Afghans in Iran

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Afghans in Iran
Total population
(c. 2.5 million (2015 estimate), of which 951,142 are registered refugees,[1] 450,000 entered Iran with passports and visas, and the remaining number entered Iran illegally.[2])
Regions with significant populations
Sizeable populations in Tehran, Zabol, the outskirts of Mashhad, and around the Afghanistan-Iran border
Persian (including Dari and Hazaragi) and other languages of Afghanistan
Islam (Sunni and Shia)

Afghans in Iran are mostly refugees who have fled wars in Afghanistan since the April 1978 Saur Revolution in Kabul. It also includes an unknown number of illegal migrant workers as well as a smaller number of traders, exchanged students, diplomats, and tourists.[3] According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 2016 there are 951,142 registered Afghan citizens living in Iran.[1] Most of these were born and raised in Iran during the last three and a half decades.[4][5]

Iran's Ministry of Interior reported in 2015 that the total number of Afghans in Iran could be as high as 2.5 million, which includes those who are registered by the UNHCR as refugees as well as Iranian visa holders and those who entered the country illegally.[2][1] Afghans in Iran are under the care and protection of the UNHCR,[1] and provided legal status by the Government of Iran. They cannot obtain Iranian citizenship or permanent residency, and live in Iran under time-limited condition of stay.[6]

Iran opened its border gates to Afghans escaping from the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war but they are now asked to leave the country.[3] Many face forceful deportation every year,[7] which began in 2006 when about 146,387 undocumented Afghans were deported.[8] In 2010, six Afghan prisoners were executed by being hanged in the streets of Iran, which sparked angry demonstrations in Afghanistan.[9] Approximately 4,000 and 5,000 Afghans were reported in 2010 to be in Iranian jails.[9][10][11]

Political history and migration[edit]

A miniature from Padshahnama depicting the surrender of the Persian Safavid garrison of Kandahar in 1638 to the Mughals, which was re-taken by the Persians in 1650 during the Mughal-Safavid war.

As neighbouring countries with cultural ties,[12] there has been a long history of population movements between Iran and Afghanistan.[13] Southern Afghanistan was contested between the Persian Safavid dynasty and the Moghuls of India until 1709 when Mir Wais Hotak, founder of the Hotaki dynasty, declared it independent.[14] During the reign of Nader Shah, the brother of Ahmad Shah Durrani was made Governor of Mazandaran Province. A few years after Nader Shah's death, Durrani and his Afghan army made Nader's grandson Shahrokh Afshar, ruler of the small remaining Afshar territory comprising the Khorasan and Kohistan provinces of Iran, their vassal for some years.[15] The region remained a vassal territory of the Afghan Empire until Durrani's death. During the early 19th century, the Persian army invaded Herat several times but with British assistance the Afghans quickly expelled them.[16][17] Communities made up of 2,000 and 5,000 households of ethnic Hazaras were formed in Torbat-e Jam and Bakharz in Iran. The 1857 Treaty of Paris ended hostilities of the Anglo-Persian War. The modern day Afghan-Iranian border gradually began to take shape in the second half of the 19th century.

Afghan migrant workers, pilgrims and merchants, who settled in Iran over the years, had by the early 20th century, become large enough to be officially classified as their own ethnic group, referred to variously as Khavari or Barbari.[18] Young Hazara men have embraced migrant work in Iran and other Persian Gulf states in order to save money for marriage and become independent; such work has even come to be seen as a "rite of passage".[19] Such migration intensified in the early 1970s due to famine, and by 1978, there were an estimated several hundred thousand Afghan migrant workers in Iran.[20]

The Soviet war in Afghanistan, which erupted in 1979, was the beginning of a series of major waves of refugee flight from Afghanistan.[21] Those who came to Iran often augmented the ranks of migrant workers already there. The new Islamic Republic took place around the same time as the influx of masses of Afghan migrants to other countries, fleeing the plagues of problems in their own country. Iran started recognising those Afghans listed as migrants workers or refugees as legals. They issued them "blue cards" to denote their status, entitling them to free primary and secondary education, as well as subsidised healthcare and food. However, the government maintained some restrictions on their employment, namely prohibiting them from owning their own businesses or working as street vendors.[13]

