Afghan Refugees and Migrants Face a Grim Future in Iran


The Taliban’s takeover of power in Afghanistan has contributed to Iran becoming the second main destination for Afghan refugees and migrants after Pakistan. As thousands of Afghans crossed the border to reach Iran, the country imposed measures to thwart the influx. Human Rights Watch stated that Iran had violated most of its legal obligations and treated the incoming Afghans poorly. However, the Iranian government has insisted that it will not accommodate the new influx of Afghans because it wants them to leave.

To date, Iran’s 2012 registration of Foreign Aliens Act has allowed Tehran  to expel  approximately 6.1 million illegal immigrants, mostly Afghans. Afghans are denied basic rights, while marriage between Afghans and Iranians is banned.

Afghan migrants in Iran face deadly occupational hazards, their wages are often withheld and they are frequently subjected to harassment from security agencies. Afghan men married to Iranian women are unable to become Iranian citizens and their children also face major challenges in this regard. Afghan women live marginal lives in Iran and face severe punishment in case they violate Iranian laws, despite their critical role in various Iranian economic sectors.  

While the United Nations (UN) warns of a new wave of Afghan refugees and migrants, Iran faces an additional critical challenge – Turkey is sending Afghan migrants on its  shared border back to Iran. The UN has also said that the sanctions against Iran, and potentially against the Taliban, prevent humanitarian assistance from reaching the Afghan people. By recently participating in the Vienna Migration Conference, Iran hoped to pressure the European countries into taking on more responsibility in light of the Afghan humanitarian and refugee crises and Iran’s Ambassador to Belgium Gholam Hossein Dehghani called on the West to play a more proactive role regarding this matter. Moreover, Iran has spoken to Australia about a possible resettlement of Afghans in its territories.

Despite the bleak future facing the Afghan people in light of current internal political developments, Iran is shutting its doors to Afghan refugees and migrants. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that Afghanistan’s shrinking economy will force a new wave of Afghans to leave the country. The UN expects that half a million Afghans will seek shelter in neighboring countries like Iran by the end of this year. Authorities in Iran’s border provinces such as South Khorasan, Sistan and Balochistan and Khorasan Razavi have been instructed by the Iranian government to return Afghans to their country if they enter their territories.

Iran’s Interior Minister  Ahmad Vahidi called on Afghans to not travel to Iran, because  the country does not have the capacity to accommodate them. Privately, Iran’s government is concerned that the influx of Afghans will lead to terrorists entering its territories.

In the coming period, it seems that Tehran will link its treatment of Afghans to the Taliban-led  government’s behavior towards Iran. Amid this political consideration, the rights of Afghans are at best a secondary consideration for Iran’s government. For example, Amin Tavakolizadeh, an official at Tehran Municipality, called  the more than 1.2 million Afghans already residing illegally in the Province of Tehran “imposed refugees.” He stated that they must return to Afghanistan as Iran has no obligation to accept illegal migrants. Tavakolizadeh also insisted  that the new Afghans  are illegal and should be forced out of the country.

According to Iranian officials, Iran already hosts many Afghan refugees and has the legal right to expel new ones. Most figures suggest that there are 800,000 registered Afghans in Iran, another 970,000 unregistered foreign migrants who are mostly Afghans, and 1.25 million illegal aliens, again mostly Afghans. The official figures released by Iran place the number of registered refugees in Iran coming from Afghanistan at 840,000. There could also be 2.3 million undocumented Afghan refugees in Iran. What matters is that most are ill-treated by Iran’s authorities. According to Iranian sources, 364,000 Afghan migrants left Iran from January 2021  to April 2021 because of the poor treatment that they received. To defend itself, Iran said that the aforementioned Afghan migrants lacked legal documentation to stay, and that 161,000 Afghans left voluntarily because they faced poor job prospects in  the country’s struggling and sanctioned markets. In the same period in 2020, 270,000 Afghans left Iran.

A recent video showing an Afghan woman being slapped by an Iranian security officer went viral on social media, forcing the Afghan embassy in Tehran to follow up on the incident. Further shootings on the shared border have led to injuries and deaths of Afghans over the years. A number of Afghan migrants were even cruelly thrown by Iranian security guards into a border river to drown, while others were shot at in their vehicles that were also set on fire. 

Iran has denied these allegations and argued that the images and footage of these incidents  were fake. Last year, Iran’s Parliament proposed a bill entitled “Organizing Unauthorized Foreign Nationals” to punish illegal migrants, and allows illegal migrants to be imprisoned for long terms and for their vehicles to be shot at.

Iran’s hostility towards Afghans is likely to exacerbate the plight of Afghans fleeing their country, increase tensions inside Afghanistan as many Afghans are forced to return, and destabilize the refugee corridors linking Afghanistan via Iran to Turkey and Europe.

Editorial Team