By Carrie Chomuik – Iran has deported at least 9,000 Afghan refugees since the beginning of 2009, and the country continues to repatriate nearly 500 per day despite its earlier pledge to halt return efforts for the winter. The recent expulsions suggest an internal struggle between strategic pragmatism and the demands on the country’s decelerating economy. With elections on the horizon, Tehran’s refugee policies can serve as a barometer to measure shifts in domestic unrest and the government’s attitude toward regional commitments. As the US considers a new engagement strategy toward Iran, Tehran’s refugee policy could have an impact on its ability to cooperate with the US on Afghanistan and other regional issues.
Over 900,000 Afghan refugees are currently registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iran. Renewable identity cards entitle them to healthcare, housing and education in approved areas of settlement. Until recently, Iran annually extended the Tripartite Agreement that coordinated the efforts of UNHCR, the Iranian Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Parties to this agreement worked together for the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees, facilitating transport and distributing a small allowance to cover basic supplies of food and shelter for transition back to life in Afghanistan.
Iran also hosts over one million unregistered Afghan migrants. Although gates in Herat and Nimroz are the two official points of entry and exit, smugglers bring Afghans into Iran through the otherwise porous border on a regular basis. Migrants then gravitate toward urban areas and often end up working at construction sites. Providing inexpensive labor to a rapidly urbanizing country, the vast majority of illegal workers are young and male. This irregular migration acts as a safety valve for Afghanistan, siphoning off a million unemployed youth and providing support to the economy through the hawala system of transmitting remittances. Iran understands the implications of illegal migrants and carefully exploits the situation for both domestic development and regional security.
Afghans have been one of the world’s largest refugee groups since the Soviet invasion in 1979. During the occupation and subsequent civil war, millions fled the country and settled in large urban centers in Iran or refugee camps in Pakistan. Iran welcomed their Afghan neighbors in the initial stages of each conflict, but intermittent repatriation initiatives soon followed. As US-led coalition airstrikes against the Taliban government drove thousands from their homes in 2001, Iran’s distaste for Taliban rule led to another wave of liberal refugee policies.
Support for the new refugee influx was not indefinite, and since 2002 both registered and unregistered Afghans have been subject to systematic repatriation from Iran. In 2007, all foreigners in Iran were required to register with the government under Amayesh III. Although permanent settlement was granted in approved areas upon payment of taxes, 22 out of 30 provinces subsequently became partially or fully closed to all foreigners, including registered refugees. This policy has left tens of thousands of Afghans with a choice between resettlement elsewhere in Iran or the threat of eventual deportation from a “no-go” area. Recent policy changes have also denied higher education and bank accounts to permanent Afghan refugees.
The latest refugee influx poses a policy challenge for the Iranian government. Some of this population is conflict-driven, and some are looking to Iran in search of temporary livelihoods. The distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants is often impossible to determine. Migrants now face increasing challenges entering Iran, and even those deemed “vulnerable” by UN standards encounter a harsh environment of marginalization and exploitation. With oil revenues decreasing and unemployment, housing prices and water shortages on the rise, the goodwill of Iranians is becoming increasingly fatigued.
The recent crackdown on both registered and unregistered Afghans highlights these internal tensions. Historically, Iran has carefully planned repatriation drives around the balance of domestic pressure and absorptive capacity in Afghanistan. The resulting cyclical response to unregistered refugees has indicated a pragmatic approach to maintaining security. However, the current crackdown may signal a shift in priorities as the economic crisis takes its toll on the country. The government’s domestic challenges may complicate U.S. efforts to build diplomatic relations with Tehran, which may in turn prove to be a stumbling block for the ultimate goal of cooperation on the war in Afghanistan.
 Iran postponed the extension of the Tripartite Agreement in 2008, awaiting results of the International Conference on Return and Repatriation of Afghan Refugees in Kabul last November. The goal of the conference was to strengthen refugee policies in the Afghan National Development Strategy.
 Amayesh III was the third phase of registration for foreigners in Iran, conducted through the 2007 census.
Carrie Chomuik is a Research Associate with the Stimson Center’s Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.