Most of the early academic attention on these new immigrants was focused on ethnically Pashtun Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Studies on Afghans in Iran came later due to the political situation during the Iran–Iraq War.[18] By 1992, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there were around 2.8 million Afghans in Iran. Just 10% were housed in refugee camps; most settled in or near urban areas.[20] For their efforts in housing and educating these refugees and illegals, the Iranian government received little financial aid from the international community.[22] With the fall of the Najibullah government of Afghanistan in 1992, Iran began efforts to encourage refugees to repatriate. During these years, there were many reports of cases of Afghans being harassed by Iranian law enforcement officers. Legal residents had their identity cards confiscated and exchanged with temporary residency permits of one-month validity, at the expiry of which they were expected to have left Iran and have repatriated.[23]

21st century[edit]

Between 2002 and 2016, more than 5 million Afghan refugees have been repatriated through the UNHCR from both Pakistan and Iran.[24] This was done on a yearly bases. For example, in 2011 more than 60,000 Afghan refugees living in Iran voluntarily returned to Afghanistan.[25]

In 2012, around 173,000 Afghans were forcefully deported by Iran. Over 103,086 more were deported in 2013. Many of the deportees complained of torture and other abuses by the Iranian police.[6][7] According to the UNHCR, as of 2016 there are 951,142 registered Afghan citizens living in Iran.[1] Most of these were born and raised in Iran during the last three and a half decades.[4][5] The Government of Iran estimated in 2015 that 2.5 million Afghans live in Iran, which includes the registered and illegals as well as those who entered the country with Afghan passports and Iranian visas.[2][1]

Social life and other issues[edit]

Afghan boys in Isfahan, Iran.

Afghan refugees have come to Iran since the 1980s, including children and adolescents.[22] Many were born in Iran over the last 30 years but were unable to gain citizenship due to Iranian immigration laws. The refugees include Hazaras, Tajiks, Qizilbash, Pashtuns, and other ethnic groups of Afghanistan.[26] One UNHCR paper claims that nearly half the documented refugees are Hazara, a primarily Shi'a group.[27]

In Afghanistan, some people feel that using birth control violates the tenets of their religion; however, in Iran, attitudes are far different, due to the country's extensive promotion of family planning. Afghans in Iran have moved closer to mainstream Iranian values in this regard; the Iranian influence has even filtered back into Afghanistan.[28] One study in Khorasan has found that while overall fertility rates for Afghan migrant women are somewhat higher than those for Iranian women there—3.9 vs. 3.6—the similarity hides significant age-related differences in fertility, with older Afghan migrant women having a far higher number of children than older Iranian urban women, while younger Afghan migrant women's number of children appears to be approaching the far-lower Iranian urban norm.[29] Contraceptive usage among the same study group was 55%, higher than for local Iranian women.[30]

More broadly, the same conservative men who resisted aggressive attempts by communist governments in Afghanistan to expand women's education and their role in the economy are now faced with the very changes from which they had hoped to shield their families. Even more ironically, this shift in family and gender roles was induced by the experience of living as refugees in largely Muslim society.[31]

Some Afghan men married Iranian women during their residence in Iran; however, under Iranian nationality law, the children of such marriages are not recognised as Iranian citizens, and it is also more difficult for the men to gain Iranian citizenship than for Afghan women married to Iranian men.[32]

Although Iranian authorities have made efforts to educate Afghan children, Human Rights Watch reports that many undocumented Afghan children face bureaucratic obstacles that prevent their children from attending school, in violation of international law. Iranian law limits Afghans who have permission as refugees to work to a limited number of dangerous and poorly paid manual labor jobs, regardless of their education and skills.[6]

The Iranian government has also failed to take necessary steps to protect its Afghan population from physical violence linked to rising anti-foreigner sentiment in Iran, or to hold those responsible accountable.[33]

Execution of Afghans prisoners[edit]

Approximately 3,000 Afghan prisoners face the death penalty in Iran.[10][11] A number of them have been executed by hanging in the last decade.[34][35][36][37][38] Iran has capital punishment for certain crimes such as murder, rape, and even minor drug-related offences.[39]

In popular culture[edit]

Since the 1980s, a number of Iranian movies set in Iran have featured Afghan immigrant characters. One early example is Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 1988 movie The Bicyclist, in which the character of the title, a former Afghan cycling champion, gives a demonstration in his town's square where he rides his bicycle without stopping for seven days and seven nights, with the aim of raising money for life-saving surgery for his wife. In the end, even after seven days, he continues to pedal endlessly, too fatigued to hear his son's pleas to get off his bicycle.[40] One scholar analyses the film as an allegory which parallels the exploitation that Afghan refugees suffer from in Iran and from which they are unable to escape.[21]

