"BRING SOME WATER; I AM BURNING" The mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Bring some water; I am burning” became a rally cry at major cities across the globe after a minute-long video went viral on social media showing a corpse sticking out of a blazing car. A severely burned young boy who escaped the flames stumbles across the road uttering the words “bring some water; I am burning”.  The video shows a disturbing scene where Iranian border police shot a car carrying Afghan migrants, causing it to explode.  Three passengers were confirmed to have died in the incident, with five being hospitalised. Another video which emerged shortly after showed at least one of the injured victims being handcuffed to a hospital bed.[1] The news comes after Iranian border forces allegedly killed 45 Afghan migrants by forcing them at gunpoint into a river in May 2020.  Eighteen bodies were recovered from the river, with many showing signs of beating and torture; others were reported missing.[2] These incidents caused outrage amongst Afghan people all over the world, with protests being held in major cities across the globe including London, Washington DC, Kabul, Australia, Germany Austria, Canada and many other states.  Many used the hashtags #StopkillingAfghans, #Iamburned and #AfghanLivesMatter on social media to express their outrage.  An online petition aimed at the United Nations and the Afghan and Iranian governments received 83,715 signatures as of 6 August 2020.[3]  The campaign was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and global outcry over the killing of George Floyd, with many Afghans making comparison and stressing that there are tens of George Floyds every week in Iran.[4] The Foreign Ministry of Iran confirmed that Iranian police had shot the vehicle and that the video was genuine.[5] An investigation was ordered  by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on 21st of June 2020, the result of which has yet not been released.[6]

Decades of displacement 

Iran is currently home to an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees. Afghans began moving to Iran in the mid-1970s when social and political discord began in Afghanistan. During this period, Iran opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of Afghans. Iran was even more welcoming to Afghan refugees in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, as it perceived it as a way of helping its Muslim sisters and brothers against the Soviet Union’s anti-religious brutality.[7] Afghans were automatically granted blue cards as religious immigrants, which entitled them to indefinite leave to remain and access to many state benefits. In 1992, however, the Iranian government made a U-turn and began to introduce measures to put pressure on Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan.[8] There were multiple reasons for this. Firstly, from the Iranian government’s perspective, the Soviet Union invasion that had created the situation had come to an end and thus Afghans were no longer in need of religious protection. Secondly, during this period Iran’s baby boom and the Iran-Iraq war took place which weakened the financial situation of the country, meaning that it was no longer in a position to support its refugee population.[9] Over the coming years, Iran introduced numerous measures in an attempt to make it a less desirable destination for refugees. These included a number of voluntary repatriation programs, stricter immigration rules and restriction on a number of basic needs including state benefits (discussed further below). Iran entered into number of tripartite and bilateral agreements with Afghanistan, Pakistan and UNHCR in order to devise effective voluntary repatriation programs.[10] Further, it tightened its laws around asylum and refugee claims.  The indefinite leave to remain was replaced with a temporary “Amayesh card”, with which the Iran government can control the length of stay of a refugee and their place of residence. It also increases the chance of refugees returning (or being deported) as the procedure for getting this card is complex, expensive and little assistance is provided in the process. [11] Refugees can be deported for even a minor mistake.[12] Further, as Amayesh cards were granted to those who had moved to Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, many have been barred from legalising their stay.[13] Since 2007 only previous Amayesh cardholders can renew their status. This has been criticised as arbitrary by some, as the decision as to whether a person is granted protection is dependent on when they entered Iran rather than their need for protection.[14] While in theory Afghan refugees can still claim asylum through the Iranian BAFIA (the agency responsible for processing refugee applications), human rights organisation have quickly dismissed this as an impossibility since 2007, due to the inadequacy with the system.[15] To compensate for the situation, Iran has introduced visa extension measures on some occasions. In 2010, it introduced the Comprehensive Regulation Plan (CPR) which provided for temporary visas and work permits. In 2014 again it provided for six-month visa extensions.[16] However, these measures quickly came to an end as few were able to afford the heavy fees and other onerous requirements.  Unfortunately, Iran’s efforts to pressurise the return of Afghan refugees have not been limited to its immigration laws.  It has introduced other discriminatory policies to make living in Iran difficult for refugees.[17]

For these reasons, Iran has been responsible for the highest number of Afghan refugees returning. Since January 2020, 372,681 refugees returned from Iran to Afghanistan.[18] In 2019 the number was even higher, with 570,000 returns. 2018 marked the highest with over 770,000 returns.[19]  While a few have returned voluntarily, the majority have been forced out. This is in the context of report published by the Institute for Peace and Economics, which place Afghanistan as the world’s least peaceful country replacing Syria in 2019. Indeed, in 2018, Afghanistan documented the highest ever recorded number of civilian deaths. Sadly, in spite of these glaring warning signs, Iran has continued to show callous indifference to Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.[20]

