Iran: Refugees twice over: the migration of second-generation Afghans to Europe from Iran

Decades of conflict in Afghanistan, beginning with the Soviet occupation of the country from 1978 to 1992, has led to widespread displacement and migration. This continued under Taliban rule between 1992 and 2001, an era defined by widespread violence and ethnic cleansing across Afghanistan, ending with the US-led invasion in 2001 and an estimated 26,000 documented civilian deaths as a result of war-related violence. Since then, amidst deteriorating governance and a re-energized insurgency, the country has again faced the threat of instability and civil war.

Throughout these different phases, while all Afghans have been affected, ethnic and religious minorities have been particularly at risk. This is especially the case for Afghanistan’s Hazaras, a community who have long faced persecution and discrimination for their faith as Shi’a Muslims and their Asiatic features. In their long history in Afghanistan, Hazaras have suffered persecution, social ostracization and mass killings, with thousands murdered under the Taliban.

Consequently, since the 1980s many have attempted to flee Afghanistan for the relative security of neighbouring Iran: today, after successive waves of migration, hundreds of thousands of Hazaras reside there. However, like other Afghan refugees, Hazaras found that their experiences of discrimination and exclusion were replicated again in their new country. Their maltreatment, ranging from limited access to education and employment to summary arrests and denial of many basic rights, was the direct result of policies that perpetuated hardship and insecurity. Many, despite living in Iran for decades, still lack legal status and documentation – a situation that leaves them vulnerable to deportation at any time.

Long-standing social prejudices about Afghans have been sustained in no small part by their second-class status in Iran’s legal system. As Iranian law creates obstacles to Afghan men who marry Iranian women being able to either gain residency themselves or secure citizenship for their children, the next generation of Iran- born Afghans face similar restrictions. Many undocumented Afghan children do not have access to education as a result of these extensive bureaucratic hurdles, pushing many into underage labouring work on construction sites. And overhanging these challenges is the constant threat of deportation: in November 2012, a regulation was issued by the Iranian cabinet of ministers allowing the government to expel 1.6 million foreigners ‘illegally residing in Iran’ by the end of 2015. Deportations have continued into 2017, with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reporting at the end of October that since the beginning of the year there had been around 350,000 undocumented Afghan returnees to Afghanistan.

The uncertainty of life as an undocumented resident, even in the country of one’s birth, can push refugees into situations of extreme danger. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and Iran’s involvement in the conflict, the Revolutionary Guards have reportedly been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight alongside pro- Assad armed forces. Although the involvement of the Afghan recruits, who are reportedly mainly Hazaras, has been presented as a decision based on ideology, evidence shows that many have been bribed with promises of getting their citizenship reviewed and a chance of gaining a residence permit on returning to Iran, as well as a US$500 salary. Those refusing to fight alongside armed forces, on the other hand, face the threat of deportation back to Afghanistan.

In this forbidding environment, with basic rights such as education or healthcare out of reach and the constant fear of deportation, many Afghan refugees (a large number of whom have lived in Iran for their entire lives) have been pushed to seek sanctuary in Europe. According to Eurostat, almost 183,000 Afghans applied for asylum in EU member states in 2016, making Afghans the second largest national group seeking asylum after Syrians. Yet despite their compelling claims for sanctuary, Afghans are now treated as second-class refugees, with many claiming that the EU member states’ asylum procedures systematically favour certain nationalities over others. Afghans have been described as belonging in the ‘lowest- priority’ camp because they are perceived as being mostly ‘economic migrants.’

However, this perception not only overlooks that, with an ongoing insurgency, kidnappings and widespread misrule, Afghanistan is not yet a place of safe return for vulnerable groups but also the fact that Afghans are not a single homogenous population – so failing to take into account the diverse experiences of communities such as Hazaras who may have faced and continue to experience specific aspects of religious or ethnic discrimination.

With tightening border controls, stricter migration policies and a broader climate of stigmatization, many refugees face uncertain futures with little hope of securing successful asylum cases in European countries and the looming fear of being deported instead ‘back’ to Afghanistan. This uncertainty, mixed with legitimate fears of return, is made worse by the severe living conditions evident in many refugee camps across Greece and the lack of access to basic services such as water or electricity. There have even been reports of Afghan refugees being forced into the sex trade, with fights breaking out between residents and men who had entered the camp trying to recruit young boys for sex work.

This situation points not only to a hardening of Europe’s asylum regime but, even more troublingly, the role it plays as a result in perpetuating the marginalization of vulnerable communities such as Hazaras – a far cry from the international consensus on the duty to protect those displaced by conflict or persecution that informed the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention in the wake of the Second World War.

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement

Photo credit: Tracy Hunter

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Date: 13/12/2017


Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech
Religion/Religious minorities

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