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In A First, Tehran Honors Beleaguered Afghan Community

Iranian girls hold up numbers forming the Persian new year 1398 ahead of Norouz in Tehran on March 20.
Iranian girls hold up numbers forming the Persian new year 1398 ahead of Norouz in Tehran on March 20.

Afghan migrants and refugees living in Iran have grown accustomed to humiliation, blamed for the country's ills rather than celebrated for their contributions.

But Tehran Mayor Piroz Hanachi has attempted to change that narrative, becoming what Iranian media claim is the first senior official to honor the positive impact of Afghan migrants during a special ceremony in Tehran marking Norouz, the ancient Persian new year.

The March 20 ceremony followed a number of recent controversies in Iran that have angered many of its estimated 1 million Afghan migrants and refugees, including an Iranian television series that prompted outrage this month for its allegedly racist depiction of Afghan migrants.

We Are All Human Beings

"We are proud to host Afghans," the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Hanachi as saying during the ceremony. He added that Tehran owed much of its beauty to Afghans, many of whom work as laborers and artisans across the country.

Tehran Mayor Pirouz Hanachi (file photo)
Tehran Mayor Pirouz Hanachi (file photo)

Hanachi said all Afghans working for the municipality would be awarded 3 million rials, or around $70.

"Despite the political boundary between Iran and Afghanistan, there is no cultural border because of the common traditions between the two nations," Mohammad Reza Javadi Yeganeh, the deputy of the cultural and social affairs of the Tehran municipality, was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

Yeganeh, who was present at the ceremony, said that "Afghans were talented and intelligent people," and urged state-run media to inform Iranians about the success of Afghan migrants in the country.

Iranian actor Ashkan Khatibi, who was at the ceremony, apologized for a series of recent controversies that have angered the Afghan community in Iran. "We are all human beings and we have no superiority over one another," he said.

Feeding Stereotypes

The ceremony came weeks after an Iranian television series, titled Forbidden, prompted widespread anger on social media, with some alleging it was racist and fed stereotypes of Afghan migrants as poor, uneducated, and inferior.

In one episode of the series, the heroine is forced to marry an Afghan migrant -- depicted as unattractive and submissive and whose shaved head is broken up by large bald patches -- as punishment for her disobedience.

Forbidden is not the first Iranian TV show to arouse anger over its portrayal of Afghan migrants.

In 2016, a show titled Outbreak angered critics who said it promoted hatred against Afghan refugees. The show featured a storyline about an Afghan man carrying a biologically engineered virus who is sent to Iran by the United States, Tehran's archenemy.

More recently, a viral video appearing to show an Iranian police officer slapping, insulting, and humiliating a group of Afghan migrants was met with a strong reaction in Kabul in December.

History Of Discrimination

Human Rights Watch has documented violations against Afghan refugees and migrants in Iran, including physical abuse, detention in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, forced payment for transportation and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, and forced separation of families.

The New York-based group has also said that Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited thousands of undocumented Afghans to fight for pro-Iranian militias in Syria since 2013.

The United Nations estimates the number of Afghan citizens in Iran at just under 1 million, many of whom claim to face violence and injustice. Tehran puts the figure of documented and undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants at closer to 3 million.

Afghan refugees cross the border into Afghanistan after being deported by Iran in December 2017.
Afghan refugees cross the border into Afghanistan after being deported by Iran in December 2017.

For decades, Afghans have turned to Iran to earn a living despite widespread reports of migrants facing violence and injustice there.

Tehran has expelled many Afghans, who are often blamed for insecurity and unemployment in Iran, and periodically threatens those who remain with mass expulsion.

Many of them moved to Iran following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Others sought refuge in Iran after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, some Afghans left for Iran in search of jobs, although hundreds of thousands of Afghans returned last year amid a crippling economic crisis in Iran.

Many have taken on menial work that is of little interest to Iranians.

In 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree allowing all Afghan children to be allowed an education. But Afghans are still denied basic services, including access to health care, jobs, and even housing.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.