U.S. Report: Abuse of Refugees in Iran

Iranian security forces and authorities mistreated refugees, largely from Afghanistan, though physical abuse, detention, forced labor, separating families, restricting movement within Iran and restricting access to jobs, education and other services, the State Department reported. Iran has absorbed millions of refugees since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Afghans have also historically sought seasonal work in Iran. Remittance payments, primarily from undocumented Afghan men, have long been an important part of Afghanistan’s cash-strapped economy.

Afghan refugees working in Iran

Iran hosted some 762,000 documented Afghans, who had limited rights and access to social services, and another 2.6 million undocumented Afghans, who were routinely threatened with deportation. But the government cooperated with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees to provide some assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. For example, documented refugees had access to the national health insurance system. And undocumented refugees received primary health care free of charge and could pay for hospital treatments. The following are excerpts from the annual State Department report on human rights. 



The government cooperated with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern. According to UNHCR, most refugees in the country were from Afghanistan.

UNHCR noted in August that, as of 2022, the government recognized 762,000 Afghan refugees under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provided refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The country also recognized 12,000 Iraqi refugees under a similar system known as Hoviat. A survey by the Ministry of Interior in April-June 2022 recorded 2.6 million undocumented Afghan nationals in the country.

Access to Asylum: The law provided for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government had established a system for providing protection to refugees. The right to seek political asylum was incorporated into the 1979 constitution, based on the 1963 “Regulation relating to Refugees.” The regulation specified that asylum should be granted if the application had not been made in bad faith and the purpose of the application was not to seek employment. The Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs under the Ministry of Interior was responsible for registering asylum seekers, processing asylum applications, and issuing refugee identification cards.

Amayesh cards enabled refugees to access basic services, facilitated the issuance of conditional work permits, and served as a safeguard against arrest and deportation. Those without cards were not eligible for formal employment or financial services. Amayesh cardholders had to obtain permission for any travel outside their province of registration, could not attend university, and were not permitted to obtain a driver’s license unless they had a family member in need of intensive medical care. Amayesh cardholders could overcome these restrictions if they ended their refugee status and received a student or work visa. Such visas were valid for only three months.

In recent years, according to UNHCR, the government introduced policies to increase the provision of Amayesh cards; however, NGO sources reported these cards, which were valid for only one year, were increasingly difficult to renew and could be prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to high annual renewal fees and reports of required bribes.

Refoulement: The law stated that refugees could not be forcibly returned to a country where their life or freedom was in danger due to political, racial, or religious reasons, or due to their membership in a particular social group. According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. The government returned Afghans who were apprehended while trying to enter Iran, despite advocacy by UNHCR to provide asylum to those fleeing conflict. According to UNHCR estimates, 40 percent of new arrivals were returned by the government, and International Organization for Migration reports indicated that approximately 40,000 Afghans were denied entry at the Iranian border each month. There were reports of government security forces shooting at Afghans attempting to cross into Iran, resulting in deaths and injuries.

Abuse of Refugees and Asylum Seekers: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghan refugees, including through physical abuse by security forces, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.

Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced restrictions on in-country movement and were restricted from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They could apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move among those provinces where refugees were permitted to travel.

Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work. Even those with Amayesh cards were limited in the type of employment they could pursue, which included construction, agriculture, and other vocational industries. There were reports that the government imposed restrictions on refugees’ ability to work after gaining official refugee status.

Access to Basic Services: As part of an agreement with UNHCR, all registered refugees had access to the national health insurance system, covering both hospitalization and paraclinical services at a subsidized rate. Refugees without any form of registration were not eligible for access to the universal public health insurance, with some exceptions, although primary health care was available free of charge regardless of documentation status.

Hospital treatments were also accessible to undocumented refugees, but at higher fees than for Iranian nationals. During the year, UNHCR covered the insurance premiums for 95,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including those suffering from severe diseases and their families. Other refugees could enroll in health insurance by paying the premiums themselves.

Durable Solutions: By law, refugees could obtain Iranian nationality if they had reached the age of 18, had resided five years in the country (continuously or intermittently), were not deserters from military service, and had not been convicted in any country of nonpolitical major misdemeanors or felonies. Additionally, refugees could naturalize through marriage to an Iranian national, although for male refugees this process was not automatic. In 2022, the UNHCR worked with the government to resettle refugees.

Photo Credit: Afghan refugees via EU/ECHO Pierre Prakash (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)