Other types of mistreatment

In addition to restrictions on immigration rules and voluntary repatriation, Iran has introduced many other discriminatory policies with the prime purpose of disturbing the livelihood and social and economic situation of refugees, thereby coercing them to return.[21] These consist of restrictions on freedom of movement, right to work and right to education, and the involuntary recruitment of refugees for war. Iran has been able to act in this way because, although it is party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (CSR/1951 Convention), it maintains a reservation in relation to freedom of movement, employment, labour legislation and social security.[22] Freedom of Movement – “No Go Areas” (NGAs): Due to Iran’s reservation under the 1951 Convention, since 2001 it has invoked ‘national security’ in order to impose restrictions on areas where refugees can reside.[23]  While initially the NGAs were located in border provinces, it has expanded to include the majority of cities, and at one point they were encompassing two-thirds of the country.[24] Failure to comply with the rules results in arrest, detention and even deportation.[25] Employment/labour restrictions: Iran has obtained reservations to article 24 (the right to labour protection and security on the same basis as nationals) and article 17 (right to wage earning employment).  Thus, while registered refugees are permitted to work in theory, numerous hurdles severely restrict their economic opportunity with one half of Afghan refugees living below the poverty line.[26]  Registered refugees are required to apply for work permits which are valid for 12 months, and every 12 months they are required to pay heavy fees to renew their permit.[27] Further, their choice of employment is restricted to their area of residence and freedom of movement, as refugees are only permitted to work within the area of their residence. Finally, restrictions are also imposed on the type of work that they can undertake to ensure that they are prevented from taking up work which would otherwise be of an interest to Iranian nationals. [28] This means that refugees are only permitted to work in construction, agriculture and other vocational occupations, many of which are both highly dangerous and poorly paid. The situation is even worse for undocumented refugees who are subject to abuse as they have no access to legal or social protection.[29] Many Iranian nationals have developed resentment towards Afghans. They accuse them of stealing Iranian jobs and of being a burden on the economy.[30]  This is despite reports indicating that jobs undertaken by Afghans are unattractive to Iranian nationals. [31]

The rise in unemployment, due to the nuclear sanctions on Iran, has intensified negative sentiments towards Afghans, with many Iranian nationals calling on their MPs and government to place further restrictions on refugees’ right to work. In 2014 the Iranian government gave in to this pressure by requiring all government organisations to employ Iranian nationals unless exceptional circumstances existed. Unfortunately, this was not the first time the Iranian government had to take such an unconventional step. In 2000 it introduced a similar yet harsher policy by imposing fines and imprisonment on any organisation that employed Afghans.[32] With the nuclear sanctions and COVID-19, there is little light at the end of the tunnel for Afghans both in terms of economic prosperity and livelihood. 

Right to Education: Access to education is commonly considered as one of the greatest benefits Afghans have derived from living in Iran, however there are issues with this too. Until 2015, when all Afghan children were granted access to education irrespective of their legal status, a sizable portion of unregistered Afghan children were deprived of basic school education due to Iranian policies.[33] Even after the change in the policies, many Afghans complain that the fees are too high which results in many Afghan children turning to hazardous forms of labour.[34] Further, for those wishing to undertake university degrees, they are faced with the difficult decision of exchanging their refugee status for university education, with many courses being denied to Afghan nationals.[35] Afghans sent to fight in Syria: Perhaps the most shocking tactic used by Iran to force the return of refugees was its recruitment of over 50,000 Afghans to fight in Syria.[36]  While some had volunteered out of religious and political conviction, the majority had been threatened with deportation, making their decision less than voluntary. [37] Human rights organisations have described the use of refugees as a tactical move by the Iranian government to save Iranian lives and avoid criticism over its involvement in Syrian war.[38]  They point to the fact that such moves contravene Iran’s obligations under the non-refoulment principle and international law.[39] What is more, Human Rights Watch discovered that children as young as 12 and 14 were being sent to war.[40] Unsurprisingly, to date Iran has denied that any compulsion was involved in the process, and firmly maintains that those who fought in the war did so of their own volition.[41]

Why did Afghans moved from being guest to trash? 

