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Hard Lives for Afghans in Iran

by ABI MEHREGAN in Tehran

21 Nov 2010 22:19Comments
CA1C9912-EA6C-4473-AF36-899A92CBA843_mw800_mh600.jpgOfficial repression, private abuse, and widespread prejudice magnify plight.

[ dispatch ] With rising unemployment and an increasingly strained economy, the Iranian government and many of the country's people seek the root cause of their problems in external factors. One of the favorite explanations many have latched onto of late is the presence of over two million displaced Afghans in Iran.

Despite the fact that most of the jobs taken by Afghans hold little appeal for Iranians, the Islamic Republic's government, hand in hand with opportunistic business owners, has introduced an array of restrictions against resident Afghans, included prohibitions against the schooling of Afghan children, nonjudicial deportations, and refusal of official recognition of marriages between Afghans and Iranians.

According to Asré Iran (Iran Times), a 90-second video showing the rape of an Iranian girl by six men, allegedly in the Gharchak village of Varamin, near Tehran, provoked the anger of local residents. Almost immediately after it was broadcast, rumors started to circulate around the country that the rapists were Afghans.

Ebtekar (Novelty) quoted Ein-o-lah Tadjik, governor of Gharchak, debunking the rumor, but only after a large number of Afghans in Gharchak and other areas were attacked and beaten.

These rumors recall the tragic events of a few years ago, known as the Khofashe Shab (night bat). A man from Quochan, a county in north Khorasan, was arrested in Tehran after murdering a number of women. Under interrogation, he declared that he was an Afghan. The subsequent media coverage led to widespread attacks on Afghans. There were reports -- admittedly attributed to anonymous sources -- of several Afghans being murdered in reprisal, though the government was making aggressive efforts to censor such news.

According to Abd-ol Rahman, a displaced Afghan, "People here say that the rapists are of Afghan origin and that the rape took place there, and that is why they attack Afghans. They don't care if it's women, old people, or even children. This, in the face of the declaration by the Gharchak police that the rape actually took place in South Khorasan [500 miles away] with no insinuation that the perpetrators were Afghan. Would it be that these honor-bound people were ready to hear about the problems facing displaced Afghans."

Section 39 of the Afghanistan Constitution declares that the government must protect the right of its citizens outside the country. Can it be said that the government of Afghanistan has fulfilled that constitutional duty over the last few years? The immigration section of the Afghanistan Embassy in any foreign country is obligated to defend the rights of any legal Afghan immigrant who requests assistance. Iran receives millions of dollar from the United Nations to provide legal residence to displaced Afghans, a population currently estimated at 935,000.


Safora, a 40-year-old Afghan, emigrated to Iran six years ago. With her four children, she lives in a one-room house with no windows and no kitchen. The only item of value is a small television set that sits in a corner atop a wooden stand. A few tea cups and a vase serve as ornaments.

The room is lined with maroon back pillows on all sides. Safora, who is extremely slight, pours tea with a smile as she talks about her husband's working conditions. "Besides me, my husband has relatives who live in Afghanistan. That is why he travels constantly. He comes and goes every month. He imports foreign-made and used shoes to sell here. He doesn't pay me any support. It would be a wonder if he even makes enough for his old parents."

She talks of the situation in Afghanistan where, she says, the majority are hungry and "can't even afford their daily bread. There are no jobs as there are no factories and no workshops. Even working for the municipality is useless." I ask her how she make ends meet.

She tightens the knot on her head scarf and softly replies, "My son, Farhad, is 19 years old. He pays the household expenses. Before, before studying was outlawed, he would attend school and sell CDs. I was constantly worried about him being arrested and deported. Then his CD duplicator was stolen and he was without any work. I prayed a lot for him to find a job. Finally he found a construction job. It was good for the first couple of months -- he was paid a bit. But then the foreman would withhold his pay with various excuses, and finally he threatened that he would turn him into the [immigration] agents. Poor boy, he had worked 10 to 11 hours a day for several months."

Safora wipes her tears away. "Now he works at a tea house, from evening to dawn. He pays his sister's tuition. As my daughter is not allowed to go to school, she attends a private language class that is becoming more expensive by the day." Safora comes from a well-educated Afghan family, but like many others, she has fallen into destitution due to war and displacement.


The majority of immigrant children in Iran are Afghans who work to support their poverty-stricken parents. With famished bodies, they toil in workshops or peddle on the streets, often for more than 12 hours a day.

On the one hand, despite receiving funds from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, the Islamic Republic prevents these children from studying. On the other hand, it doesn't see itself as responsible for pursuing cases of abuse of these children or in any other way helping to address their plight. On September 17, the Health Ministry explicitly declared that it has no responsibility for the working conditions of children who are citizens of another country.

Marrie, a 42-year-old widow from beautiful Kabul, lives in a single-room flat. An ascent of 32 steps up a precariously narrow metal ladder is required to reach it. Folded mats, blankets, and pillows are piled against the wall, a curtain thrown on them as a cover. A picture of her late husband hangs on a wall.

