Some two million Afghan refugees live in Iran. Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, their situation deteriorated. Many are now hoping that with the election of Rouhani, their circumstances will change for the better.
Afghans have sought refuge in neighboring Iran for decades, escaping intermittent war in their homeland, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 to the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the ensuing insurgency. But Afghan refugees face a precarious existence in the Islamic Republic, with many of them having immigrated illegally. According to the Iranian Interior Ministry, only half of the refugees have valid visas.
“Many refugees are considered ‘illegal foreigners’ und end up in jail,” said Kamal, an Afghan refugee in the southern Iranian city of Ahwaz. “For example, 300 families were recently sent to the camp ‘Mollasani’ in the western city of Gotvand.”
“Immigrants are neither allowed to sign a lease for an apartment, nor leave the city,” Kamal said. “Their papers are confiscated.”
According to the UN refugee agency’s Tehran chief, Bernard Doyle, the Iranian government has adopted these restrictive measures because it fears for the security in its own country. Tehran wants to prevent the instability in neighboring Afghanistan from spilling across the border into Iran, Doyle said.
High unemployment, arbitrary arrests
In order to provide for their families, many refugees work as day laborers, often on construction sites or in brick factories. But there is not enough work to go around, and they usually don’t have a work permit.
“The high unemployment among the refugees is a big problem,” said Gholamali, an Afghan refugee. He said that refugees who manage to land a job, only obtain a short-term work permit. Extensions are often drawn out or rejected altogether.
“The biggest problem is the increasingly arbitrary arrests of refugees,” said Seyyed Sharif Saeidi, a spokesman for the Afghan Refugee Association in Iran. “The security forces treat us badly. Many of our countrymen, who sought refuge here during the Soviet invasion and built a life in Iran, have now been forced to leave the country.”
Rising costs of living
The international sanctions against Iran have made the economic situation worse. People in Iran are currently suffering under a weakening currency, rising food prices and a shortage of medicine. Afghan refugees also feel the pain of sanctions.
“Since the tightening of sanctions, Iranians have received financial help,” said Nuri Agha, a refugee. “But we Afghans have to pay for our visas and work permits in addition to the rising costs of living.”
According to Doyle with the UN refugee agency, the sanctions have not only led to a deteriorating economic situation for the refugees, but they are also facing growing discrimination by the Iranian population.
Representatives of Afghan refugees in Iran say that 400,000 Afghan children have not received permission from the authorities to attend school. In big cities like Isfahan, they are banned from visiting parks.
“Afghans in Iran are third-class citizens,” said Seyyed Sharif Saeidi.
Afghans pin their hopes on Rouhani
Saeidi and many Afghan immigrants now hope that with the new president, Hassan Rouhani, there will be a new era in refugee policy. Representatives of Afghan refugees were among the first to congratulate Rouhani for his election victory. They are calling on the new president to find solutions to the problems that Afghans face in Iran. But the international community also has to make concessions, according to the refugee Gholamali.
“We refugees hope that the sanctions against Iran will be lifted,” he said. “This can positively influence our situation.”
The Afghan refugees hope that it will become easier to extend their visas and work permits with Rouhani in office. According to Gholamali, his last work permit was extended only 40 days. It’s uncertain whether his permit will be extended again after Rouhani takes office, or if he’ll be deported back to Afghanistan.
Normalization of relations
During Ahmadinejad’s government, the unresolved situation of Afghan refugees in Iran led to tensions between Kabul and Tehran. After his election victory, Rouhani promised to normalize relations with Iran and its neighboring countries, including Afghanistan.
Ramazan Jumazade, a representative in the Afghan parliament in Kabul, said that he hopes Rouhani can bring change for the refugees in Iran.
“We are hoping for a policy change in Iran and that President Rouhani’s announced ‘policy of the middle’ can improve the situation for Afghan refugees.”
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