Ahead of Run-Off Election, Afghan Asylum Seekers Face Hostility gnewsplus24

As Iranians head to a run-off presidential election this week to replace the late leader Ebrahim Raisi, one key—and unusual—electoral issue continues to grip the country.

While previous elections focused largely on the issues of civil liberties, women’s rights, and fraught relations with the West, immigration has also featured prominently in this year’s debate. Almost every candidate in the tightly controlled showdown touched upon the influx of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and the socioeconomic ripple effect that it has created in Iran.

Discrimination and racial prejudice against Afghans have recently been on the rise in Iran, especially as economic hardships take a toll on citizens squeezed by corruption and poor governance at home and the burden of international sanctions from abroad.

According to the country’s latest census in 2016, more than 1.58 million Afghan nationals lived in Iran—making up roughly 90 percent of the country’s migrant population. Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, the latest United Nations figures now put the number of Afghan refugees living in Iran at 3.7 million.

In its 2023 country report on Iran, Amnesty International cited “barriers to education, housing, employment, health care, banking services and freedom of movement” as the major cases of discrimination against Afghans. Roughly half of the country’s 31 provinces are regions that Afghan nationals aren’t allowed in by executive mandate. These include either the more economically advantaged provinces or those at the heart of acute ethnic fault lines in Iran.

Afghanistan is one of the only three Persian-speaking countries, meaning that there is no major language barrier between Afghans and Iranians. In religious terms, Islamic practices have tied the two nations for centuries. Culturally, commonalities are manifold and the two peoples’ admiration for such relics of a shared past as the Nowruz festival or the poetry of Rumi and Ferdowsi remains ironclad.

Against this backdrop, it’s shocking that the public discourse among Iranians about Afghans fleeing the Taliban’s tyranny has become so toxic. In preserving its imagined sociopolitical boundaries, Iran’s clerical establishment has reproduced negative clichés about a vulnerable community, making it more convenient for disgruntled masses to blame them for their country’s mishaps.

A succession of hate crimes and violent acts targeting Afghan migrants, often provoked by the irresponsible rhetoric of politicians and state media, testifies to an overtly unwelcoming and intimidating environment for the desperate asylum-seekers. Security forces mistreating Afghan nationals at ports of entry and public venues through physical abuse, verbal aggression and other forms of humiliating behavior has become routine.

In the absence of accountability for the state, ordinary Iranians have also become complicit in a pattern of villainizing and mistreating Afghans. Last April, an upscale shopping center in Tehran banned Afghans from entering the mall for four days. In October, a video circulated online showing a group of men in the city of Sanandaj beating a young Afghan refugee. And last December, following the killing of a 17-year-old Iranian from the city of Meybod, an angry mob attacked a housing estate hosting Afghan refugees, setting several apartments on fire.

The teenager was reportedly killed in a street fight that implicated an Afghan migrant, and his death reignited anti-Afghan sentiments that erupt in Iran from time to time. The second-largest city of the province of Yazd, Meybod hosts nearly 12,000 Afghans; after the incident, local authorities said that they would enforce restrictions on the living conditions of the “alien residents,” including walling their housing complexes off from the rest of the city.

Iranians are economically frustrated, seeing the government as unable to address their basic needs. In a petroleum-rich and relatively wealthy country, the World Bank has reported that 28 percent of the population is living under the poverty threshold and a further 40 percent is on the verge of falling into poverty. The youth unemployment rate stands above 22 percent, and the inflation rate is over 37 percent—higher than that of war-torn Yemen, for example.

The proliferation of anti-Afghan sentiment in the public domain was reinforced by the hostile rhetoric of the Raisi administration, which weaponized a mix of nationalism and religious zeal to rally a base of conservative loyalists around an anti-immigration platform. A hashtag in Persian that reads “expulsion of Afghans is a national demand,” now trending nationally, has been promoted by hardline sympathizers of the government, who have spoken ill of Afghan migrants as manipulating Iran’s demographic makeup and usurping job opportunities.

“I think Iranians have a long history of Persian chauvinism toward Afghans, Arabs, and other regional neighbors,” said Sahar Razavi, director of the Iranian and Middle Eastern Studies Center at California State University in Sacramento. “The chauvinism obscures, for so many Iranians, those shared cultural, linguistic, and historical aspects between Afghan and Iranian societies.”

While mirroring the predispositions of far-right European parties and the U.S. Republican Party in their aversion to so-called out-groups, Iran’s hard-liners have not been shy about their denigration of Afghans as an inferior racial identity.

In last week’s presidential debate, former U.S. President Donald Trump made the demonization of migrants to the United States his key talking point. A similar dynamic can be seen playing out in Iran.

On Persian-language social media, stereotyping of Afghans as drug addicts, smugglers, violent criminals, and sexual predators is prevalent. In September 2021, when Iran’s state television aired a series called The Neighbor, the show’s producers received criticism for detailing the plight of Afghan migrants and humanizing their stories.

Spurred by lingering economic woes, the Islamic Republic insists it doesn’t have the resources to host more Afghans. According to a report published by the Danish Refugee Council, Iranian authorities have deported more than 1 million Afghan refugees since 2022. Some deportees have complained about facing maltreatment at the hands of law enforcement officers. Newer Afghan arrivals are likely to face an uphill battle as well.

“Despite their claims of liberal-mindedness and cosmopolitanism, many Iranians exhibit popular prejudice and condescending attitudes not only toward immigrants but also minority ethnic groups such as Kurds, Arabs, and Azeris,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert and Dean of College of Arts, Sciences, and Education at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Still, Boroujerdi says there are other factors that fuel anti-Afghan hostility, such as a perception that the Iranian government recruits impoverished Afghans into militia groups in exchange for economic and social rights for them when they settle.

As in other host societies receiving large numbers of asylum-seekers, the fear of vanishing jobs or declining social mobility because of new border arrivals continues to animate anti-immigrant stereotypes. What is idiosyncratic is that in a homogenous country reeling from chronic isolation, and where the plurality of the citizens may spend their lives interacting only with other Iranians, accommodating Afghans as the only external presence has become such a daunting task.

In the absence of prudent leaders to bring reason to the debate, the Iranian public—often self-assured about its progressivism—is negating its self-styled image of hospitality and displaying the unseen contours of its racial tolerance.


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