World Refugee Survey 2009: Iran
Iran recognized more than a million refugees and asylum seekers, including some 936,000 Afghans and nearly 58,100 Iraqis. There were also more than one million unregistered Afghans in the country.
The influx of Afghans to Iran began in 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and continued through the rule of the Taliban. Most Afghans lived in villages and urban areas, but about 27,000 stayed in the six refugee settlements administered by the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigration Affairs (BAFIA).
In 2007, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the governments of Iran and Afghanistan signed a Tripartite Agreement extending the assisted voluntary return program for refugees until March 2008. Since the beginning of the program in 2002, over 1.5 million Afghans repatriated, including 853,000 with assistance from UNHCR but only about 3,000 in 2008.
Most Iraqi refugees lived in urban areas, but around 5,000 stayed in 12 refugee settlements. UNHCR helped some 2,400 Iraqis repatriate although new Iraqi refugees continued to arrive.
2008 Events Summary
Afghan officials report that Iranian border security forces killed 15 to 20 individual crossing from Afghanistan and wrongly accused them of being terrorists and smugglers.
Iran deported over 406,000 Afghans in 2008 and over 720,000 over the past two years. Although both the Government and UNHCR characterized the deportees as illegally present economic migrants, in the Chamany Babrak reception camps in Kabul, most could produce refugee documentation. Iranian soldiers also reportedly evicted entire refugee settlements without checking for status. Authorities deported many without warning, separating them from their families, with little time to collect belongings and wages. Others claimed that authorities beat, detained, or required them work unpaid for days before deportation.
Authorities postponed negotiations to renew the Tripartite agreement, declared Sistan and Balouchistan provinces to be off limits to all foreigners, regardless of status.
BAFIA re-registered over the internet the Afghan refugees it recognized and issued them six-month, renewable residence permits if they paid registration fees and local taxes. Authorities compelled refugee men under 60 to apply and pay for temporary work permits but for women this was optional.
In January, Iran initiated a re-registration exercise of all Afghan refugees and simultaneously required men between the ages of 16 and 60 to apply for work permits and to list an employer as guarantor. The Government also warned up to 1.5 million Afghans without proper documentation that they faced arrest and detention in camps for up to five years. The head of BAFIA described conditions in the camps as “like prisons for punishment of the people who have entered illegally or who have committed a felony.” Authorities deported nearly 9,000 Afghans in two weeks, provoking Afghanistan’s formal diplomatic protest. Despite promising the Government that it would stop during the winter, Iran deported another 8,000 by mid-February. In the reception camps of Chamany Babrak in Kabul, most deportees had refugee cards. Iranian soldiers reportedly evicted entire refugee settlements without checking for status.
In March, Iran said it intended to expel 1.5 million Afghans it considered to be illegally in the country. A BAFIA official said, “Those who illegally entered Iran have committed crimes: entering illegally, staying illegally and working illegally . . . we will expel them from our country at the first opportunity we encounter them.”
In April, Afghan authorities claimed Iranian troops attacked and killed 13 Afghan refugees just over the border in Afghanistan. Pakistani media also reported the incident, claiming 12 Afghans died inside Iranian territory. Iranian media reported that forces killed a number of drug smugglers in the border region.
In August, Brigadier General Rezai Zarei, unveiled a plan to “deport 200,000 illegal aliens” and called the marriage of Afghans to Iranian women and children who have no identification papers a “problem” for the regime.
In November, the Government verbally agreed to allow registered Afghan refugees to remain in the country until they voluntarily repatriated or resettled elsewhere, and UNHCR confirmed that Iran had agreed to stop forcibly repatriating registered Afghan refugees.
In December, Iran agreed to suspend deportations of Afghans until March 2009 after Afghanistan again protested Iran forcing back over a thousand per day.
Law and Policy
Iran is party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and its 1967 Protocol, but maintains reservations that its provisions on employment, public relief, labor legislation and social security, and freedom of movement, are only recommendations.
The 1979 Constitution allows the Government to grant persons asylum “unless they are regarded as traitors and saboteurs.” Iran's 1963 Regulations relating to Refugees (1963 Regulations) provide that, "Refugees should not be forcibly returned to the country where their life or freedom is endangered for political, racial or religious reasons or for their membership in a particular social group.”
Iran claims to have a refugee status determination procedure but the legal framework for its implementation is unclear. Individuals cannot challenge before a court the Government’s decision regarding their status as a refugee.
Iranian authorities expel refugees caught outside their areas of registration without a laissez-passer.
Detention/Access to Courts
Authorities arrest and rapidly deport refugees for irregular entry, lack of documentation, and unauthorized movement outside their province of registration. Afghan deportees are regularly subject to inhumane treatment and beatings during detention.
