Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2008 - Iran

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - Iran, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 16 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

IRN figures


Iran hosted 1,003,100 refugees and asylum seekers, including 914,700 Afghans and nearly 57,400 Iraqis. The Government estimated an additional 1.5 million unregistered Afghans were living illegally in the country. The Afghan influx began with the 1979 Soviet invasion and continued through Taliban rule. Most lived in towns and cities but some 25,000 lived in six camps or settlements administered by the Bureau for Alien and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA). In February, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Governments of Iran and Afghanistan signed a Tripartite Agreement extending the assisted voluntary return program for refugees until March 2008. Since the beginning of the 2002 program, over 1.5 million Afghans repatriated, including 846,000 with the assistance of UNHCR. With security deteriorating in Afghanistan, only about 7,500 returned voluntarily in 2007.

Most of the 57,400 Iraqis were Shi'a Arabs or Feili Kurds who fled in the 1980s or whom the Iraqi Government had expelled. Most lived in Qom, Mashad, or in the southern and western provinces. Camp-based Iraqi refugees generally lived in the western provinces.

Iran claimed it hosted an additional 30,000 refugees, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Bosnians, Azeris, Eritreans, Somalis, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis, whom it recognized under its own procedure.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

Despite BAFIA's screening procedures, between April and the end of the year, Iran arrested and deported some 363,000 Afghans, at least 50 of whom claimed to be refugees with identity cards. In one incident, BAFIA declared that the refugees did not tell them that they held the cards and agreed to readmit them but did not do so. UNHCR and BAFIA intervened in 62 cases where authorities were about to deport individuals who reportedly held cards.

Authorities expelled refugees caught outside their areas of registration without a laissez-passer. Many did not receive any warning about their deportation and had little time to collect unpaid wages or to gather their belongings. Some deportees complained authorities beat, detained, and extracted forced labor for several days before deporting them.

In October, Turkish soldiers returned to the border three Afghan youths – one a 16-year-old registered refugee – who had tried to enter Turkey. Attempting to avoid the Iranian military, they stepped on a landmine and the refugee lost his right leg; the other two sustained minor injuries. All three received medical treatment and returned to their residences in Iran.

In January 2008, authorities forcibly repatriated at least 9,000 Afghans and threatened to jail others for five years if they did not leave the country. The Government's agreement that repatriation should be voluntary applied only to registered refugees.

Iran was party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and its 1967 Protocol, but considered its provisions on employment, public relief, labor legislation and social security, and freedom of movement, to be recommendations only. The 1979 Constitution allowed the Government to grant persons asylum "unless they are regarded as traitors and saboteurs." Iran's 1963 Regulations relating to Refugees (1963 Regulations) provided that, "Refugees should not be forcibly returned to the country where their life or freedom is endangered for political, racial or religious reasons or for their membership in a particular social group."

Iran claimed to have a refugee status determination procedure but the legal framework for its implementation was unclear. Asylum seekers who interviewed with BAFIA to regularize their status in Iran stated afterwards that no interview took place.

Detention/Access to Courts

Authorities arrested mandate refugees for irregular entry and lack of documentation, and refugee cardholders for illicit employment, and unauthorized movement outside their province of registration and rapidly deported them. Many Afghan deportees reported inhumane treatment, beatings, and torture during detention. One refugee hospitalized in Afghanistan's Herat Province claimed Iranian police had beaten him with a baton until his arm broke. Another refugee alleged that authorities harassed and starved him in detention. Deported Afghans living in Afghanistan's Nimruz Province reported 130 cases of physical violence by Iranian security forces against them.

Authorities generally did not permit UNHCR or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to monitor detention centers. In one case, however, in order to counter allegations of abuse perpetrated by law enforcement officers during mass deportations, the Government granted UNHCR access to Sefid-Sang deportation center in Mashad to observe how authorities identified refugee cardholders for eventual release. The move came after Iran received international criticism for returning Afghans without ensuring that adequate reception facilities were in place in Afghanistan.

The Government did not share its database of registered Afghan refugees with UNHCR until July. Authorities said they planned to determine the status of the remaining Afghans with cards. The database held records for some 920,200 registered refugees who held three-month renewable cards from September 2006. In January 2008, the Government initiated a re-registration exercise of all Afghan refugees and simultaneously required men between the ages of 16 and 60 to apply for work permits.

Iran issued Special Identity Cards (SIDs) that provided greater privileges to Afghan refugees who were religious students, disabled in war, relatives of martyrs, or married to Iranians. Upon reaching school age, children received refugee cards.

Although authorities and police recognized refugee identification cards, they frequently arrested their holders because BAFIA extended the cards' validity by issuing memoranda to law enforcement officers rather than modifying the actual cards. In some cases, BAFIA intervened to release refugees. In others, courts ordered deportations for lack of proper documentation, as they did not accept BAFIA's memoranda.

UNHCR recognized most Arabs and Shi'as from central and southern Iraq as refugees prima facie and those from northern Iraq as asylum seekers. The Government, however, accorded them no legal status and did not allow UNHCR to issue them any documents. The 54,000 longstanding Iraqi refugees held refugee identity documents known as white cards. Authorities re-registered them in late 2007, but did not release new figures.

