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Afghan refugees face harsh rules in Iran and Taliban persecution at home

To renew their Iran visa, refugees must return to Afghanistan where they risk punishment and detention
Afghan refugees gathered at the Iran-Afghanistan border between Afghanistan and the southeastern Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan province, 19 August 2021 (AFP/Iranian Red Crescent)

Zohra was attending a university in the western Afghan province of Herat when the Taliban seized the capital Kabul last August.

Despite the Taliban’s promises after they seized power to allow women and girls to return to school and work, women across the country found themselves being turned away from their places of work and teenage girls were still being kept out of secondary school.

The 21-year-old saw no future in the country and so headed to Iran, arriving in October.

'I have no family with me here, and yet the Iranians want me, a young, single girl to travel across the border, return to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and then try to get back into Iran, it makes no sense'

- Zohra, Afghan student in Iran

But entrance into Iran for Zohra was not easy.

She is one of a number of Afghans in Iran who say Tehran’s policies towards Afghan refugees, which have long been seen as discriminatory and abusive, have worsened since the Taliban took control of their country last August.

Dozens of Afghans told Middle East Eye that Tehran’s mistreatment of their community is particularly galling at a time when reports say the Taliban continues to detain activists, journalists and members of the former government and security forces six months after taking power.

In particular, Afghans speaking to MEE from Tehran and Mashhad say that the Islamic Republic has made the visa renewal process extremely difficult.

In the past, Afghans were able to renew their visas in Iran, but in the months since the Taliban takeover, they have been told they must return to Afghanistan to extend or renew their visas. However, returning to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate remains a dangerous proposition for many Afghans.

Zohra faces the same problem. “I have no family with me here, and yet the Iranians want me, a young, single girl to travel across the border, return to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and then try to get back into Iran, it makes no sense,” Zohra said.

Bastions of corruption

Even as the Taliban was advancing across the country in early August, local media reported that Iranian border guards were accused of abusing Afghans trying to flee the Taliban encroachment.

Within 72 hours of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the Iranian interior ministry instructed all border forces to ensure no Afghans made it into the Islamic Republic.

‘Nothing is certain’: The precarious lives of Afghans in Iran
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According to the UNHCR, the official Iranian and Pakistani borders remained closed to a “vast majority of Afghans” by the end of 2021. Both Iran and Pakistan have faced repeated accusations of aiding and abetting the Taliban during the 20-year western occupation of Afghanistan. 

This has forced Afghans like Zohra to turn to smugglers and bribery to enter the neighbouring countries.

To procure her initial 90-day visa, only two months after the Taliban takeover, Zohra said she had to pay 1,100 euros ($1,200) in bribes to have her application fast-tracked.

Afghans have long complained that the embassies and consulates of Iran and Pakistan are bastions of bribery and corruption, but sources told MEE that bribery has only heightened in recent months as Afghans have become increasingly desperate to flee the country.

It is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 Afghans have been crossing into Iran each day over the last six months.

Zohra was fortunate. Her family had enough cash on hand to help her pay for the visa and the bribe, but the ongoing economic crisis in the country has meant that other Afghans either have to wait months for a visa or resort to being smuggled into Iran, which can cost between $600 and $700.

Returned wounded

Since the Taliban takeover, international sanctions, aid cutbacks and the freezing of assets abroad have made it especially difficult for Afghans to procure cash. Banking regulations meant to prevent runs and mitigate against an ongoing nationwide cash shortage have seen Afghans line up for hours, or even days at a time, to withdraw a maximum of $400 a week.

The World Food Programme says these economic strains and the slow trickle of foreign aid has made Afghanistan into one of “the world’s worst humanitarian crises” as “food security has all but collapsed” in the country.

Afghans afraid to return to the Islamic Emirate are also under great economic pressure in Iran. They say that they are charged one million riyals, $23.67, for each day that they overstay their visas. 

For years, Afghan refugees have had difficulties obtaining proper, legal employment in Iran and had to turn to back-breaking physical labour and construction work to provide for their families. But the continued devaluation of the Iranian riyal, western sanctions and the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic created a situation where Afghans have been unable to procure even those jobs.

A handout picture made available by the Iranian Red Crescent on August 19, 2021, shows Afghan refugees gathered at the Iran-Afghanistan border between Afghanistan and the southeastern Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan province
An Afghan refugee at the Iran-Afghanistan border between Afghanistan and the southeastern Iranian Sistan and Baluchistan (AFP/Iranian Red Crescent)

Fatema, an Afghan refugee, told MEE that, currently, even an educated Afghan can only expect to make about four million riyals a month, less than $100, in Iran, if they are lucky. In the past, Afghan refugees could count on their relatives back home in times of great need, but the cash crunch and banking restrictions in Afghanistan mean that even that is no longer an option.

It’s not just financial difficulty that Afghans seeking a life in Iran are facing, however.

Afghans trying to enter the Islamic Republic are also at great physical risk, especially those who are smuggled in through the Afghan provinces of Herat and Nimroz.  

Earlier this month, it was reported that more than 400 Afghans were returned, wounded, to Afghanistan from Iran. Sources speaking to local media accused Iranian border police of beating people trying to enter the country. 

Accusations of violence and intimidation towards Afghan refugees by Iranian border authorities are nothing new, though. 

In 2020, Iranian border guards were accused of beating and torturing dozens of Afghan refugees for hours before forcing them to jump in the Harirud River on the border between the two countries. At least 23 Afghans were reported to have drowned in that incident.

Dozens of Afghan refugees speaking to Middle East Eye say they too were told to return to Afghanistan to have their visas renewed, but going back home is highly dangerous.

Dangerous choices

Zohra is worried that by entering Afghanistan through the Islam Qala border crossing then traveling 121 kilometers to the city of Herat, she could face punishment from the Taliban, who have made it illegal for a woman to travel more than 45 kilometers without a mahram, a close male relative.

Huma, another refugee in Iran, said her family, including her three children, had to flee Afghanistan in the autumn after the Taliban came to their house searching for her husband, a former member of the Afghan National Security Forces.

'Afghans have faced such terrible times over the last six months, that’s the only reason they are bearing this kind of inhuman treatment'

- Zia Khan, refugee

However, she said her family has also been told to return to Afghanistan to renew their visas, but with the Taliban having already come to their house once, they fear even a brief return would leave them at risk of detention, abuse or torture. 

In November, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting at least 100 executions and forced disappearances of former members of the security forces by the Taliban between August and October.

Huma said her family’s experience in the Islamic Republic has left her feeling that Iranians “treat animals better than Afghans,” a phrase that was often repeated in messages to Middle East Eye from Afghans in Iran.

Zia Khan, an Afghan refugee who did not disclose his location in Iran for fear of repercussions, said many of these policy changes came after the Taliban takeover. 

He added that even basic tasks, like obtaining a SIM card or opening a bank account, have become “extremely difficult” for an Afghan refugee.

“Afghans have faced such terrible times over the last six months, that’s the only reason they are bearing this kind of inhuman treatment” by the Iranians, Khan said.

Zia Khan, an artist and student, said he has found it impossible to procure employment in Iran and, with so many of his family members in Afghanistan having lost their jobs following the Taliban takeover, surviving in Iran has become even more challenging.