Afghans cross the border from Iran back into Afghanistan near Islam Qala, Afghanistan, in April 2013.

(Kabul) – The government of Iran’s policies toward its Afghan refugees and migrant population violate its legal obligations to protect this vulnerable group from abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Iranian forces deport thousands of Afghans summarily, without allowing them the opportunity to prove they have a right to remain in Iran, or to lodge an asylum application.

The 124-page report, “Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights,”documents how Iran’s flawed asylum system results in a detention and deportation process with no due process or opportunity for legal appeal. Iranian officials have in recent years limited legal avenues for Afghans to claim refugee or other immigration status in Iran, even as conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated. These policies pose a serious risk to the rights and security of the almost one million Afghans whom Iran recognizes as refugees, and hundreds of thousands of others who have fled war and insecurity in Afghanistan. The practices also violate Iran’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

What the Iranian Government Should Do:

Allow newly-arriving Afghans and Afghans arrested for unlawful presence to lodge refugee claims or otherwise seek a protected status, review such claims fairly and efficiently, and guarantee rejected applicants a right of appeal.
Ensure that every Afghan facing deportation has the opportunity to have his or her case reviewed by a judge and has access to legal assistance and the right of appeal.

“Iran is deporting thousands of Afghans to a country where the danger is both real and serious,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Iran has an obligation to hear these people’s refugee claims rather than sweeping them up and tossing them over the border to Afghanistan.”

Human Rights Watch documented violations including physical abuse, detention in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, forced payment for transportation and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, and forced separation of families. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the Iranian security forces’ abuses against unaccompanied migrant children – who are traveling without parents or other guardians – a sizable portion of Afghan migrant workers and deportees.  

Iranian authorities are increasingly pressuring Afghans to leave the country. The Iranian government in June 2012 ended registration for its Comprehensive Regularization Plan (CRP), which had permitted some undocumented Afghans to legalize their status and obtain limited visas.

In November 2012, the Iranian cabinet of ministers issued a regulation allowing the government to expel 1.6 million foreigners “illegally residing in Iran” by the end of 2015. The regulation, approved at the vice presidential level, also instructed the Interior Ministry to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of an additional 200,000 Afghans legally classified as refugees and terminate the refugee status of another 700,000 Afghans.

Iranian officials ordered 300,000 Afghans living in Iran with temporary visas and temporary permission to work under the regularization plan to leave the country after the visas expired on September 6, 2013, with no chance of extension. As of this writing, Iranian officials had not yet implemented their plan to deport these Afghans.

As the Iranian government ratchets up the pressure on Afghans to leave, Afghanistan’s deteriorating economic and security situation increases the dangers for returnees. In the first six months of 2013, Afghanistan’s armed conflict and diminished security boosted the number of displaced people inside the country by 106,000, bringing the total to over 583,000. Attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups are the main factor in a 23 percent increase in civilian casualties in the first six months of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012. Declining international investment and development aid ahead of the deadline at the end of 2014 for full withdrawal of international combat forces is creating increasing economic insecurity.

Iranian legal restrictions and bureaucratic obstacles effectively deny newly arriving Afghans the opportunity to lodge refugee claims or register for other forms of protection mandated by international law and based on conditions in Afghanistan. Iranian policies deny the opportunity to legally challenge deportation to hundreds of thousands of Afghans in Iran who may face persecution or serious harm upon return to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch found.

“Iran has shouldered the burden of hosting one of the world’s largest refugee populations for more than three decades, but it needs to meet international standards for their treatment,” Stork said. “Afghanistan may be even more dangerous now than when many of these refugees first fled – now is not the time for Iran to send them home.”

The Iranian government should address the serious flaws in its asylum system that deny Afghans the right to lodge refugee claims, Human Rights Watch said. The now more than 800,000 Afghans recognized as refugees registered in 2003 under the country’s Amayesh system, a registration program designed to identify and track recognized refugees. They are required to renew their refugee registration cards every year or risk deportation to Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch also documented problems in Iran’s treatment of registered Afghan refugees. The Iranian government has instituted a complex and onerous process for Afghans to retain their Amayesh status. The process includes frequent re-registration with relevant government agencies, without official assistance for those with limited literacy who struggle to understand bureaucratic procedures, and onerous fees, which many poor refugees cannot afford.

Afghan deportees from Iran told Human Rights Watch that the smallest technical errors, including mistakes during the registration process, can prompt the Iranian authorities to strip Afghans of their refugee status permanently and deport them summarily. The Iranian government has also decreed large swaths of Iran to be travel and residency “no-go areas” for non-Iranians.

Iranian police and security forces also violate the rights of Afghans and commit serious abuses while deporting them. Some of the Afghans Human Rights Watch interviewed had received legal status as refugees from the Iranian authorities, and many of them had spent many years or even decades in Iran. Yet they reported that the Iranian officials who deported them denied them the time and opportunity to collect their wages and personal belongings, or even, in some cases, to contact their family members.

The Iranian government’s policies toward Afghan migrants create other kinds of abuses and discrimination. Although Iranian authorities have made efforts to educate Afghan children, 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. Iranian law also denies or severely restricts Afghans’ citizenship and marriage rights. Afghan men who marry Iranian women cannot apply for Iranian citizenship, and the children of such marriages face serious barriers to citizenship.

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.