The 1963 Regulations read, "A refugee has the right to refer to Iranian Courts to demand justice," but delays and costs deterred most refugees. UNHCR offered attorneys at no cost to registered refugees, but they did not use them in detention cases.

UNHCR and BAFIA had established Dispute Settlement Committees (DSCs) in 2004 and 2005 to mediate outstanding legal issues that might hinder repatriation such as nonpayment of salary and landlords' refusal to return deposits. In June, however, the DSCs ceased to function, as BAFIA thought they promoted refugees' stay.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

In the second half of 2007, the Government heightened enforcement of its 2006 "no-go area" policy, which partially or entirely restricted foreigners, particularly refugees, from entering 23 provinces. Authorities ordered some 120,000 registered Afghan and Iraqi refugees living in specific regions to either move to designated areas – mostly camps – or repatriate.

In Sistan-Baluchestan Province bordering Afghanistan, the policy required over 80,000 refugees to relocate to Torbat-e-Jam, Semnan, and Saveh camps in Khorasan Razavi, Semnan, and Markazi Provinces. By May 2008, the Government had restricted 25 provinces and required 180,000 to move. The penalty for non-compliance was deportation.

While authorities and UN agencies did not restrict aid or assistance to camp-based refugees, they assisted only refugees with valid residency and identity papers. To travel within the country, registered refugees required a temporary laissez-passer available through local authorities in the province where they had registered as refugees. Refugees had to leave their refugee cards with the local authorities until they returned. Iran maintained its reservation to the 1951 Convention's provision for freedom of movement and the 1963 Regulations allowed the Government to restrict refugees' residence.

Refugees could not get international travel documents unless they had received refugee status before the 1979 Revolution and held a refugee booklet. There were no reports that the Government issued any.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Work permits were restricted to particular sectors and cost 700,000 Rials (around $75) but few refugees applied for them because employers did not wish to hire employees formally and pay for required insurance and related taxes. The Government fined both employers and refugees heavily and refugees ran the risk of arrest and deportation if found working without a permit. Authorities restricted Iraqi refugees less in employment than it did Afghans.

Iran maintained a reservation to the 1951 Convention's provisions regarding the right to work. The 1963 Regulations allowed recognized refugees "employment in the fields authorized for foreign nationals and those fields deemed appropriate," including animal husbandry and brick making. The 1990 Labor Law mandated the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to issue, extend, and renew work permits to refugees, subject to the written agreements of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. During the February 2007 Tripartite Commission meeting, Iranian authorities promised to issue work permits "if possible" and one-year residency permits to the heads of families who had repatriated to Afghanistan, for their eventual return to Iran. The Ministry of the Interior announced in October and November that it would issue thousands of work permits to Afghans, but there was no confirmation that they did so. Following the January 2008 registration, Iran required all men between 16 and 60 (and not women) to apply for work permits and to list an employer as guarantor.

Foreigners could not engage in business without the appropriate visa and work permit. Registered refugees wishing to engage in business had to abandon their refugee status, return to Afghanistan, obtain a passport and an Iranian visa, and apply for a specific permit.

The 1963 Regulations provided refugees the right to acquire movable and immovable property generally on par with other foreigners, but conditioned real estate ownership on reciprocity of the foreigner's government. It also allowed the Government to bar foreigners from purchasing land near borders and in other restricted areas. The 2004 regulations also restricted Afghan refugees' rights to obtain mortgages, to rent and own property, and to open bank accounts but internal government circulars prevented them from owning any property. They could open bank accounts only if they possessed SIDs, unlike Iraqi refugees.

Public Relief and Education

The Government reportedly pressured Afghan refugees to repatriate by suspending education and medical services and by rescinding their residence permits.

While Afghan and Iraqi refugees normally could attend Iranian primary and secondary schools, the Government denied foreigners access to Iranian schools and universities unless they met average grade requirements in public and private schools. Iraqi children enrolled without paying fees, but Afghan children were subject to tuition, unless their parents held SIDs. The Ministry of Education and Training objected to the rise of self-administered Afghan primary schools and, over the last two years, the Government began to restrict their operation. Previously, some 588 self-administered schools provided education to 70,000 children. Enrollment of refugee children in schools was contingent on their parents paying municipal taxes targeting refugees. Female heads of households were reportedly exempt.

Afghan SID holders could enroll in the national health insurance program. The 1963 Regulations allowed refugees medical and social services on par with nationals but authorities increased premiums and introduced a tax in 2004 to encourage repatriation as UNHCR reduced assistance.

Iran restricted the operations of international humanitarian agencies and required their funding to be independent of UNHCR. Authorities did not give UNHCR or NGOs access to the aforementioned 30,000 refugees of various nationalities.

Iran's Fourth Plan of Economic, Social and Cultural Development from 2004 did not include refugees in its development plans.

USCRI Reports

  • USCR Calls on U.S. Forces to Protect Iranian and Other Refugees in Iraq (Press Releases)
  • Overview of Numbers and Conditions of Iraqi Refugees in the Middle East and Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq (Press Releases)
  • 1 million people became refugees in 2004 (USCRI Headlines)

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