Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans have been trying to cross the border to reach Iran. However, Iran’s domestic woes and the sanctions against it impede its ability to accommodate thousands of Afghans fleeing every week. In the current context, the Iranian approach toward Afghan refugees is primarily focused on restricting their flow and identifying and deporting Afghans who have crossed illegally into Iranian territories.
As per UNHCR data, by mid-2021 the number of Afghan refugees increased to more than 2.5 million, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recently in a report confirmed that currently there are more than 5 million Afghans displaced internally. Several Afghan refugees crossing the border to Iran have complained about mistreatment and harassment from Iranian border guards. As per some reports, Iranian authorities have deported thousands of Afghans citing inadequate documents and permits in recent months. While responding to Tolo News, Naqibullah Rasikh, an Afghan refugee rights activist in Iran said that there are between 1,000 to 2,000 Afghan refugees who lack the necessary documents and are now being deported daily from Iran. In the initial months after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, several reports indicated that the Afghan black market for visas thrived amid panic and distress. Visa agents increased their charges and numerous applications stalled after the Iranian embassy was shut down in Afghanistan. Reports suggest that as visa charges shot up exponentially following the Taliban’s takeover, visa and travel agents also increased their share of bribes. Afghans also have shared experiences of excessive red tape and mismanagement concerning their visa and residential applications. After the Taliban takeover, the Afghans in Iran were told to return to Afghanistan to renew their visas, posing a significant danger to the Afghan families that had fled the country.
The continuous flow of Afghan refugees also has an impact on the Iranian labor market as it influences the wage rate for unskilled labor which is largely made up of Afghans in several provinces. Migrant Afghan workers in Iran are often paid much less compared to Iranian unskilled laborers in addition to not having medical insurance or formal contracts. Reports indicate that the recent influx of Afghan refugees has raised concerns in Iran’s construction sector which depends on Afghan laborers. A number of these Afghan refugees lack the necessary documents to work in Iran and are vulnerable to severe punishment or deportation. Moreover, some recent reports also revealed that Afghan children were seen to be working as laborers in Tehran despite child labor being illegal in the country.
Amid the increasing flow of Afghan refugees, Iran now faces three key challenges. Firstly, Iran has been focused on restricting the mass influx of Afghan refugees ever since the fall of the Ghani government. Iranian officials have repeatedly confirmed that Iran is not in a position to accommodate Afghan refugees because of the country’s economic crises and crippling sanctions. Afghanistan shares a 921 kilometres border with Iran and its porous nature has always been a security concern for Tehran. Secondly, smuggling and trafficking have been rampant along the Iran-Afghanistan border for some time and with new waves of Afghan refugees, more people are vulnerable to being exploited by criminal gangs and networks operating in Afghanistan. Iranian security forces in recent years have stepped up their efforts to contain drug networks in the border areas, however, the increased flow of Afghan refugees has impeded these efforts and escalated the number of non-traditional security threats facing Iran. Thirdly, Iran has repeatedly criticized the United States’ approach toward Afghanistan and holds it responsible for the ongoing crises in Afghan territories that impact Tehran directly. Recently, the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian urged the United States to release frozen Iranian assets for humanitarian purposes. He said, “The assets of Afghanistan blocked by America …should be used for humanitarian purposes and improvement of the living conditions in Afghanistan.” These remarks and others made by Iranian officials reflect Tehran’s intent to exploit the Afghan crisis to leverage its position to embarrass the United States in order to force its hand to grant sanctions relief and other concessions. It should also be noted that Iran’s claim of hosting more than 3 million Afghan refugees following the crisis in Afghanistan is now being questioned after the IOM said that more than 1 million refugees were sent back to Afghanistan.
As several Afghans remain desperate to leave the country, people have complained about the Iranian embassy indulging in illegal activities including bribery and corruption. The ill-treatment of the Afghans fleeing to Iran indicates the need for the international community to support urgent humanitarian interventions in light of the Afghan refugee crisis as the present conditions call for more accountability and transparency from the Iranian authorities.