“Iran is failing on many counts to respect the rights of Afghans living in Iran,” Stork said. “Even migrants without refugee status have clear rights to educate their children, to be safe from abuse, and to have the opportunity to seek asylum prior to deportation – none of which the Iranian government is respecting.”

Select Statements from Afghans Interviewed

“We were traveling in a mini-bus in Sarhak. A police officer came in and asked for our ID. The police officer took the ID and said ‘I will give it back tomorrow, come at 8 am.’ I went and they put us all in a car and took us to a [deportation] detention facility. [Then they deported us, leaving our children, ages 8, 10, and 12 behind in Iran….] I don’t know what I will do. I don’t have money to get a passport and visa. We have no one in Mashad to help. We are going to Mazar-e-Sharif. We have no house there but we will try to rent a house and bring the children back from Iran. I don’t know how God will guide me.”

– Arif, who was deported with his wife and infant, with their three older children, ages 12, 10, and 8, left behind in Iran. The family had lived in Iran for 10 years, and had valid Comprehensive Regularization Plan (CRP) cards at the time of their deportation.

“They beat us in the head and shoulders. I was hit five times in the back of the head with an AK47. I was kicked in the chin after sitting up. They kicked me in the chin and said go get in line.”

– Rafiq, age 18, who was a member of a group of Afghans who were travelling into Iran with a smuggler. Several of them were beaten after they were captured by police and failed to respond to police questioning about who the smuggler was.

“We decided to leave when the children were expelled from school [for being foreigners]. But it was too late. We weren’t documented anymore so we couldn’t go anywhere. We had green cards [residency cards], UN documents. But the Iranian government collected these documents and issued new documents extended every six to nine months. The last document was not very valuable [and then] they took this finally.”

– Najib T., age 55, and his wife, age 45, who lost their refugee status when the Iranian government declared the city where they had lived for 18 years a “no-go” zone for foreigners and they were found still living there after all foreigners had been ordered to leave.

“We woke up and were surrounded by Iranian soldiers. They said don’t move or we’ll shoot. People who had rings, they [police] took [them]. They broke my phone. We were taken in containers in big trucks. We were close to dying because of lack of oxygen. They locked the door. We begged them to keep the door open or we will die. They said you should die.”

– Naeem, age 30, who travelled into Iran in a group of about 500 Afghans being brought in by smugglers. They were resting soon after crossing the border when they were caught by police.

“I have two sons, five daughters. One of my daughters died of a stroke in Afghanistan. So now I have four daughters left. One of my sons got deported, so there's only one more left. I had grown used to living with my one son. Then the merciless people even took him away from me. He was a naughty boy, he was always running around. I had locked all doors so he couldn't get out. And [my] older son also told me to lock our doors before he went to work. But it's not possible…how can you keep a young boy indoors? After a while, he started pleading with me to open the door. He said, open the door. I will go get some eggs to cook for myself. They caught him immediately after he got out of home. He’s 12. He was deported six months ago.”

– Jamila, age approximately 40. She went to Iran from Afghanistan after her husband died to join family members who were there, including her sister. She and the two sons she was living with in Iran were undocumented.

“I left Afghanistan about one month ago. I went because we didn’t have anything to eat. We didn’t have any money. In a way, we were destroyed. My family paid the smuggler, but it was my decision to go. We went through Pakistan. In the Pakistan mountains we were walking and thieves came with five AK-47s and took everything from us… Between Zahedan and Tehran, we were robbed again. I had money in my shoe that the first thieves didn’t find, but the second thieves found it. One day later, while walking, before making it to Tehran, the police found us and we were arrested. In the detention facilities there was too little food. I paid 30,000 Iranian tomans [about US $25] in the first detention facility and 10,000 rials [about US $8] at White Stone [Deportation Camp]. Our families sent money. The police said you have to pay or you will have to stay here.”

– Salim, age 14, who travelled with a smuggler by himself from Dai Kundi province in central Afghanistan to Iran to try to join his two older brothers who were already in Iran.

“I don’t know what we will do. We don’t have money here; we don’t have money to go back. My wife does not work – she is uneducated.”

– Father of Hasina and Zohrah, after he and his teenage daughters were deported, leaving his wife and three young children behind in Iran. Officials deported the father and daughters after the teenagers were arrested because Hasina was wearing bright pink sneakers in the holy city of Qom. After they called family members for help and their father and Zohrah’s fiancé came to the police station. Realizing that they were Afghans, the police deported all four of them. 

“Around 6 am about 20-25 officers in military uniforms attacked the houses and arrested us. Some of us were beaten. They loaded us onto trucks and drove for a while. Then we got out in the middle of a barren desert at some point. They brought us some food. Then they took us to a local police station. There were some 12 and 13 year olds with us too. At the local police station there were about 450 undocumented Afghans. We needed to come up with 5,000 tomans each [US $4] to pay for our transportation to the detention facility in Kerman. I was forced to stay one night because I didn’t have any money and they [the police] beat me with a baton in the head that night several times. They asked me to pay 2,000 tomans [US $1.63] but I didn’t have it so they put me in a car and transferred me to Kerman Detention Facility anyway. There I needed 5,000 tomans but I didn’t have it so I cried and begged until people helped me. Kerman Detention Facility was horrible. [The detention facility guards] beat and harassed us and fed us very little.”

– Daoud, age 16, had previously been deported from Iran and was returning in a group of 48 people being smuggled in an effort to try to rejoin his brother who had remained in Iran. The group was sleeping in guesthouses when they were apprehended by police.