Iran and Afghan immigrants: My brother's keeper
By Dr. Abbas
“Now my friends, I am opposed to the
system of society in which we live today, not because I lack the natural
equipment to do for myself but because I am not satisfied to make myself
comfortable knowing that there are thousands of my fellow men who suffer for the
barest necessities of life. We were taught under the old ethic that man's
business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the
jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may
become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked; ''Am I
my brother's keeper?'' That question has never yet been answered in a way that
is satisfactory to civilized society.
Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am
under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin
sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think me if I
were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw
about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death.” (Eugene V. Debs:
For close to half a century,
Afghanistan has been a battleground
for foreign armies and local warlords. The country survives on international
aids and opium cultivation. The central government controls only Kabul. There is heavy
fighting in the south and east of the country. The northern and some western
parts of Afghanistan are relatively quiet but
are ruled by warlords. On the western side, only Herat seems to have any stability and economic
Afghanistan with a population of 35
million people consumes only 782.9 million kWh of electricity. Compare this to
Iraq’s 33.3 billion kWh (Population:
27 million, 2007). Afghanistan has only 280000
(land-lines, 2005) telephones, and only 8229 km of paved roads. Close to 50% of
the workforce is unemployed, and the rest, if not serving in national army or
warlords’ private armies, are working in the fields (agriculture). The life
expectancy of an Afghan is only 43.6 years, one of the lowest in the world.
Similarly Afghanistan has one of the world’s
highest (10th place) infant mortality rates (19.6/1000). In other
words, Afghanistan is a failed state, poor
and chaotic. The government can not provide the most basic services to its
people, let alone accommodate a few million returning
In 1973, a military coup headed by Daoud Khan and
PDPA (Afghan Communist Party) ousted the Afghan king Zahir Shah. Daoud Khan
abolished the monarchy and declared himself the President of the Republic of Afghanistan. In 1978, the communist party
of Afghanistan staged a coup and took
over the government. It also signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. Shortly after, with the help of
Saudi Arabia and
Pakistan, the Mujahedin (guerrilla)
movement was born. The internal fighting and subsequent arrival of Soviet forces
started a mass exodus of people to neighbouring countries such as
Iran and Pakistan.
At that time Iran was in the middle of a war with
Iraq and under sanctions.
Nevertheless, it accepted the arriving refugees, first housing them in camps and
later giving them work permits, allowing them to move to towns and cities. Later
fighting between Taliban and the Northern alliance simply increased the number
of refugees seeking safety or a better life in the neighbouring countries such
as Iran and
Pakistan. By the end of 1980s
Iran and Pakistan hosted
3 million refugees each [].
In addition to refugees, there were a large number of people entering
Iran illegally seeking work.
Iran’s GDP is over 11 times
that of Afghanistan and hence a magnet for
those seeking a better standard of living.
As the numbers kept rising,
Iran requested help from UN. However,
the UN help when it arrived was not only insufficient, but also nearly always
late. As time passed, the refugee numbers kept increasing. The government began
to restrict its liberal refugee policies; work-permits became harder to obtain.
But lack of documentation did not restrict the movement of the unregistered
immigrants/refugees within the country. Many simply moved to large cities and
became illegal aliens. There was some hope that the American invasion and
subsequent occupation would lead to some improvements in Afghanistan,
thereby facilitating the return of some of the refugees. However, things did not
improve and the continuing fighting between NATO forces and Taliban has worsened
the situation even further. War, draught and lack of investment have only
increased the number of people seeking a better life
Afghanistan has an unemployment rate
of close to 50%. Add war, draught, lack of basic services such as healthcare and
education and one can see the pressure on the population to emigrate.
Iran has a GDP that is 11
times higher than Afghanistan’s and is close by. To
complete the picture, many Afghans understand and speak Farsi (Dari is close to
Farsi). Iran is a natural magnet for Afghans.
It is not therefore surprising to see that millions of Afghans have immigrated
to Iran. In addition, some families that
stayed in Afghanistan have
established a security net by sending out one family member to work in
Iran, and numerous families are
completely dependent on remittances from family members working in the
As is the case with many illegal
aliens or refugees elsewhere in the world, Afghan immigrants / refugees were and
are willing to work for much lower wages than the natives. This has greatly
benefited industries such as farming and construction. Service industry has also
been a beneficiary of cheap Afghan labour as well. They build roads, buildings,
work as janitors etc. Yet again as is the case with the immigrant population
elsewhere, few seem to speak of the benefits that these people bring to the
Iran is suffering from double
digit inflation and unemployment.
Iranians see the Afghans as competitors for jobs and more importantly as
a barrier to higher wages for themselves. But the fact is that few Iranians are
willing to work as hard as Afghans. And it is highly improbable that they will
work for similar wages. So they see these immigrants as a threat to their living
Afghanistan is one of the world’s
biggest opium producers. Much of its products are smuggled to Europe and elsewhere through neighbouring countries, where
it is also distributed. This has created a huge drug problem in
Iran. Security forces regularly clash
with well-armed Afghan smugglers, resulting in deaths of thousands of Iranian
security personnel. Another problem is the general insecurity along the borders.
For a while some Afghan criminal elements were raiding Iranian villages in the
border area, kidnapping people for ransom.
