Two-Way Street: Iran Faces Simultaneous Crises Of Immigration And Emigration
Many Iranians fear unchecked immigration, mostly by Afghans but also Iraqis, will overwhelm a fragile economy that is weakened by the many qualified employees leaving Iran.
The irregular, uncontrolled entry of migrants into Iran from neighboring countries is a problem for a country already mired in economic and environmental woes, and thousands of Iranians have signed a petition urging authorities to restrict their entry.
Iran can barely meet the needs of its own people, many of whom have migrated to flee the misery of their lives inside Iran. But the regime has adopted a confused or lackadaisical approach to managing the presence of several million migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Some observers in Iran fear this is a time-bomb situation in big cities.
Beginning decades ago, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Iran has been hosting Afghans crossing the eastern border. Many have settled, though today others use Iran as a route into Turkey, as they seek to reach Europe or the United States. Migration into Iran is believed to have risen sharply in the past two years, though numbers are difficult to come by as nobody is really checking.
There are no figures, for example, for the Afghans who have entered or returned to Iran, after the Taliban takeover of power two years ago. Estimates ranging from 8 million to 15 million have been floated, although the top estimate seems implausible as it represents around 25% of Afghanistan's population.
A migration influx
Iran's last population census from seven years ago included Afghans living in Iran with permits, and counted 1.6 million of them. But more will certainly have entered Iran since, with one unverified report claiming 10,000 entered in a single day after the Taliban victory. The UN's refugee agency believes between half a million and 1 million Afghans may have fled the Taliban into Iran. It worked with the Iranian government to repatriate 3,000 of them in 2022.
In the spring of 2022, Iran's president, Ibrahim Raisi, cited 4 million as the number of Afghans present in Iran, while his foreign minister, Hussein Amirabdullahian, cited 5 million. It wasn't entirely clear if the figures were for Afghans living there legally or not, but the officials disagreed in any case over the figure of a million.
Then there are the other migrants, from regional states and even Africa. They often arrive with visitor visas, for medical treatment or pilgrimages to Shia sites, and stay on. Other reports have focused on Arabs, and notably Iraqis, buying land and real estate in parts of Iran, although there are few details on the legalities of those purchases. Iraqis are believed to have bought thousands of hectares of farming land in northern Iran.
Large-scale immigration is more unnerving for coinciding with the emigration of trained Iranians. The newspaper Faraz observed in a report (from Aug. 15) that in spite of public discontent with this influx, the state has been easing its visa regime instead of restricting irregular stays.
Nationals of neighboring states can simply renew their stays for three months, three times, allowing them to stay for nine months a year. In other cases, valid passport holders who overstayed their visas may have to pay a nominal fine without any form of expulsion.
The UN's refugee agency believes between half a million and 1 million Afghans may have fled the Taliban into Iran.
Broadly, the state seems both overwhelmed by and indifferent to the nature and scope of the phenomenon. It has, it should be recalled, little time for Iranian nationalism or socio-cultural concerns over and above those affecting religion. And these migrants are all Muslims. Its laisse-faire attitude has echoes in the Turkish opposition's accusations against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, they insist, is willing to see millions of Syrian refugees settle in Turkey for good, and change the country's voter demographics.
Some of the regime's own supporters are complaining. The conservative website Alef observed weeks ago that in parts of the country, the presence of Afghans was becoming "intimidating" to locals, beside the work opportunities taken from them. The "flood of illegal migrants, with unknown identities, encourages all forms of crime... which is a problem we face in various cities." The possibility of many Afghans being Takfiris (Salafists) or Sunni fanatics, it stated, posed "a bigger crisis ahead of us."
"Everybody knows that when their visas end, these Afghans do not return to Afghanistan."
The presence of migrants in eastern and central Iran has prompted several thousand Iranians to sign a petition asking authorities to act. Its text complained Iran had "no clear standards or policies" on migration, which had led certain districts to become "entirely populated by foreign nationals."
The Iranian embassy in Kabul, it stated, dishes out visas to Afghans without any conditionality on their return "when everybody knows that when their visas end, these Afghans do not return to Afghanistan." The petition claimed there were more than 800,000 foreign pupils in Iranian schools, foreign beggars and child beggars on the streets and an "astounding" rise in rental prices, which it attributed in part to this added population. Was there a "ceiling" to the migratory flow, it asked?
The immigration situation is another sign of the Iranian regime's incompetence in, or indifference to, matters of administration and legality. It does not even know how many foreigners are staying in the country, though we may be fairly sure, they number in the millions.
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