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

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. IRI’s English news agency PressTV highlights the official line towards refugees– one of accommodation, acceptance, and good will.

PressTV 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. 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.

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.


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