Nuclear sanctions: Since 2002, when Iran’s nuclear programme became public, several sanctions have been imposed by international organisations and individual countries in an attempt to curb its ability to develop military nuclear capability.[42]  This has led to a devaluation in Iranian currency, a shortage of foreign currency, increased inflation and unemployment.[43] This has had a devastating impact on the Iranian economy. Sadly, the group that has been most affected by it has been the refugee and immigrant population. There has been a decrease in the demand for Afghan labour with many working with even more reduced wages than before.[44]  Further, there has been an increase in social tension and negative perception of refugees, both at individual and governmental level. At the individual level, there has been a rise in the level of racism. This is due to increased levels of unemployment which have led many Iranian nationals to blame Afghans for stealing their jobs.[45] Many Afghans reported that they had been subject to verbal abuse from passers-by who called them “Afghanisag” (Persian for Afghan dog). [46]  Sadly, the authorities’ response has not been satisfactory; indeed, human rights organisations have criticised them for their failure to provide protection.[47] At the governmental level, there has been a rise in the negative perception of refugees too. Iran has come under increased pressure to provide support for its refugee population on its own, as humanitarian aid has been immensely reduced due to the sanctions. Indeed, the Secretary General for Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said “humanitarian organisations have been left hamstrung by politically motivated sanctions that now punish the poorest”.[48] The economic slump and decline in international aid have, naturally, adversely affected the Iranian government’s tolerance for its refugee population.[49] The Geopolitical Game: Refugees have also fallen victim to the geopolitical game between Afghanistan, Iran and the US. Iran perceives the relationship between Afghanistan and the US, and the military presence of the US in Afghanistan more specifically, as a threat to its national security.  Since tension between Iran and the US has arisen, Iran has feared that Afghan territory could be used by the US to launch an attack on Iran. Many Iranian officials, in fact, believe that the 2011 drone attack that hit Iran entered Iran via Afghanistan.[50] For this reason Iran has opposed any agreement between Afghanistan and the US that is likely to result in the long-term presence of US military in Afghanistan. One method it has used to prevent this is threatening the Afghan government with deportation of Afghan refugees.[51]  In 2012, Iran deported 100,000 Afghan refugees when the Afghan president signed a security pact with the US.[52] Iran drug trafficking and drug addiction: Refugees have also been resented and held responsible for the high rate of drug trafficking and drug addiction in Iran. Whilst sources suggest that this may be due to complicity of Iranian and Afghan officials,[53] nonetheless, the vulnerable position of refugees make them a perfect target and scapegoat. [54]  Afghanistan is one of the world’s highest producers of opium, most of which reaches the rest of the world through Iran. Sadly, around 40% of opium that goes through Iran is consumed in Iran, making it one of the countries in the world with highest rate of drug use.[55]


  • Islamic Republic of Iran

  • Allow new arriving Afghans to claim asylum or seek protected status in a fair and efficient manner with respect to human rights and give them the right of appeal;

  • Allow refugees freedom of movement and abolish the NGAs;

  • Ensure that all voluntary repatriation is free of pressure and done with safety and dignity; 

  • Stop public statements that are likely to incite racism and prosecute perpetrators; 

  • Remove discriminatory barriers to education; 

  • Permit refugees to secure work permits in a manner that is convenient and feasible; 

  • Remove other restrictions on the right to work.

  • Islamic Republic of Afghanistan 

  • Pressure the Iranian government to treat Afghan refugees with respect, dignity and provide them protection required under international law; 

  • Improve financial and employment opportunities in Afghanistan for returnees; 

  • Monitor Iran’s treatment of refugees and hold it to account when there is a breach of their obligations.

  • UN and other partners of Iran and Afghanistan 

  • Pressure Iran to stop the abuse of Afghan refugees; 

  • Consider providing financial assistance to Iran to help with the cost of supporting its refugee population; 

  • In meeting with Iranian officials, stress that Iran has an obligation to protect Afghan refugees and asylum seekers[56];

  • Devise ways to exempt humanitarian organisations from the impact of existing sanctions;

  • Draw agreements to assure banks that they will not be penalised for moving donor money to Iran.[57]

  • Individuals internationally 

  • Raise awareness about the condition of Afghan refugees – for more information see Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UNCHR;

  • Provide support to NGOs, such as Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), that provide help to refugees;

  • Take active part by joining future protests and signing up the petition on Stop Killing Afghans - https://www.change.org/p/united-nations-raise-awareness-of-the-mistreatment-of-afghan-refugees-in-iran


