Sanctions on Iran hit Afghan refugees
Publisher: The Financial Times
Author: By Monavar Khalaj
Story date: 10/12/2012
Language: English

When Nasser, an Afghan labourer, illegally crossed the border to Iran to work last summer, he hoped to support his family and pay off his debts.

But Nasser quickly realised that he had miscalculated, as Iran's economy had changed a lot compared with a year ago when he returned to his home village near Mazar-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan, to get married.

Iran's national currency, the rial, has fallen more than 35 per cent this year because of international sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme. The consequent rise in consumer prices – which is officially put at about 25 per cent but is believed to be far higher – has made Iran's job market far less profitable for Afghans.

"I owe [relatives] 80m rials (about $6,400) for my marriage costs and must also pay 10m rials to smugglers who brought me here," says Nasser, a 27-year-old slim man who is not registered as a refugee. "But now I do not know how I can pay my debts and I cannot go back to Afghanistan because I owe people money and will have no job there."

For the past three decades, an influx of Afghani refugees crossed the border to Iran, fleeing wars and poverty and in search for jobs. Iran is the world's second biggest host to a refugee population after Pakistan with more than 2m Afghan refugees, only 860,000 of whom are registered. The representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Tehran, Bernard Doyle, forecasts no significant reduction in the Afghan population even though high inflation and the fall of rial have made their lives more difficult.

Voluntary repatriation, which Iran pushed for after the fall of the Taliban, only led to 18,600 Afghans leaving Iran last year and about 14,143 up to the end of October, Mr Doyle adds.

Some politicians and officials say the return of Afghan immigrants to their home country will help Iran's jobless youth but employers, especially in the services and building sectors, do not agree.

Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, interior minister, says "about 3m Afghans are living and working in Iran . . . which is not a problem'' but is concerned that there are no jobs for Iranian youth.

Employers prefer Afghan labourers to their Iranian peers because they are cheaper and employment does not carry compulsory local insurance.

But Mr Doyle says the central government in Tehran has not changed its policy toward Afghans, which is to provide asylum to refugees and a legal framework for Afghan migrant labour.

Nasser is unaware that sanctions against Iran have been the main reason behind his lower income. Working in a restaurant in a hiking area in northern Tehran since his return in August, he is paid 270,000 rials a day.

He says 10m rials was equivalent to 25,000 afghanis ($480), his country's national currency, when he resumed his job but now earns him about 13,000 afghanis.

Nasser has no plans to leave Iran, despite his shrinking income. His employer is keen that he stays.

He has not left the restaurant for a month to avoid transport costs and stay safe. "The owner has good connections and can help prevent my arrest and deportation to Afghanistan.''

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