Iranian government had to station troops around these areas to protect
All these problems have changed the
general sentiment towards the refugees and immigrants. Iranians in general see
the Afghans as a burden and think it is about time for them to return to
“In Iran today,
there is both subtle and overt discrimination, and at times harassment.
Opportunities for higher education were closed in 2003. Little or no
paid when workers in the
construction sector are killed or disabled in accidents. Informed reports have
suggested increased use of drugs to sustain long and hard working days. Iranian women who marry Afghan men lose
their Iranian citizenship. If involuntary returns are instituted, such families
risk being sent to Afghanistan. Estimates of the number
of persons who may be affected vary markedly, but a reasonable figure suggests
….By mid-2003, all Afghans residing
in Iran were asked to re-register with
the authorities. Those with refugee documents were obliged to hand in their
refugee cards and received in return only temporary residence permits, with no
time for staying or leaving specified. The number of registered Afghans at that
time totalled 2.3 million. Of these, UNHCR considers 1.1 million to be refugees
or otherwise ‘of concern’ to its mandate” [].
This left over 1 million “registered” Afghans without any protection from
deportation. Add the unregistered Afghan immigrants and one gets close to two
million or more people who have no legal status in the country (illegal
When confronted with the allegation
of maltreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran, Iranian government claims that
it has born a very large burden for a long-time without much international
assistance. It claims that it has done more than its share for the country and
it can no longer curry this burden alone.
As far as the international
assistance is concerned the government is right. It has not received the
assistance that it needs. It is also fair to say that it has kept its doors open
to refugees from both Iraq
and Afghanistan. With regards to helping
Iran has done more than any other
country in the region. Since 2001, Afghanistan has received over $4.5 billion in
aid from Iran, which it has spent constructing more than 1000 schools,
government buildings and clinics and paved some 1,200 kilometres (more than 730
miles) of roads [].
The biggest problem with the Iranian
government refugee/immigration policy has been that of not having one. It is
quite clear that Iran is and will continue to be a
magnet for Afghans. The government knows that refugees or immigrants will not
voluntarily return to a country where there is no infrastructure, housing,
education, healthcare or jobs for them.
The successive Iranian governments
have done very little in planning for integration of these refugees into the
Iranian society. The government can not deny that the country has benefited
greatly from this cheap labour pool. It also can not deny that the majority of
Afghans in Iran are law abiding, hardworking
people. The government has done very little in changing the negative image of
these people. At times it has even contributed to it.
A large number of these immigrants
have been in Iran for a long
time, and their children have been borne in Iran. These
children know nothing about Afghanistan. They rightfully consider
themselves as Iranians. It is inhumane to just deport these people. And where
and what are they going to?
To solve some of the existing
problems, the government should declare an amnesty for the illegal aliens that
have been in the country for the past seven years. In this way, the possibility
of these people engaging in illegal activities will be greatly reduced. It
should also offer citizenship to those who have been legally in the country for
the past seven years. How long should a person live in the country before it can
become a citizen? Under the current arrangement the Afghans will never become
eligible for citizenship. It is reprehensible to keep such a large number of
people in legal limbo for such a long time.
It should force the labour unions to
enforce the minimum wage laws for all workers, especially the Afghans. In this
way, the native Iranians will not see the Afghans as undercutting their wages.
It should also vigorously persecute those that are (so openly) abusing these
people. Iranian government should not forget that there are a few million
Iranians living in Europe and America. I am sure that it would not
appreciate similar treatments for its own emigrants.
The recent reports of large scale
deportation, heavy handed and at times brutal treatment of deportees is highly
troubling. Iranian government should know that deporting one million people
without proper planning is going to cause great hardship for these people.
Afghan government can not handle such large number of returnees. It even can not
care for its internally displaced population, let alone one million more
returning from Iran.
Iran has done a lot for
Afghanistan and should do more. If it
deports such a large number of people without providing adequate provisions for
them in Afghanistan, it will
create a humanitarian catastrophe that will (rightly) bring shame to
Iran. It is not that long ago that
Afghanistan was part of
Iran. Afghans are Iranians’ brothers
and as such should be respected and treated with respect and compassion. I urge
the Iranian government to immediately stop the deportations and reconsider its
immigration policies. I also hope that this message is taken-up by Iranians
abroad. I hope that they also write to Iranian government and urge them to
reconsider their actions. In conclusion I would like to cite sura 002.177 from
the Holy Quran:
“It is not righteousness that you
turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteousness is this that
one should believe in God and the last day and the angels and the Book and the
prophets, and give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the
orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for (the emancipation
of) the captives, and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate; and the performers
of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and
affliction and in time of conflicts-- these are they who are true (to
themselves) and these are they who guard (against evil).”
About the author: Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar lives in Norway. He is a
management consultant and a contributing writer for many online journals. He's a
former associate professor of Nordland
University, Norway. He can be contacted at : Bakhtiarspaceemail@example.com
Copyright Abbas Bakhtiar, all rights
 International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, “Afghan Refugees in Iran:
From Refugee Emergency to Migration Management”, Chr. Michelsen Institute,
Development Studies and Human Rights, 16 June 2004.
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