In recent decades, the inflows of migrants to the Islamic Republic of Iran have predominantly consisted of Afghan and Iraqi nationals seeking asylum. More than 1 million refugees from Afghanistan and almost 50,000 refugees from Iraq were still in the Islamic Republic of Iran as of March 2010 (UNHCR 2011). However, a large number of refugees have returned to their home countries in the past years, making the Islamic Republic of Iran a country of net out-migration.
Although thousands of Afghans lived and worked legally in the country prior to the Islamic Revolution, refugee flows from Afghanistan accelerated from 1979 (Ashrafiand and others 2002). The Islamic Republic of Iran initially applied an open door policy for refugees, which allowed Afghans to be granted refugee status on a prima facie 3 basis (Hakimzadeh 2006). Under this policy, Afghans received ‘blue cards’ confirming their status as people who sought exile for religious reasons.
After the withdrawal of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics from Afghanistan, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran signed a three-year repatriation agreement with the Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1992 (the first of many tripartite agreements) to actively encourage Afghan refugees to return home (Hakimzadeh 2006). As a result, the number of refugees from Afghanistan in the Islamic Republic of Iran dropped by more than one million in 1993 (figure 1).
Approximately 600,000 Afghan refugees returned from the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout 1993, but an escalation of the internal conflict in Afghanistan from 1992–1996 resulted in a new wave of refugees and economic migrants from Afghanistan to the Islamic republic of Iran by the mid-1990s. However, on this occasion, no permanent documents were issued (ICRI 2003). The tripartite agreement with Afghanistan and the UNHCR was renewed in 2002 but encouraging Afghan refugees to return home has become difficult as 60 per cent of them have been living in the Islamic Republic of Iran for at least 15 years and have established roots. According to UNHCR, there were still about one million recognized refugees from Afghanistan in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2010 (figure 1).
The first wave of Iraqi refugees fled to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the early 1970s after many people were expelled from Iraq on claims that they were of Iranian origin. In another wave, 700,000 refugees arrived from Iraq in the aftermath of the Halabja crisis4 in the late 1980s (ICRI 2003). In addition, a mass influx of 1.3 million Iraqis migrated to the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1991 war in Iraq. However, many of them returned to Iraq during the 1990s. In 2010, about 46,000 Iraqis were living in the Islamic Republic of Iran (figure 2). Similar to migrants from Afghanistan, Iraqis need work permits to be employed but they reportedly have an easier time obtaining them.
Low-skilled workers from Afghanistan can earn up to twice as much in the Islamic Republic of Iran for similar type of work. Consequently, wage differentials between the Islamic Republic of Iran and neighbouring countries act as a significant pull factor. In addition, health and education facilities in the Islamic Republic of Iran serve as a potential pull factor for migrants while, as stated earlier, the country’s strategic location on the route to Europe and the Arabian Peninsula makes it a natural transit point for those seeking to reach European or GCC countries.
3 Assessing at first sight; based or founded on the first impression.
4 This refers to an attack on a Kurdish town in Northern Iraq located near the border with the Islamic Republic of Iran.