One Refugee Census, Many Refugee Hopes

Students at a school for Afghan students in Tehran

In January, undocumented Afghans who live in Iran were happily surprised when the Iranian Interior Ministry invited them to participate in a special census, ordered by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

The government’s brief announcement didn’t promise any specific documentation to those who register, But it raised hopes among many Afghans refugees, who have been living in limbo for years, that they might finally receive a new, legal status.

“I was born in Zahedan, Iran, and lived my whole life here,” said Maryam Heydari, a single mother of three, who said she responded to the census invitation in hopes it will lead to legal status. “I really want to get a solid ID.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 951,142 Afghan refugees were registered in Iran as of May 2016. That number fluctuates, depending on security conditions in Afghanistan, which govern whether Afghans feel safe returning to a homeland that has seen conflict dating back to the Soviet occupation in 1979. However, Iranian officials and UNHCR have long estimated that, if the number were to include children born in Iran to those who fled Afghanistan, the actual refugee population today would be between 2.5 million and 3 million. Iran does not grant citizenship to children born to foreign nationals in its land; therefore, children of undocumented refugees remain undocumented.

Heydari and others born to undocumented Afghans in Iran are not eligible for Iranian citizenship. In fact, Heydari said she is not even certain of her age. “Maybe 27, 28, or 29. I don’t know how old I am, as I have no ID card,” she said. Heydari registered herself and her children in the census, in hopes that “maybe we get a residency card, maybe an Afghan passport,” enabling them to travel and to access healthcare and other social services.

So far, all Heydari has received is a “follow-up code” given to all participants in the census.

The code Heydari received “is a valid residential document for its holders,” said Mohammad Ajami, head of the Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) office in Khorasan Razavi, an Iranian province that borders Afghanistan and hosts some 320,000 Afghan refugees. Ajami said the code would protect census participants from deportation, though women and children like Heydari have not been deported in the past.

Besides the almost one million Afghans registered with UNHCR, Iranian officials say around half a million Afghans have Iranian residency visas in their Afghan passports. But at least a million more, like Heydari, have no documentation at all. The large number of Afghans believed to be undocumented led Iran’s government to implement the census in two phases.

Phase one began in late January and ran for three weeks During that time BAFIA offices throughout the country invited three groups of Afghans to come in and register: those who have married Iranians; those registered with UNHCR but who have spouses or children who are undocumented; and families who never registered with UNHCR but have children studying at Iranian state schools.

The second phase of the census, now underway, targets additional groups: Afghans who have been in Iran on valid household passports till last August, children and grandchildren of such passport holders, and their sons/daughters-in-law. Iran has stopped renewing residency visas of many Afghans due to some disagreements between the two governments in Tehran and Kabul over the conditions. However, Iran did not deport passport holders even after their visas were expired, as Bahadorani said.

“We have long lines in front of BAFIA offices since the Interior Ministry officially called for the census,” said Alireza Bahadorani, a BAFIA official in Isfahan, a central province, which has hosted many Afghan refugees since the early 1980s.

The results of the census may take time to tally, as the information provided by the newly registered Afghans must get verified.

“Verification takes time,” Bahadorani said. “We have some teams who are responsible to check the information we’ve got from undocumented Afghans, like the address they provided us.”

Students at a school for Afghan students in Tehran

Heydari registered in the first phase of the census. “My two younger children, 11 and 12, were studying at Iranian schools, so I could get registered, thanks to Ayatollah Khamenei,” she said.

In 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, ordered all state schools to register Afghan students, regardless of their legal status. The order increased enrollment of Afghan students at Iranian schools by 10 percent; currently, more than 350,000 Afghan students study in Iran, according to Arjun Jain, a UNHCR senior policy adviser.

Besides access to education, if the registered Afghans are granted either official temporary residency or an Afghan passport, their mobility and path to access healthcare will be facilitated.

Even though the government did not explain its goal with the census, “it makes a lot of sense to know how many they are,” said Barnett R. Rubin, professor at New York University and an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “No matter what decision Iran wants to make, either repatriate them, or to get them registered and keep hosting them as documented refugees or immigrants, it is necessary to have a more accurate statistic.”

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