afghanistan’s and is close by. To complete the picture, many Afghans understand and speak Farsi (Dari is close to Farsi). Iran is a natural magnet for Afghans. It is not therefore surprising to see that millions of Afghans have immigrated to Iran. In addition, some families that stayed in Afghanistan have established a security net by sending out one family member to work in Iran, and numerous families are completely dependent on remittances from family members working in the neighbouring countries.
As is the case with many illegal aliens or refugees elsewhere in the world, Afghan immigrants / refugees were and are willing to work for much lower wages than the natives. This has greatly benefited industries such as farming and construction. Service industry has also been a beneficiary of cheap Afghan labour as well. They build roads, buildings, work as janitors etc. Yet again as is the case with the immigrant population elsewhere, few seem to speak of the benefits that these people bring to the country.
Iran is suffering from double digit inflation and unemployment. Iranians see the Afghans as competitors for jobs and more importantly as a barrier to higher wages for themselves. But the fact is that few Iranians are willing to work as hard as Afghans. And it is highly improbable that they will work for similar wages. So they see these immigrants as a threat to their living standard.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s biggest opium producers. Much of its products are smuggled to Europe and elsewhere through neighbouring countries, where it is also distributed. This has created a huge drug problem in Iran. Security forces regularly clash with well-armed Afghan smugglers, resulting in deaths of thousands of Iranian security personnel. Another problem is the general insecurity along the borders. For a while some Afghan criminal elements were raiding Iranian villages in the border area, kidnapping people for ransom. Iranian government had to station troops around these areas to protect the population.
All these problems have changed the general sentiment towards the refugees and immigrants. Iranians in general see the Afghans as a burden and think it is about time for them to return to Afghanistan.
My brother’s keeper “In Iran today, there is both subtle and overt discrimination, and at times harassment. Opportunities for higher education were closed in 2003. Little or no compensation is paid when workers in the construction sector are killed or disabled in accidents. Informed reports have suggested increased use of drugs to sustain long and hard working days. Iranian women who marry Afghan men lose their Iranian citizenship. If involuntary returns are instituted, such families risk being sent to Afghanistan. Estimates of the number of persons who may be affected vary markedly, but a reasonable figure suggests 30,000.
… By mid-2003, all Afghans residing in Iran were asked to re-register with the authorities. Those with refugee documents were obliged to hand in their refugee cards and received in return only temporary residence permits, with no time for staying or leaving specified. The number of registered Afghans at that time totalled 2.3 million. Of these, UNHCR considers 1.1 million to be refugees or otherwise ‘of concern’ to its mandate” . This left over 1 million “registered” Afghans without any protection from deportation. Add the unregistered Afghan immigrants and one gets close to two million or more people who have no legal status in the country (illegal aliens).
When confronted with the allegation of maltreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran, Iranian government claims that it has born a very large burden for a long-time without much international assistance. It claims that it has done more than its share for the country and it can no longer curry this burden alone.
As far as the international assistance is concerned the government is right. It has not received the assistance that it needs. It is also fair to say that it has kept its doors open to refugees from both Iraq and Afghanistan. With regards to helping Afghanistan, Iran has done more than any other country in the region. Since 2001, Afghanistan has received over $4.5 billion in aid from Iran, which it has spent constructing more than 1000 schools, government buildings and clinics and paved some 1,200 kilometres (more than 730 miles) of roads .
The biggest problem with the Iranian government refugee/immigration policy has been that of not having one. It is quite clear that Iran is and will continue to be a magnet for Afghans. The government knows that refugees or immigrants will not voluntarily return to a country where there is no infrastructure, housing, education, healthcare or jobs for them.
The successive Iranian governments have done very little in planning for integration of these refugees into the Iranian society. The government can not deny that the country has benefited greatly from this cheap labour pool. It also can not deny that the majority of Afghans in Iran are law abiding, hardworking people. The government has done very little in changing the negative image of these people. At times it has even contributed to it.
A large number of these immigrants have been in Iran for a long time, and their children have been borne in Iran. These children know nothing about Afghanistan. They rightfully consider themselves as Iranians. It is inhumane to just deport these people. And where and what are they going to?
To solve some of the existing problems, the government should declare an amnesty for the illegal aliens that have been in the country for the past seven years. In this way, the possibility of these people engaging in illegal activities will be greatly reduced. It should also offer citizenship to those who have been legally in the country for the past seven years. How long should a person live in the country before it can become a citizen? Under the current arrangement the Afghans will never become eligible for citizenship. It is reprehensible to keep such a large number of people in legal limbo for such a long time.
It should force the labour unions to enforce the minimum wage laws for all workers, especially the Afghans. In this way, the native Iranians will not see the Afghans as undercutting their wages. It should also vigorously persecute those that are (so openly) abusing these people. Iranian government should not forget that there are a few million Iranians living in Europe and America. I am sure that it would not appreciate similar treatments for its own emigrants.
The recent reports of large scale deportation, heavy handed and at times brutal treatment of deportees is highly troubling. Iranian government should know that deporting one million people without proper planning is going to cause great hardship for these people. Afghan government can not handle such large number of returnees. It even can not care for its internally displaced population, let alone one million more returning from Iran.
Iran has done a lot for Afghanistan and should do more. If it deports such a large number of people without providing adequate provisions for them in Afghanistan, it will create a humanitarian catastrophe that will (rightly) bring shame to Iran. It is not that long ago that Afghanistan was part of Iran. Afghans are Iranians’ brothers and as such should be respected and treated with respect and compassion. I urge the Iranian government to immediately stop the deportations and reconsider its immigration policies. I also hope that this message is taken-up by Iranians abroad. I hope that they also write to Iranian government and urge them to reconsider their actions. In conclusion I would like to cite sura 002.177 from the Holy Quran:
“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteousness is this that one should believe in God and the last day and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for (the emancipation of) the captives, and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate; and the performers of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in time of conflicts– these are they who are true (to themselves) and these are they who guard (against evil).”
Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar lives in Norway. He is a management consultant and a contributing writer for many online journals. He's a former associate professor of Nordland University, Norway.
 International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, “Afghan Refugees in Iran: From Refugee Emergency to Migration Management”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Development Studies and Human Rights, 16 June 2004.