Iran and Pakistan have been at the receiving end of millions of Afghan refugees in recent decades. Pakistan has hosted unknown millions of them with a large section of them in constant movement between the two countries over the years as the border has always been porous and traffic of people and merchandise unregulated. Iran on the other hand has received fewer refugees than Pakistan. According to estimates, there continue to be around 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran.
Of this, close to one million are registered refugees with legal status and have been issues official ID cards to show their legal status. The other two more millions or so of Afghans in Iran are deemed illegal aliens by the Iranian government and therefore are routinely subjected to harassment, violence and deportation as and when the government in Iran wishes so. The one million legally resident Afghan refugees in Iran are mainly those families who sought refuge in Iran in late 1970s and 1980s after the invasion of Afghanistan by the erstwhile Soviet Union. The majority of the 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran have been living in that country for 10 years or more, with an overwhelming majority of their children being born and raised on that soil.
For Afghans refugees whether in Iran or Pakistan, life has been fraught with much difficulty and hardship over the years. Almost all these families have had tough times eking out meager livings and having to face the daily harassment doled out to them by the Police and authorities. However, for a majority of those living in Iran, the already hard life has taken a sharp turn for worse in recent months as the government has recently removed the subsidies on food, fuel and an entire range of commodities, goods and services consumed by Iranian and Afghan families alike. For more than thirty years, the post-revolution Islamic government in Iran, rich with a constant influx of petro-dollar revenues, provided generous subsidies reaching hundreds of billions of dollars annually on almost all commodities consumed by all those living in Iran including Afghan refugees.
Petrol, gasoline, liquefied natural gas, propane gas, power, water, wheat, stationary, transportation, education and many other consumer goods and services were all generously subsidized. The government-controlled economy of Iran, rich in oil exports and sweetened by generous subsidies, was able to ensure a relatively decent standard of living for all families, Iranian, Afghan and Iraqi alike. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan families living as refugees in Iran, whether legal or illegal, were able to handsomely benefit from these subsidies that augmented their income and helped majority of them make their ends meet and provide education for their children. Many of those families that had been able to obtain legal refugee status were able to send their children to government schools and let them study in a state-run education system known for its efficiency and quality of education. For those without legal papers, hundreds of private, Afghan-managed schools, set up by more entrepreneurial Afghans, provided inexpensive education. In 2008, there were 285,000 Afghan refugee school students and 3800 university students spread throughout Iran.
However, the severe deterioration in economic conditions in Iran in recent years has hit these Afghan refugees the hardest. Life has gradually turned into more of a vicious battle of survival for these Afghan refugees over years. Majority of these families have their bread winners as simple workers and daily wage laborers. Factories, poultry and chicken and cattle farms and thousands of small family-run manufacturing units employ the bulk of the working population among these Afghan refugees.
The removal of subsidies implemented by the government of Iran in a phased manner started some 7 months ago. As a result, almost all consumer goods mentioned earlier have been offered at their original market prices. In a country like Iran where the official inflation rate is 13% but the real rates are as high as 20% and the economy being in a deep recession and worsening in recent years, this has meant a disaster. Prices of all commodities, goods and services have skyrocketed and this has left all families, Iranian and Afghan alike in a particularly difficult situation.
The government transfers some 40 dollars per month to the personal bank account of every eligible Iranian citizen with the aim of cushioning the sharp rise in the cost of living. In consequence, Afghan refugees, not receiving these payments, have been left high and dry with stagnant incomes in the face of skyrocketing prices. Poverty, destitution, malnourishment and unemployment have sharply risen among vast sections of Afghan refugees in Iran.
This unfolding situation in Iran has confronted an overwhelming majority of Afghan refugees living in that country with a serious dilemma; to return to Afghanistan where unemployment, poverty, widespread insecurity and lack of proper means for survival would greet them or stay back in Iran where the noose around their necks gets tightened by each passing year. Many of them have chosen to take the path of immigration once again, leaving for the aim of reaching Europe by taking on the perils of traversing a dangerous path through ruthless seas and high mountains.
The number of Afghan families in Iran leaving for Europe as illegal immigrants has sharply increased over the past few years. For many more, staying in Iran as refugees is fast losing its sheen as a viable option. They are being increasingly forced to contemplate returning to Afghanistan through UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programs. In Afghanistan too, there have been very little in the way of jobs and livelihoods for many of the already-repatriated families. Violence, insecurity, poverty and destitution have gradually become the new normal of their lives.
In any likelihood, the situation for Afghan refugees in Iran is set to get worse economically and financially by each passing month. The government of Iran has appealed for more assistance in cash and kind by the international community to help these millions of Afghan refugees scattered throughout Iran. To be certain, an Afghanistan that can provide jobs, income and livelihoods, physical security and proper means for a bare survival is the only hope for these refugees in Iran and those who are in Pakistan. Will we see this Afghanistan any time soon? The answer is unfortunately no and with this the hopes of teeming millions of these refugees remain shattered.