Afghan Refugees in Iran: Dilemma of Staying or Leaving
Iran stands as one of the countries hosting the largest number of Afghan refugees. According to certain sources, the estimated immigrant population in Iran reaches around seven million. Iranian authorities have repeatedly expressed concerns regarding the high number of Afghan immigrants, stating that it exceeds the country’s capacity. Numerous reports have documented instances of violent behavior by Iranian police towards immigrants, as well as violations of their rights. There have also been reports suggesting that Iran has previously used refugees as a means of political leverage against the former Afghan government. Specifically, in 2007, Iranian officials conducted mass deportations of nearly one million immigrants, resulting in the Afghan parliament impeaching the former Minister of Refugees and Repatriation due to the Ministry’s failure to prevent it. Furthermore, in 2019, Iranian police targeted a vehicle carrying Afghan immigrants in Yazd City, resulting in the car catching fire and three individuals losing their lives, with one person injured. This incident garnered international attention and sparked widespread reactions.
Over the past two years, two factors have contributed to a significant increase in the influx of Afghans to Iran: Firstly, the resurgence of the Taliban and their assumption of power. Secondly, Iran’s role as a transit route to Turkey. Reports indicate that the number of Afghans seeking refuge in Iran has multiplied several times in the last two years. In a span of just one week, from March 26 to April 1, 2022, a staggering 36,948 individuals migrated to Iran, with only 2,810 possessing valid travel documents. Once inside Iran, these immigrants face considerable challenges in terms of securing their stay, as they are at risk of improper deportation or resorting to Iran as a pathway to Turkey. The rising number of immigrants entering Iran has resulted in an expedited deportation process. In September 2022, approximately 7,000 Afghan immigrants were deported from Iran within a single week, indicating a further escalation of this trend.
In response to the new wave of immigration, Iran has undertaken two plans, both of which are currently in progress: firstly, a census initiative targeting Afghan nationals without proper documentation, and secondly, an extension of the residence permits for illegal Afghan nationals. The following are further details regarding these two plans.
1- Census Plan for Afghan Nationals Lacking Documents
The implementation of the census plan for Afghan refugees in Iran aims to gather accurate statistical data on Afghan immigrants residing in the country, including their identity, occupation, and other relevant information. This program specifically targets individuals who entered Iran illegally, excluding those who possess valid residence permits or entered the country with a visa that has not expired. Ahmad Vahidi, the Minister of the Interior of Iran, publicly announced the initiation of this plan, urging Afghan immigrants to take advantage of this opportunity to avoid potential deportation.
The census plan was initially scheduled to be effective from April 11 to June 7, 2022. However, due to the overwhelming number of refugees, the deadline was extended until June 30. The Immigrant Welfare Offices of Iran, which cater to the needs of foreigners, were activated in various cities across the country, facilitating the registration process for immigrants and providing them with census forms. Immigrants were required to pay Rls 27,000 (equivalent to $0.64) to obtain a census card, which remains valid for six months and can be renewed. It has been reported that nearly two and a half million immigrants have already benefited from this plan.
A. Advantages of Census Forms:
Individuals possessing the census forms are permitted to travel within the city where they reside. However, for intercity travel, they are required to visit the Immigrants Welfare Office and obtain a travel permit. In exchange for the census form, the office issues a travel letter. Upon the cardholder’s return, the officer receives the letter of guarantee and returns the census card.
Cardholders enjoy apparent immunity from deportation by the police.
Children in possession of this card are eligible for educational benefits, including enrollment in schools.
Mohammadullah (pseudonym), an Afghan immigrant in Iran, formerly served in various provinces and districts under the General Directorate of National Security during the previous government. Following the collapse of the previous government, he entered Iran on a medical visa. However, upon the expiry of his visa, he was unable to renew it, leading him to reside in Iran unlawfully. With the commencement of the aforementioned census plan, he visited the Immigrants Welfare Office and obtained a census form. Now, he no longer lives in fear of deportation by the police and can freely commute to the city where he is employed, thanks to possessing the census document. He has successfully renewed the census form twice, which remains valid until the end of June 2023. According to Mohammadullah, there have been indications that the census form may eventually evolve into an “employment card,” which he believes could improve the conditions for staying in Iran.
2- The Plan to Extend the Residence of Illegal Afghan Nationals in Iran
Implemented on April 24, 2023, this plan caters to individuals who entered Iran with valid documentation following the Taliban’s return to power. However, their documents have since expired, and they are presently residing in Iran without legal status. The plan encompasses three categories of immigrants:
Immigrants who entered Iran with a valid visa (such as tourist, entry, medical, or pilgrimage visas) since May 2021 but were unable to renew their visas after they expired.
Immigrants who entered Iran with a valid visa (such as tourist, entry, medical, or pilgrimage visas) at the beginning of the Iranian calendar year 1400 SH (March 2021 – March 2022) and managed to extend their visas once, but subsequently, their extensions expired.
Immigrants who entered Iran with a valid visa (such as tourist, entry, medical, or pilgrimage visas) since May 2021 and were granted two visa extensions, but the validity of their visas has now expired.
Individuals excluded from this plan are those who entered Iran with a valid visa (such as tourist, entry, medical, or pilgrimage visas) at the beginning of the Iranian calendar year 1400 SH but were deported after their visas expired and subsequently re-entered Iran unlawfully.
A. Advantages of Extending Residence:
The extension of residence permits offers a significant advantage to Afghan nationals with expired passports and visas by reducing the amount of fines imposed. Previously, extending visas incurred substantial expenses, making it difficult for many individuals to renew their visas. Now, Afghan nationals pay Rls 400,000 (equivalent to $9.5) for each year of visa extension delay. This reduction in fines is of utmost importance as it enables Afghan nationals to meet their obligations more easily. Prior to the implementation of this plan, a fine of Rls 200,000 (equivalent to $4.7) was imposed for each day of illegal presence in Iran. However, under the new plan, a fine of Rls 400,000 (equivalent to $9.5) will be imposed per year, amounting to Rls 100,000 (equivalent to $2.4) every three months. Compared to the previous situation, this plan offers significant benefits to immigrants, which is quite surprising considering the Iranian government’s stringent immigration policies.
Once the fine is paid, individuals holding passports and visas can legally stay in Iran for a period of three months. After this period, they have the option to either leave Iran legally or, if they wish to remain, participate in the process of obtaining the census form as described in the first plan.
Zalmai (pseudonym), who formerly served as the head of the appeals office of Kabul attorney, entered Iran legally with his family following the collapse of the republican government. He and his family were able to extend their visas only once. However, after the implementation of the census plan for Afghan nationals with legal documentation, they participated in the program and obtained census forms. Unfortunately, Zalmai’s elderly mother, who could not wait in the queue to receive the census form, missed out on this opportunity. Subsequently, upon the announcement of the second plan to extend the residence of illegal Afghan nationals by the Iranian Ministry of Interior, Zalmai took his mother, whose visa had expired 11 months prior, to the Immigrants Welfare Office in Isfahan City. There, they successfully extended her visa within 25 days by paying $9.5.
It is important to note that both of the aforementioned plans provide temporary solutions rather than complete resolutions. Afghan immigrants in Iran still encounter numerous challenges, such as the inability to access banking and telecommunication services unless they possess legal residence, which remains a cumbersome process.