Other notable films with Afghan characters include Jafar Panahi's 1996 The White Balloon, Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 A Taste of Cherry, Majid Majidi's 2000 Baran, and Bahram Bayzai's 2001 Sagkoshi.[21]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f Iran Factsheet (UNHCR Feb. 2016)
  2. ^ a b c "جدیدترین آمار تعداد مهاجران افغانی در ایران". Retrieved 10 March 2017. 
  3. ^ a b "Afghanistan says 760,000 refugees risk deportation from Iran". December 3, 2014. Retrieved December 5, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Why are Afghan refugees leaving Iran? (al-Jazeera May 17, 2016).
  5. ^ a b Abbas Hajimohammadi; Shaminder Dulai, eds. (6 November 2014). "Photos: The Life of Afghan Refugees in Tehran". Newsweek. Retrieved 2014-11-07. 
  6. ^ a b c "Iran: Afghan Refugees and Migrants Face Abuse". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved May 15, 2015. 
  7. ^ a b Iran daily deports thousands of Afghans to Herat Archived December 10, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ Tang, Alisa (2007-06-15), "Iran Forcibly Deports 100,000 Afghans", Washington Post, retrieved 2010-09-03 
  9. ^ a b "Afghans demonstrate against Iranian 'ill-treatment' and executions of Afghan refugees", BBC News, 2010-05-06, retrieved 2010-09-03 
  10. ^ a b Chris Sands. "Executions of Afghans reviving resentment of Iran". 
  11. ^ a b 3,000 Afghans face execution in Iran[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ Iran Foreign Policy & Government Guide (World Business Law Handbook Library), Usa Ibp, Intl Business Pubn., 2006, p. 149
  13. ^ a b Glazebrook & Abbasi-Shavazi 2007, p. 189
  14. ^ "AFGHANISTAN x. Political History". 
  15. ^ Friedrich Engels (1857). "Afghanistan". Andy Blunden. The New American Cyclopaedia, Vol. I. Retrieved August 25, 2010. 
  16. ^ Clements, Frank (2003). Conflict in Afghanistan: a historical encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 8. ISBN 1-85109-402-4. Retrieved February 22, 2012. 
  17. ^ "Kingdoms of Persia - Persia". 
  18. ^ a b Adelkhah & Olszewska 2007, p. 139
  19. ^ Adelkhah & Olszewska 2007, p. 140
  20. ^ a b Adelkhah & Olszewska 2007, p. 141
  21. ^ a b c Adelkhah & Olszewska 2007, p. 138
  22. ^ a b Hoodfar 2008, p. 165
  23. ^ Adelkhah & Olszewska 2007, pp. 141–142
  24. ^ "Over 1 Million Afghan Refugees Return Home". Voice of America. November 16, 2016. Retrieved 10 March 2017. 
  25. ^ "Over 60,000 refugees return home this year". Pajhwok Afghan News. October 29, 2011. Retrieved November 12, 2011. 
  26. ^ Abbasi-Shavazi et al. 2008, p. 14
  27. ^ Glazebrook & Abbasi-Shavazi 2007, p. 187
  28. ^ Piran 2004, p. 283
  29. ^ Moghadas, Vaezzade & Aghajanian 2007, Fertility Level
  30. ^ Moghadas, Vaezzade & Aghajanian 2007, Contraceptive Use
  31. ^ Hoodfar 2004, p. 141
  32. ^ Zahedi 2007, p. 225
  33. ^ "Iran: Afghan Refugees and Migrants Face Abuse". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved May 15, 2015. 
  34. ^ "Iran executes seven Afghan immigrants". 
  35. ^ "Afghans Protest Against Iran Over Executions". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. 
  36. ^ Iran: Execution of juvenile scheduled for Monday Archived November 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  37. ^ "BBC News - Afghans protest against 'refugee executions' in Iran". 
  38. ^ "". 
  39. ^ "Human rights in Iran are still atrocious: While Iran reopens to the West, repression still prevails at home". The Economist. 24 March 2016. Retrieved 26 March 2016. 
  40. ^ Adelkhah & Olszewska 2007, p. 137
  41. ^ Moin 1999, p. 233


Further reading[edit]

  • Olszewska, Zuzanna (2007), "'A Desolate Voice': Poetry and Identity among Young Afghan Refugees in Iran", Iranian Studies, 40 (2): 203–224, doi:10.1080/00210860701269550 
  • Tober, Diane (2007), "'My Body Is Broken Like My Country': Identity, Nation, and Repatriation among Afghan Refugees in Iran", Iranian Studies, 40 (2): 263–285, doi:10.1080/00210860701269584 
  • Kutschera, Chris, "Forgotten Refugees: Afghans in Iran", The Middle East, 45 (92): 43–47 

External links[edit]