[1] Yasmine el-Geressi, ''I am Burning’: The Deadly Treatment of Afghan Refugees in Iran' (Majalla, June 2020) <https://eng.majalla.com/node/92621/i-am-burning’-the-deadly-treatment-of-afghan-refugees-in-iran> accessed 11 August 2020 [2] The new Arab, 'Afghan foreign minister visits Iran amid tensions over migrant deaths' (The New Arab, 21 June 2020) <https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2020/6/21/afghan-foreign-minister-visits-iran> accessed 11 August 2020 [3] Change.org, 'Raise awareness of the mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran!' (June 2020) <https://www.change.org/p/united-nations-raise-awareness-of-the-mistreatment-of-afghan-refugees-in-iran> accessed 11 August 2020 [4] Ibid note 1 [5] Frud Bezhan, 'Afghan Lives Matter': Gruesome Deaths of Afghan Migrants In Iran Unleash Outrage' (Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Liberty ,11 June 2020) <https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-afghan-lives-matter-migrants-deaths-outrage/30665907.html> accessed 11 August 2020 [6] Ibid note 2 [7] Mitra Naseh and et al, 'Repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran: a shelter profile study' [2018] 3(13) Journal of International Humanitarian Action 1-12, p1 [8] Janne Bjerre Christensen, 'Copenhagen' [2016] Guest or Trash, Iran’s precarious policies towards the Afghan refugees in the wake of sanctions and regional wars 5-44 [9] Ibid note 7 [10] Shima Azizi and Al Et, 'Effective Protection of Refugees in Iran-With an Overview On Iran’s International Responsibility'[2017] 4(1) Aarjsh Asian Academic Research 162-183, p6-8 [11] Human Rights Watch, 'Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights ' [2013] HRW 1-121, p6 [12] Ibid note 11, p5 [13] Ibid  [14] Roger Zetter, 'Refugees’ Right to Work and Access to Labour Markets – An Assessment1' [2016] KNOMAD 1-140 [15] Ibid note 11, p31 [16] Human Rights Watch, 'Iran: Let Afghans Seek Refugee Status' [2014] HRW [17] These include restrictions on rights to education, employment, property/land ownership, freedom of movement and residence.  [18] IOM, 'Return of Undocumented Afghans Weekly Situation Report 05-11 JULY 2020' (IOM UN Migration, July 2020) <https://www.iom.int> accessed 11 August 2020 [19] IOM, 'Afghan Government, IOM, Partners Celebrate International Migrants Day 2018' (International Organisation for Migration, 2018) <https://afghanistan.iom.int/press-releases/afghan-government-iom-partners-celebrate-international-migrants-day-2018> accessed 11 August 2020 [20] Amnesty International, 'Afghanistan's refugees: forty years of dispossession' (Amnesty, 20 June 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/06/afghanistan-refugees-forty-years/> accessed 11 August 2020 [21] Zetter Roger, 'Protection for forcibly displaced Afghan populations in Pakistan and Iran' [2018] Danish Refugee Council 1-16, p6 [22] Ibid note 14, p57 [23] Ibid note 20​

[24] Ibid note 11, p55 [25] Ibid note 20, p6 [26] Ibid note 20, p6 [27] Ibid note 14, p55 [28] Ibid note 14 p57 [29] Ibid note 14, p60 [30] Ibid note 8, p25 [31] Ibid note 14, p59 [32] Ibid note 14, p56 [33] Gisella Lomax, 'Iran needs more help to support Afghan refugees – UNHCR chief' (UNCHR, UN Refugee Agency, 2018) <https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/latest/2018/9/5b8e9f414/iran-needs-help-support-afghan-refugees-unhcr-chief.html> accessed 11 August 2020 [34] Ibid note 11, p61 [35] Ibid note 11, p9  [36] UNSP, 'Report: Iran's Afghan Fighters in Syria' (United States Institute of Peace, 2019) <https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2019/mar/19/report-afghan-fighters-syria> accessed 11 August 2020 [37] HRW, 'Iran Sending Thousands of Afghans to Fight in Syria' (Human Right Watch, 2016) <https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2019/mar/19/report-afghan-fighters-syria> accessed 11 August 2020 [38] Ibid note 1 [39] Ibid note 36 [40] HRW, 'Iran: Afghan Children Recruited to Fight in Syria' (Human Right Watch, 2017) <https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/10/01/iran-afghan-children-recruited-fight-syria> accessed 11 August 2020 [41] Ibid note 36 [42] BBC, 'Iran nuclear crisis: What are the sanctions?' (BBC News, 2015) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15983302>accessed 11 August 2020 [43] Ibid note 8, p24 [44]Mohammad Mohammadi, 'The Impact of Sanctions on Refugees and Migrants in Iran' [2019] 5(1) Organization for Defending Victims of Violence 1-23, p13-14 [45] Ibid note 8, p25 [46] Qantarade, 'Treated like second-class citizens' (Qantarade, 2014) <https://en.qantara.de/content/afghan-refugees-in-iran-treated-like-second-class-citizens> accessed 11 August 2020 [47] Ibid note 1 [48] Ibid note 43, p15 [49] Ibid note 14, p58 [50]Alireza Nader, Iran and Afghanistan: A Complicated Relationship in, Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan (RAND, 2014) 5-21, p13 [51]Ibid note 49, p13 [52]Ibid note 49, 21 [53] Roberto Toscano, 'Sources of Tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan: A Regional Perspective Iran’s Role in Afghanistan' [2012] CIDOB Policy Research Project 1-12, p 5 [54] Ibid note 1 [55] Ibid note 49 [56] Ibid note 11, p109-114 [57] Ibid note 43, p21