While politicians and intelligentsia in Iran often blame the US government for racism towards minorities, their track record at home is far from perfect. The Afghans’ experience is a case in point.
When American George Floyd was killed on the street in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in late May, his death sparked a global movement demanding justice for minorities. However, the movement has not fully reached the Middle East in general, and Iran in particular. When "Black Lives Matter" echoed across the Middle East, many members of media and intellectuals used it as another example of American hypocrisy. However, a discussion on racism and discrimination is long overdue. The difference is in the victims of oppression, not all of whom are black, in countries across the region.
There are many things that set Iran and Afghanistan apart from one another. However, few countries in the world have such a tight bond. They have share a cultural heritage and mythology and celebrate the same literary figures and heroes. They were part of the same political entity until the mid-19th century, when Afghanistan became a nation-state in its own right. Despite this history, few foreigners are treated as foreign as Afghan immigrants in Iran.
At the time of Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, there had been 400,000 Afghans in Iran, working and living in Iran’s eastern provinces, sharing a border with Afghanistan. However, the situation changed dramatically when the USSR invaded Afghanistan following a communist coup in Kabul. Thousands of Afghans sought refuge in Iran, a country with the same language, religion, history and culture. It was the beginning of their saga.
Iran soon found itself in a war of attrition with its western neighbor Iraq, as its eastern neighbor was going caught in the mayhem of a brutal civil war. The number of Afghan refugees reached 1.6 million, mostly residing in the capital city of Tehran, the industrial hub of Isfahan and the provinces of Khorasan and Fars. They sought employment as unskilled and low-skilled workers. They worked as seasonal workers, construction workers and farmhands. Their presence changed the market equilibrium, marking the beginning of many myths about their socio-economic status in Iran.
According to the Statistical Center of Iran, Between 1979 and 2000, the average wage increased by 31.3% in Iran. However, the average salary in construction dropped by 52.8%. Many attributed the discrepancy to the added supply of Afghan workers. During the 90s, Afghans constituted 4% of Iran’s population but 6% of its labor force. Since Afghan children were not welcome in Iran’s public school system during the 80s and 90s, there was an increase in child labor. Many Iranians began to believe that Afghans were crowding out Iranian unskilled workers from the construction sector. However, studies showed that Afghans live and work in areas with unemployment rates below the national average. Iranian unskilled workers did not experience a higher than average unemployment rate because of the Afghan immigrants.
Distorting the labor market is only one of the accusations Afghan immigrants face in Iran. News reports and the state authorities accuse Afghans of abusing public subsidies, increasing the crime rate, wasting the limited resources of the public health care system, sending much needed hard currency to Afghanistan and unofficially marrying Iranian women. It is ironic how many parallels exist between the treatment of Afghan immigrants and the accusations certain groups levy against African-Americans in the United States and in both cases, the allegations are not supported by facts.
For example, Afghans cannot use Iran’s public health care system without an official residency permit. They have no access to skilled workers’ job markets. If Iranian employers prefer undocumented Afghan workers, it is because they do not have to pay social security for them and their services can be acquired at much lower price. Afghans are limited to poor neighborhoods and often live on construction sites or dairy farms or in low-income ghettos in metropolitan areas, where crime is already a frequent occurrence.
Saleh, an Afghan immigrant who have been living in Mashhad for more than three decades, told Al-Monitor, “We are considered second-class human beings. We dream of being second-class citizens."
The list of what Afghans cannot do or have in Iran is long. In the age of telecommunication, an Afghan immigrant cannot own his or her own mobile line. They often use pay-as-you-go lines issued to Iranian account holders they have to pay a fee. Afghans cannot open bank accounts in Iran, cannot have debit cards, cannot use ATMs and cannot wire money using banking channels to their families.
For these people, who speak, read and write Persian, education in the largest Persian-speaking country in the world is a challenge. Afghans cannot operate their own schools. Until the academic year of 2014-2015, Afghan children were not admitted to public schools without certain documents. Many had been studying in underground schools run by Afghan intellectuals who were not permitted to work in Iran’s institutions. It took a decree from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the highest authority in the land, to open the schools to undocumented children in Iran. Even then, many were reluctant to admit Afghan students.
After graduating from high school, Afghan students can take the national universities’ admission exams. If they score high enough to enter the state universities, which are tuition-free for Iranians and very competitive, they have to pay tuition in hard currencies such as dollars or euros. Arriving on campus, Afghan students continue to face misunderstandings. Jaffar, a second-generation Afghan, told Al-Monitor, “On the first day at the University of Tehran, students were surprised that I speak Persian. I had to tell them we Afghans speak Persian!”
The truth is after living in Iran for four decades, Afghan immigrants are not considered Iranian citizens. They residency cards must be renewed each year. Many have to carry a travel permission card so that they can go from one city to another. Even if they fight for the rights granted them by existing laws and regulations, they face discrimination and cannot be confident they will win their cases. Saleh said, “I moved to Iran 35 years ago. I cannot say anything has fundamentally changed.”
However, there have been some changes. Afghan volunteers and recruits, known as Fatemiyoun, fought in Syria in support of Iran. In 2016 the Iranian government announced that it would grant citizenship to the family members of martyred Fatemiyoun, including their widows, children and parents. As Afghans make their way through Iran’s higher educational institutions, they have gained access to policy-makers and government officials. Many Afghan college graduates have voiced the issues and challenges their community faces in Iran.
Jaffar observed, “Iranian people are showing increasingly more empathy toward Afghan immigrants. They reach out more often these days.” Many Iranians support Afghans’ access to public schools and health care. However, there is a long way ahead before most Afghan immigrants can become Iranian citizens. Jaffar added, “We second- and third-generation Afghans do not feel at home visiting Afghanistan, but we are not considered Iranians either.” Iranians’ empathy for Afghan immigrants has not translated into truly substantial change.
George Floyd’s death serves as a reminder that ignoring discrimination and racism can prove costly for society. It is a reminder that Iranian authorities need to take Afghan lives and livelihood seriously.