BAFIA officials at detention centres and some camps sometimes obtain the release of registered Afghan refugees and give them Laissez-Passers to return to their place of residence. Authorities generally do not permit UNHCR or any nongovernmental organization (NGO) to monitor detention centers. On only one occasion in 2008, authorities permitted UNHCR access to a detention centre in Sistan and Balouchistan province. UNHCR is, however, able to hire lawyers for registered refugees.
Iran issues Special Identity Cards (SIDs) with greater privileges to Afghan refugees who are religious students, disabled in the Iran-Iraq war, relatives of martyrs, or married to Iranians. Children of registered refugees receive refugee cards upon reaching school age. Law-enforcement officials, judiciary, and local authorities all recognize the residence cards issued in the 2008 registration.
The Government's 2007 registration of Iraqis was open only to those who had arrived before 2005 but UNHCR registers later arrivals and recognizes those from central and southern Iraq as refugees prima facie. The Government does not allow UNHCR to issue refugee certificates or other documents. Longstanding Iraqi refugees in Iran hold refugee identity documents known as “white cards.” To those arriving since 2006, Iran issues visas valid for one month and renewable for up to three months. To renew for a longer period, refugees must return to Iraq and re-entering. Authorities levy large fines upon Iraqis violating the terms and/or duration of their visas.
The 1963 Regulations read, “A refugee has the right to refer to Iranian Courts to demand justice.” Additionally, refugees are exempt from the surety required of foreign nations that as claimants or third parties in civil suits. UNHCR offers attorneys at no cost to registered refugees.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Some 97 percent of refugees live outside of camps but with reduced benefits. Pursuant to a 2001 Decree, Iran bans foreigners, with no exception for refugees, from 19 areas and requires some 120,000 registered Afghan and Iraqi refugees to live in Torbat-e-Jam, Semnan, and Saveh camps in the provinces of Khorasan Razavi, Semnan, and Markazi, or repatriate, and de-registers those who fail to do so.
The Government requires even registered refugees to apply for temporary laissez-passer through local authorities in the province where they register as refugees. Refugees had to leave their refugee cards with the local authorities until they returned.
Iran maintains a reservation to the 1951 Convention’s provision for freedom of movement and the 1963 Regulations allowed the Government to restrict refugees’ residence.
Except for those with refugee status since before the 1979 revolution and refugee booklets, refugees cannot get international travel documents unless they are resettling or repatriating.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
The Government increasing fines or imprisons employers of undocumented foreigners, including registered Afghan refugees although they were more lenient with Iraqis. Authorities required all Afghan refugee men to apply for temporary work permits during the 2008 re-registration exercise and allowed women to do so. Since Fall 2008, they issue them in Tehran province on a test basis but sometimes fails to do so, effectively precluding the refugees from health insurance.
Iran maintains a reservation to the 1951 Convention’s provisions regarding the right to work. The 1963 Regulations allow recognized refugees "employment in the fields authorized for foreign nationals and those fields deemed appropriate,” including animal husbandry and brick making. The 1990 Labor Law mandates the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to issue, extend, and renew work permits to refugees, subject to the written agreements of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. Work permits are restricted to particular jobs, cost 700,000 Rials (around $75), and are valid for one year, renewable.
While the 1963 Regulations ban refugees from union activities, Iran’s ratification of the 1951 Convention grants them at least the union rights of other foreigners.
Foreigners cannot engage in business without appropriate visas and work permits. Registered Afghan refugees had to abandon their refugee status, return to Afghanistan, obtain a passport and an Iranian visa, and apply for a specific permit in order to engage in business.
The 1963 Regulations provided refugees the right to acquire movable and immovable property generally on par with other foreigners, but conditioned real estate ownership on reciprocity of the foreigner's government. They also allow the Government to bar foreigners from purchasing land near borders and in other areas. 2005 regulations restrict Afghan refugees' rights to obtain mortgages, to rent and own property, and to open bank accounts. Iraqi refugees can open bank accounts but Afghans may not unless they have SIDs. Government circulars available to the public regulate these matters.
Public Relief and Education
Education Iraqi children may enroll in Iranian primary and secondary schools without paying fees, but Afghan children must pay tuition, unless their parents hold SIDs. Their parents also must pay special municipal taxes although women heads of households are exempt. The Ministry of Education and Training also restricts the operation of self-run Afghan primary schools.
Only Iraqi refugees and Afghan refugees holding SIDs are eligible for national health insurance. The 1963 Regulations allow refugees medical and social services on par with nationals but authorities levy higher premiums and a special tax to encourage repatriation.
Iran's 2004 Fourth Plan of Economic, Social and Cultural Development does not include refugees.
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