The draconian draft law subjects refugees to 25 years of imprisonment, a billion Iranian Riyal fine and gives a free hand to the police to kill anyone suspected of being an illegal migrant.
In 2017, Sayed Murtaza’s life was upended when an explosion in a mosque in the Afghan capital of Kabul claimed the lives of his brother and cousin among many others.
“I lost all hope when I lost my family members. They were praying in a house of God; I still don’t understand why they were killed. That was one of the darkest days of my life,” Murtaza told TRT World.
The growing insecurity in Afghanistan forced Murtaza to leave his country. Soon after the attack, Murtaza, a school teacher by day and university student by night, packed his bags and escaped to neighbouring Iran to seek refuge.
This was not the first displacement for Murtaza. Like most Afghans, his family fled the country during the war against the former Soviet Union, which paved the way for an extremist regime of the Taliban.
For Murtaza, the journey out of Afghanistan was unexpected. Never before had Murtaza or any of his family members been subjected to abuse, ill-treatment and physical violence while crossing the Afghan border to enter Iran.
“The smugglers took us in an overcrowded car through the desert in Nimruz province. We were shot at several times, and one of the bullets hit my shoulder,” Murtaza said.
He bled profusely. The smugglers refused to stop the car to tend his wounds and drove all the way to Iran. It was days after getting shot that he was treated at an Iranian hospital.
With violence showing no signs of abating, Afghans are once again pushed out of their homes and forced to undertake a new exodus. The neighbouring states have been less welcoming to them than yesteryears.
A new draft law proposed in the Iranian parliament has recommended criminalisation of undocumented migrant and asylum seekers like Murtaza, punishing them with jail term of up to 25 years. A clause in the draft also allows the Iranian security officials to shoot at vehicles suspected of carrying undocumented immigrants.
According to local reports in Iran, the bill titled “Samandaye atbaye khareje ghayer mjaz” which in Persian means to ‘Organizing unauthorized foreign nationals’ was introduced to the parliament in the last week of November by 32 lawmakers. It states that any person who enters Iran without a permit will be sentenced to a “first-degree punishment” which includes imprisonment of up to 25 years or a fine of one billion Iranian Rials.
In another part, it reads, “Shooting at a vehicle carrying illegal nationals, if the vehicle escapes from a police checkpoint...the use of a weapon is permitted.”
The bill has been criticised in Afghanistan where a majority of asylum seekers in Iran originate from. The bill, if passed, is set to affect over two million undocumented Afghan who seek refuge in Iran escaping conflict.
“This law is in contrast to human values and international migration laws and we hope the government of Iran will consider the problem of Afghan refugees [before passing it],” Syed Abdul Basit Ansari, the media adviser for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation told TRT World.
Pushed into the river
The bill has also earned the ire of many civil rights activists in Iran who’ve opposed it strongly. “I have heard many heartbreaking stories of Afghan refugees and people who help them with crossing the border to save their lives. I heard [the police] fire on smugglers and drivers who help them. Of course, they are committing an offence, but do they deserve to be killed for this?” questioned Dr Siamak Zand Razvi, a sociologist and retired faculty member of Bahonar University of Kerman.
For many Afghan refugees, the law is an extension of the mistreatment of the migrants in Iran. Murtaza is appalled at the new bill. “I can’t believe that they would want to sentence a refugee for so many years. Do they think we go to Iran for fun? We go there so we can survive,” he said.
It isn’t uncommon for the undocumented migrants in Iran to face harassment and even torture at the hands of the Iranian officials. Afghan officials working at the Zero Point border in Islam Qala in Herat province document many cases of returnees who arrive back to Afghanistan carrying scars of torture and abuse.
In June last year, a car carrying Afghan refugees in Iran was shot at by the local police, setting it ablaze, and resulting in the killing of three Afghans. A month before that, in May, the Iran border police reportedly threw Afghan migrants into the Harirud river, killing 45 Afghans.
Afghans are also regularly deported from Iran in hundreds every day. According to data from the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), last year has seen “the largest ever on record for undocumented Afghan migrants with 800,109 total returns from Iran”.
Ansari said that the Afghan government was trying to formalize the status of millions of Afghan migrants in Iran to help them escape the fate stated in the bill. “We are working with Iran in identifying our citizens. We have sent a group of 20 experts from Afghanistan's statistics department to speed up the process of issuing undocumented Afghans an e-Tazkira (National ID card) and passport which will allow them to seek an Iran visa and be legal,” he informed.
Meanwhile, Dr Razvi warned that introducing such regressive laws could alienate the neighbours at a crucial time. “Now that the US is running out of Afghanistan, this is a golden opportunity for Iran to start a new relationship with the country, but this bill is bound to create conflict to any such opportunities. It is against the international codes, ethics and is not based on good neighbourly values,” he said.
Further appealing to their humanitarian sentiment, Dr Razvi reminded the Iranian lawmakers of their shared history. “The reality is that we speak the same language and follow the same culture. Afghanistan is full of people who value our shared heritage,” he says, urging that it was unto the Iranian citizens now to make the decision. “Either we abandon the Afghans completely to their fate, or we choose a more logical, humanitarian path and acknowledge and treat them like humans with dignity,” Dr Razvi says.
Murtaza, who was born and raised as a refugee in Iran, shares a deeply personal connection with the country. However, recent experiences have deeply traumatised him. “They say we are brothers, we speak the same language, we follow the same religion, we fight their war, but when we are of no benefit, they throw us in jails and shoot at us. Is this brotherhood? Is this what our Islam is about?” he says, the sense of betrayal evident in his voice.