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(Beirut) – The Iranian government’s December 13, 2014 announcement that it will grant a six-month visa extension to 450,000 Afghans is a helpful move to prevent their imminent deportation, Human Rights Watch said today. However, the visa-extension plan is no substitute for an asylum system that will allow newly arriving Afghans to lodge refugee claims.

An Iranian foreign ministry official described the visa extension plan as a reflection of Iran’s “brotherly relations” with Afghanistan. The official said that the Afghan government had agreed to devise an assistance plan for reintegrating the 450,000 Afghans when they return to Afghanistan. Under the Iranian plan, the previously undocumented Afghans will be able to apply for temporary visas and work.

“The Iranian government deserves credit for sparing almost half-a-million Afghans the threat of imminent deportation,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the visa extension won’t remedy a broken asylum system that routinely results in the detention and deportation of unregistered Afghans without access to refugee status, due process, or an opportunity for legal appeal of their forced removal.”

Afghanistan’s second deputy chief executive, Mohammad Mohaqiq, confirmed some of the details of the visa extension plan to reporters on December 14. Mohaqiq said the Iranian government had also committed to allow undocumented Afghan children to study in Iranian schools, and to cut in half university fees for Afghan students.

Iranian authorities have previously extended the visas of several hundred thousand Afghans who have temporary residence status in Iran. From 2010 to June 2012, the Iranian government operated a Comprehensive Regularization Plan (CRP), which offered undocumented Afghans in Iran an opportunity to register officially and apply for temporary visas and work permits with the possibility, but not the guarantee, that they would be extended.

The process required Afghan men without families to return to Afghanistan to apply for visas, while families could apply without leaving Iran. The process was difficult and costly for indigent migrants, in part because it required all applicants first to obtain Afghan passports. The Iranian authorities have also encouraged Afghans who have legal status as refugees to exchange refugee status for Iranian residential visas.

For the last three decades, Iran has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. But at present, only 840,000 of the approximately 3 million Afghans estimated to live in Iran have legal status as refugees. The Iranian government has excluded the remainder from accessing asylum procedures, including the Afghans whose temporary legal status has now been extended by the Iranian government, as well as the many others who have temporary visas or are undocumented.

In a report released in 2013, Human Rights Watch documented how Iran’s virtually non-existent asylum system results in detention and deportation with no due process or opportunity for legal appeal. Iranian officials have in recent years limited legal avenues for Afghans to claim refugee status in Iran, even as conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated. These policies pose a serious risk to Afghan asylum seekers who are not among the minority who were previously recognized as refugees, and who have fled – or may flee – armed conflict, persecution, and insecurity in Afghanistan. As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Iran is obligated not to return anyone to a place where they claim a fear of persecution or other serious threats to their life or freedom without first examining that claim.

As foreign military troops complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan, there are serious concerns that at least some Afghans arbitrarily deported to Afghanistan would be at risk due to a surge in deadly attacks on civilians by insurgent forces, and intensified fighting between government forces, militias, and insurgents, Human Rights Watch said. Deportees would also compete for resources with a growing population of Afghans internally displaced by the conflict. The UN  has estimated that Afghanistan’s population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) requiring UN assistance will rise to 755,000 in January 2015, up from 631,000 a year earlier.

The 2013 Human Rights Watch report also documented violations of the rights of Afghans in Iran, 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 also documented Iranian security force abuses against unaccompanied migrant children, a sizable portion of Afghan migrant workers, and deportees. 

Human Rights Watch urges the Iranian government to take the following measures to protect the rights of Afghans in Iran to lodge asylum claims:

  • Allow newly arriving Afghans and Afghans arrested for unlawful presence to lodge refugee claims, review the claims fairly and efficiently, and guarantee rejected applicants a right of appeal; and
  • Ensure that every Afghan facing deportation has the opportunity to have the case reviewed by a judge and has access to legal assistance and the right of appeal.

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