With over 3 million Afghan refugees, Iran has one of the world’s largest refugee populations. They often lead a precarious existence without access to basic health and social services, and inclusion of Afghan refugee children in the Iranian education system is a particular struggle, especially for those who are undocumented.
Afghans have fled war and insecurity to neighboring Iran since the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, then later under the Taliban. Though this history of migration gives the community deep roots in Iran, the difficulty Afghan children still face in getting an education hamper their prospects as adults.
According to UNHCR, 420,000 Afghan children are enrolled in primary and secondary schools in Iran, with 72,000 coming from undocumented families. While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has acknowledged the problems facing Afghan children, and some steps toward improving their access to education have been taken in recent years (most notably in 2015 when the Supreme Leader ordered public schools to accept refugee children), many still fall through the cracks.
The language barrier is one of the biggest obstacles preventing Afghan refugee children from finishing their education in Iran. Most are not fluent enough in Farsi to follow their coursework and there are limited resources to help them learn. There are some schools run by the Afghan community where instruction is in Dari or other languages spoken in Afghanistan, but these schools only recently gained official recognition, having previously been subject to regular closures by the authorities. The integration of Afghans into Iranian public schools also remains a challenge.
Lack of money is another hurdle. Iranian public schools charge entry and tuition fees that most refugee families can’t afford. Books and basic school supplies are also out of range for most.
Afghan teenage boys are particularly at risk of dropping out of school because they are targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) for recruitment. The IRGC wants young fighters to send to Syria, and they bolster their ranks with vulnerable Afghan boys who have few options for employment otherwise. As reported by Radio Farda and other outlets, the Liwa Fatemiyoun, an Afghan Shia militia that is funded, trained, and equipped by the IRGC, frequently targets Afghan boys from undocumented families for recruitment, often under threat of deportation or the promise of residency permits. Watchdogs such as the Human Rights Watch have reported boys as young as 14 are enlisted this way.
Pressured to enlist in the militias and facing grim prospects on the labor market, some teenage boys drop out of school to attempt the perilous journey to Europe to seek better opportunity.
While challenges persist, there are signs public sentiment towards Afghan refugees is warming in Iran, and activists have begun demanding the government do more to ensure refugee children can go to school.
A 2017 Twitter campaign calling for better inclusion of Afghan children in Iran’s schools launched by Iranian journalist Sadra Mohaghegh, an editor at the reformist Shargh daily, gained the backing of prominent Iranians, including the education minister. Campaigners used the #Don'tLeaveThemOutOfMehr hashtag to spread their message. Mehr translates to love or kindness in Persian and is also the name of the month the Iranian school year begins.
Nevertheless, the government’s inertia on the issue remains the biggest roadblock for Afghan refugee children. Until there is a concerted effort by those in power to remove the barriers refugee children face at school, they will continue to be left behind.