Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees condemned again

Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees condemned again

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Afghan refugee children in Torbat-e Jam, Khorasan Province, Iran. (UNHCR)

As a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, millions of Afghans migrated to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, as well as many other parts of the world. In general, Afghans have been grateful to their host countries for their support and generosity, and for being made to feel welcome among their communities. However, not all countries treated the incoming Afghan migrants the same. Iran is Afghanistan’s western neighbor, where millions of Afghans settled to stay safe from the conflict in their homeland and where they sought employment and economic opportunities. Most of those that migrated to Iran were either Persian-speaking or belonged to the Shiite Hazara community. 

Two recent tragic incidents have triggered a renewed debate over Afghan migrants in Iran. Last month, dozens of Afghan migrants were reportedly drowned in the Harirud River by the Iranian border police as punishment for illegally crossing into Iran. The incident caused outrage among Afghans, civil society organizations and the Human Rights Watch group. 

Then, last week, another tragic incident occurred that was as barbaric as the first. This time, a car carrying Afghan refugees in Iran’s Yazd Province was shot at by the Iranian police, causing it to catch fire. Three passengers were killed and four others hurt. Video footage of the incident went viral on social media and the Iranian authorities were severely criticized for being inhuman and brutal toward Afghan migrants. The issue has already been raised by the Afghan government, which has demanded a full investigation. 

Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees has always been subject to criticism. Afghans are believed to be generally humiliated within Iranian society. There have been reports of hundreds of them either being mistreated or subjected to human rights violations by the Iranian state. Many hospitals in Iran have declined to provide medical care to Afghans and several schools and colleges have denied access to Afghan students. For example, it was reported in March that Iranian hospitals had declined to treat Afghan refugees suffering from the coronavirus disease.

Despite all of the aforementioned injustices, millions of especially Persian-speaking and Shiite Hazara Afghans have been attracted to Iran for employment and economic opportunities. 

Iran is considered to have politicized the presence of Afghan refugees in the country by using their presence for political gains and without humanitarian considerations. The burden of hosting millions of Afghan refugees for almost four decades has generally been appreciated by the Afghan government and the country’s people, but the general record of mistreatment by the Iranian government and society is considered as being humiliating and in violation of the international norms of decency. 

The other issue with Iranian refugee politics is its discrimination of Afghans due to their various religious and linguistic affiliations. For example, Iran has looked upon the Hazara community of Afghanistan as its own strategic asset to be used for political intervention in Kabul’s internal affairs. 

The general record of mistreatment by the Iranian government and society is considered as being humiliating.

Ajmal Shams

Iran has not been happy with Afghanistan’s engagement with the international community and, at times, has been categorical in its opposition, which is a clear intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbor. Afghanistan has been virtually dependent on foreign assistance for its survival. Its partnership with the international community is of vital importance for its geopolitical and economic interests, which have traditionally been looked upon with antagonism by Iran. 

The peoples of Afghanistan and Iran share a long history spanning thousands of years. Their cultural and religious ties must be used by both countries as a source of stability in the region. Iran must treat Afghanistan as a good neighbor and economic partner rather than as a rival. The key question is whether the current state of affairs inside Iran vis-a-vis Afghan refugees is due to general hatred within the Iranian state and society or if it is a systematic effort to force them out. Regardless, Iran is under no obligation to host Afghans forever. It is up to the Afghan leadership to help create the conditions inside Afghanistan that are conducive for the refugees to return home and start a dignified life with access to economic opportunities. 

  • Ajmal Shams is President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and based in Kabul. He was a Deputy Minister in the Afghan National Unity Government. Twitter: @ajmshams
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