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Away From Home, Afghan Refugees Struggle for Survival in Iran

VANCOUVER, CANADA — Farid (pseudonym), 31, who has been living in Iran for 14 years. And still, he cannot legally own a telephone SIM card.      

He is not alone. Most of the refugees and migrants from Afghanistan barely make a living to survive in Iran. Under sanctions, the country’s economy is crippled with inflation and unemployment skyrocketing. Yet, Afghans driven away by conflict, oppression and even worse economic prospects in their homeland bring cheap labour to many of Iran’s labour-intensive industries.

A new short documentary by Etilaatroz, KabulNow’s Farsi affiliate, reveals the depth and extent of these refugees’ struggle in Iran. Interviewing dozens of desperate migrant workers and refugees and talking to Iranian experts, the film shows how after decades of living in the country, they are still as much of a stranger as they were when they came.

Mustafa (pseudonym), 36, went to Iran after the fall of the country to the Taliban in August 2021. Like Farid, he too only earns enough to survive.

“An Afghan migrant has been engaged in the most difficult and strenuous work for 20 years but in the end, he has nothing to show for it because he has only been able to cover his daily expenses during these years.”

Mustafa says that in many places, Afghan migrants do the work, but the employer does not pay their wages and makes excuses.

“For example, they say the work was not done properly, or it was not done on time. And it doesn’t matter what the terms of the contract were on the first day or how well and on time the work was done.”

Most Afghan refugees and migrants in Iran do not possess legal documents thanks to the restrictive policies of the Islamic Republic. They work in the black market without any employment benefits and at the whims of exploitative employers.

Asef (pseudonym), a 28 years old refugee who is featured in the film, also came to Iran after the fall of the previous government.  In the film, he says he was not able to receive his wage from a construction employer after months of pursuit. The employer made random excuses including claiming that his work did not meet the standard although the inspectors had accepted it.

“When I reminded him of these things, the employer rudely said you’re not entitled to anything, and I won’t pay you either.”

Iranian employers often hire Afghan refugees because it is cheap. After the work is done, however, they easily refuse to pay them knowing that the law enforcement agencies would do nothing to protect the workers.

Fatima Mousavi, a researcher who worked with Afghan migrants, says that in the past four decades, the country’s policies towards Afghan migrants have been ambiguous and mostly temporary.

“Policies adopted towards migrants have mostly been based on the interests and control of migrants.”

Arash Esfahani, another social science researcher, says that the use of the term “guest” for the migrants from Afghanistan emphasizes the temporary nature of their presence and marginalizes them.

Iran does not offer any legal path for residency and eventual naturalization for refugees and migrants. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have lived in the country for decades, most of them still with basic papers that would allow them to work, buy property, or access services such as education and healthcare.

Ibrahim (pseudonym), 39, has been living in Iran for 25 years. He says that there is no future for Afghan migrants in Iran. However, they cannot return to an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban either.        

“On the one hand, there is a group ruling in Afghanistan, which is not committed to any principles. On the other hand, there is no future for Afghan migrant workers in Iran. I have never felt this kind of despair and frustration,” he says.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the total number of migrants in Iran at about 4.5 million. However, Iranian authorities have reported figures anywhere between 5 and 6 millions.      

After the Taliban’s resurgence to power in 2021, Iran opened its orders to millions of Afghans who were running away from fears of persecution and worsening economic conditions after the military and diplomatic withdrawal of most of the outside world from Afghanistan.

It soon, however, closed its borders again. And since last fall, Tehran has joined Islamabad in forcibly deporting Afghan refugees. More than half a million people have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan since the beginning of last year.

Border closure and the absence of any legal pathway for immigration has forced desperate Afghans to trust their fate in the hands of human traffickers who operate in the porous border areas between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Many lose their lives to the heat waves and starvation. Many more are exploited, taken for ransom, and sexually abused by traffickers.

A recent UN report reveals that over 1000 Afghans have died on migration routes in 2023, the highest toll in a decade. Most casualties were on journeys to Iran, traversing through dry and hot deserts and sandstorms.