A young man enters, but suddenly retreats as he sees the visitors. Marrie points at him. "He's my son. We were in the city of Hashtgerd. They wouldn't allow my kids to attend school because we lacked residency papers. I borrowed those of a friend in Tehran and registered them. For two years they studied like that. When we moved to Tehran and they transferred their dossier, they discovered the problem and didn't register them. My kids are depressed. My son is now an apprentice at a glass shop. They say that as soon as we get our residency papers, they will allow them back in school. They said they will issue a temporary permit, but that's all talk."


After staying a while, some Afghans marry Iranian women. There are many such marriages in the provinces of Khorasan, Hormozgan, Sistan, and Baluchistan. The lack of official documents causes manifold difficulties for these families. Dr. Ebrahim Esmaili-Harissi, an attorney and rights advocate, describes their problems in a report published in Hamshahri (Fellow Citizen): "Iran only recognizes citizenship by paternal blood, meaning that the father has to be Iranian for a child to be an Iranian citizen."

According to government statistics, there are about 32,000 unofficial marriages between Iranian women and Afghan men. The true figure is certainly greater. Afsaneh, a woman from Mashhad, is in one such marriage. She says that she has three sisters who have also married Afghans. "My eldest sister is 41 years old. Her 18-year-old son has a birth certificate as he was born before 1370 [2001], when marriages between Iranians and Afghans were registered officially. Then it became forbidden. My marriage is recorded on a sheet of paper. When my child was born, I went to get him a birth certificate. They didn't accept the record. I asked to have his name recorded in my birth certificate [such information is customarily added to a parent's birth certificate in Iran]. They refused: 'Not possible.'"

Relaxing into an open smile, she brings out a photo of her husband and recalls how they met. She describes how such marriages are quite normal in her town. If Afsaneh -- which means "fairy tale" -- and her sisters are concerned about their futures and especially those of their children, they have no option but to uproot themselves and and leave their homes forever.

That is exactly what Asfaneh's younger sister, 28-year-old Nadjmeh, did a year and a half ago. She, her Afghan husband, and their two daughters took off for Afghanistan. Eventually, they migrated to Kabul -- unaware that they were leaving a very difficult situation for one even worse. Nadjmeh's husband is still looking for work a year and a half later. She and her children have not been able to settle down, as well. Afsaneh continues, "Their culture and language is Iranian, not Afghan." She becomes reflective for a moment. "I worry about them very much." Her family's worries increase with each news broadcast about another bombing, but there is nothing they can do. The future for Nadjmenh and her family is bleak. If they return to Iran, the Islamic Republic can separate her from her husband and daughters and arrest them on the spot.


In 2007, the Afghan government asked its displaced people to return to their homeland, pledging its care and support. Unfortunately, those promises were met half-heartedly at best, and many returning citizens were abandoned to fend for themselves. Many regretfully departed again for one of the neighboring countries or, if they had the means, for even more distant lands.

Marzieh, a displaced Afghan woman, says, "My sister left for Australia and her situation is quite good. She says nice things about it. She says that the government takes care of them well. Fills their fridge with fruit. Pays them stipends. Pays them extra when they bear children. Checks on them often to make sure they don't miss anything. But we can't go, it takes a lot of money. A family we know fled illegally for Germany three weeks ago. They paid 20 million tomans [$20,000] for the three of them, but we haven't heard from them yet."

Today, the majority of the displaced people on the globe are Afghans -- 6.5 million out of the estimated world total of 22 million. After their legal entry into Iran was barred, the surreptitious transfer of Afghans became a major new business for smugglers. It costs from $400 to $1,000 per person. But why the insistence on going to Iran?

About 1.5 million Afghans work in the Islamic Republic. As they are willing to work hard for relatively little pay, they take on arduous jobs, such as well digging, construction, brick making. Some have found their way into more creative endeavors such as animal husbandry and jewelry crafting; many more occupy janitorial and cleaning jobs.

Since the push to deport illegals began, employers have found it easy to abuse the rights of their Afghan workers. The case of Safora's 19-year-old son is hardly exceptional. Neither is that of dignified Abd-ol Rahim, father of four and resident of south Tehran's Shoush neighborhood. He invested the equivalent of $3,000 from his life's savings with a real estate agent, who now denies the transaction took place and has threatened to expose him to immigration agents. With a downcast stare, he exclaims, "How can he call himself a Muslim? I trusted him."

Of course, not everyone is so greedy and opportunistic. Many Afghans share stories of Iranians' compassion and generosity. But the lack of media interest in the problems of Afghans residing in Iran means there is little motivation for the government to gather and publicize statistics that will provide an objective picture of the situation. Regardless, there is no doubt that the abuse and, in some cases, virtual enslavement of Afghans in Iran has been increasing at an alarming rate. With the ongoing instability in Afghanistan and the signs foretelling continued economic decline in Iran, we can expect ever-mounting pressures on this hard-working group, which enjoys almost no support, either within Iran or in the world beyond.

Abi Mehregan is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and Iran Arte. Photo: Iranian guard watches over Afghan refugees awaiting deportation in May 2008 (Fars).

related reading | The Weight of a Brick | The Discreet Charm of the Underclass

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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