Iran is home to the largest Afghan diaspora population in the world, as well as over 3 million Afghan refugees, two thirds of whom are undocumented. Afghans have come to Iran fleeing war and insecurity for more than three decades, but most still live in the shadows, and their precarious existence leaves their children vulnerable to exploitation.
While the Iranian government has been praised for its reforms in the provision of education and healthcare for Afghans, it has failed to implement a comprehensive immigration policy that would allow undocumented Afghans to access basic government services.
At a cost of $12 dollars per year, the Amayesh residency card grants the holder access to state healthcare. However, obtaining the Amayesh card can be immensely difficult for Afghan newcomers, as reported by Human Rights Watch. Moreover, the yearly upkeep of the card proves to be a significant expense to Afghan families, which often cannot afford such fees. Iranian authorities, namely the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs, issued plans to normalize the status of of Afghans as part of the Comprehensive Regulation Plan in 2012. Yet only 560 thousand previously undocumented Afghans have obtain official status since then, far below the 2 million estimated undocumented Afghan refugees in the country.
The inability of refugee families to gain residency status has an early impact on children. Unable to access healthcare, pregnant women spiral into debt in order to pay for prenatal care. They continue to live under the constant threat of deportation, even while pregnant. Refugee children born in Iran have no automatic right to citizenship, and so the specter of deportation looms over them as well.
Despite the fact that over 72 thousand children from undocumented Afghan families currently study at Iranian public schools, the children’s families frequently lack the finances to allow the children to finish their education.
Organized crime groups exploit Afghan refugee children for trafficking, forcing the children to work as street beggars and vendors. These children are often physically and sexually abused and addicted to drugs introduced to them by their traffickers in order to manipulate them.
Afghan refugee children are also often forced by traffickers to labor in the construction and agricultural sectors. Similarly, teenage boys young as 14 have faced conscription to Afghan militias in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to fight in the Syrian Civil War.
Despite the increased access to education and healthcare for Afghan refugees, the position of undocumented Afghan families, and children in particular, remains highly problematic. Lacking the necessary documentation, Afghan families are often forced to amass debt to pay for basic education and healthcare. As a result, the children of such families face immense risks, be it trafficking, discrimination, or forced conscription.