Over the last few weeks, there has been a continuous return, both voluntary and forced, of Afghan refugees from Iran. The return occurs amidst the worsening economic conditions, lack of employment opportunities in Iran, and the political turmoil in Taliban-led Afghanistan.
In the first week of July 2023, close to four thousand Afghan migrants returned to Afghanistan from Iran. As per Iranian authorities, close to one lakh "illegal” immigrants have returned to Afghanistan through the Dogharun border in the past year.
Iran’s Aid to Refugees
As per UNHCR, 7.6 lakh refugees live in Iran, of which more than 90% are from Afghanistan.
Historically speaking, Iran has been quite proactive in helping Afghan migrants. Even during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resultant refugee crises, the Iranian government came forward to help the refugees while Iran struggled to cope with political and societal transformation during the Iranian Revolution. The refugees were then provided with “blue cards” that allowed them indefinite stay.
Iran has, therefore, time and again provided shelter to Afghan refugees. With the help of UNHCR, Iran has also facilitated the repatriation of these refugees—for example, the 1992 tripartite agreement between the Afghan government, Iran, and the UNHCR.
After the end of the Taliban regime in 2002 amidst the "war on terror”, many Afghan migrants returned to their homes under another repatriation agreement between Iran, Afghanistan, and the UNHCR.
Apart from the end of the Taliban regime, high unemployment among Afghan youths in Iran was also one of the "push” factors. At the same time, Iran also hardened its immigration policy by replacing “blue cards” with the Amayesh cards, giving relatively limited protection to cardholders.
Owing to the economic problems in Iran, what followed was a series of deportation of Afghan refugees. In 2013, when Hassan Rouhani came to power, he tried to liberalise some policies on refugees and immigration, but his government’s failure to control inflation and his inability to counter sanctions imposed by the USA forced him to harden his stance against immigration.
Forceful Deportation of Afghan Refugees Under Taliban Regime
With the coming of the power of Taliban 2.0 amidst the withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan, Iran experienced another upsurge in the number of people fleeing Afghanistan. However, Iran has sent most of these refugees back, this time through deportation or border pushback.
It becomes all the more significant as Iran is a signatory to the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Some domestic laws in Iran deal with refugee protection, like the 1963 Regulation on Refugees or the 1979 Iranian Constitution.
If the reports of forced deportation are believed to be true, then it contravenes the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in Article 33 of the Refugee Convention that obliged the signatory state to refrain from the forceful deportation of refugees.
It was highlighted in a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights(OHCHR) in 2021. Reiterating Article 14 (Right to Asylum) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, OHCHR showed concern for Afghan nationals, especially undocumented ones. The report stated that these migrants are subject to the “ongoing risk of refoulement” and face challenges in exercising their right to seek asylum.
The report stated that in August and September 2021, more than 50,000 undocumented Afghans were deported from Iran.
It is supplemented, the report said, with the forced return of those apprehended at the border. In response to that, Iran reiterated its commitment to helping refugees from Afghanistan. Concerning its commitment to ‘non-refoulement’, Iran said that the possibility of mass migration was excluded from the scope of Article 12 of the 1963 Regulation.
How Has Support Been Extended
The current deportation of Afghan refugees from Iran also has a regional dimension. Pakistan is one such actor with whom Iran has engaged significantly over the issues of Afghan refugees.
Even before the recent Taliban takeover, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, with the support of UNHCR, have consistently cooperated over the refugee issues exemplified by the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees(SSAR). Drafted in 2012, it seeks to promote equitable "burden and responsibility sharing” amongst the partners and provides a regional framework for cooperation over cross-border migration.
An additional Support Platform was launched, in line with Global Compact for Refugees principles to provide additional support to Afghan refugees.
Last year, Iran hosted the eighth meeting of the SSAR Quadripartite Steering Committee, where the situation of Afghan refugees was discussed—the forum tries to galvanise support with the help of local core groups in the three countries. Several actors have joined the local core group, including the EU, Germany, and the USA. In January this year, Korean International Cooperation Agency agreed to give a USD 5.65 million contribution to both host communities and refugees in Pakistan under the SSAR.
In the last meeting held on 31 March 2022, the UK, Germany, and Qatar sought to raise USD 4.4 billion to help the Afghans in need of support and highlighted the need to support neighbouring countries. It praised and welcomed the support provided by the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and Iran.
The statement by the core group showed that the Taliban is now the reality and the only way to bring tangible solutions to the problem of refugees is by engaging with the Taliban.
However, Pakistan is now dealing with its internal crises after the ousting of Imran Khan and the subsequent unrest that followed on the one hand.
Conversely, with Iran’s differences with the Taliban, the latest being the reigniting of the longstanding Helmand water-sharing dispute, regional cooperation on refugees looks like a distant dream. However, it remains the only way to create, in line with this year’s World Refugee Day theme, a “Hope Away from Home”.
(Pulkit Buttan is a PhD Scholar at the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)