Afghan Illegal Workers Flee Iran

Collateral Victims of US Sanctions · Now that Iran has once again been hit by US economic sanctions and its currency undergone significant depreciation, each month hundreds of undocumented Afghan workers have been going home. Once looked down upon with contempt, they have come to be considered a shot in the arm for many sectors of the economy.

© Sobhan Farajvan, 21 August 2018

They sit cross-legged, some with their eyes shut, others with their hands on their stomach. . . For a few hours each week, these Afghan refugees take yoga lessons in a big room off Valiaser Square in Tehran. Ghassem, their teacher, is one of them. His fluent Persian accent reveals his long years of exile far from his native land. At the end of the session he takes leave of a few pupils at the door, then sits down again to converse with his fellow countrymen; “Every Afghan in Iran has a reason for being here. We’re fleeing the war and the bombs. We left because we couldn’t earn enough to support our families. So we work harder here to send them money. We have to deal with Iranian racism and we don’t have any basic rights such as a free education or access to a teaching post in a public institute or a private one.”

At 45, the man admits he enjoys this contact with his fellow countrymen. Each week new pupils appear, then disappear. But the rate of turnover has definitely increased since the US announced its withdrawal from the Vienna nuclear agreement, effective on 8 May of this year. The revival of US sanctions against Iran and the collapse of the Iranian rial have had a serious impact on the lives of Afghans in Iran. The Iranian currency lost 98% of its value against the dollar, and it also recorded a sharp decline at the end of September, from 40,000 rials to 180,000 rials per dollar. While inflation and the increased cost of living weigh heavily on the daily lives of these Afghan workers, the main causes of their return home are their wage cuts and the devaluation of their pay.

Wage Cuts and Devaluation

According to Radio France International, some 2000 Afghans have left Iran daily since last July. All in all, according to government statistics, there are still between 1.5 and 2 million of them in Iran. Those who still have a few savings opt for the expensive and risky journey to Europe. The poorest return to Afghanistan where wages on a building site or a farm are sometimes better than in Iran. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 440,000 Afghans returned home from Iran during the first seven months of 2018. 57% were deported, 43% left of their own free will. These almost unprecedented figures hark back to the massive return of Afghans after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. “I would never advise anyone to stay in Tehran. But we’re always happy when someone leaves Afghanistan to replace another young Afghan in our class,” Ghassem points out.

As for Ali Saïd, he went back to Kabul after spending several years in Iran. This summer his wages dropped from £267/$340 a month to £62/$79. He told us his experience over the phone: “Of course the economic situation in Iran was the main reason I came back to Afghanistan! I used to be able to send a little money home to my family, but that became impossible. Everything costs a lot more in Iran now and salaries haven’t been raised one Rial, the cost of living has gone crazy. So why go on living in a country where conditions are getting steadily worse and where I can’t even figure out what’s going on with the economy. The low value of the rial is really depressing for us Afghans in Iran, and so we want to give Afghanistan a second chance.” Bernard Hourcade, a researcher at the CNRS specialising in Iran, confirms the problems encountered by Ali: “For Afghan workers who send money home, it’s a real concern. With the inflation, they can’t put as much cash aside and so they send less back to their families.”

As time went by, these undocumented Afghan migrants, working mostly in restaurants, farming and the building industry, became collateral victims of the sanctions imposed once again by the USA. Since 6 November, there is a ban against buying oil from Iran. Only eight countries, among them China, India, Japan and South Korea, as well as Italy, have temporary exemptions and are allowed to go on buying oil from the Islamic Republic. The loss of earnings for the latter is enormous. Oil represents from 70 to 80% of the country’s export income and half its budgetary resources. Hence its economy is largely dependent on oil revenues in order to continue to subsidise agriculture – especially wheat crops – and public infrastructures. Under these conditions, Bernard Hourcade predicts a dwindling of governmental expenditures: “Iran’s welfare state subsidises all the country’s activities and with a shrinking budget the time will come when there will be a general breakdown. Will they be able to come up with enough cash to cover all their expenses without the oil revenue? Iran’s economy is flexible enough to go on subsidising its public services for a year or two, but after that it will be heading for a financial crisis.” What with the shrinking subsidies, the severe drought and ever-increasing salination of agricultural soil, the future of Afghan immigrant workers is grim.

In the cities, where most building projects are publicly financed, these are suffering and will continue to suffer from the budget cuts. Javid, a 24-year-old worker from the Afghan province of Daykundi, is employed on the construction of a building in the capital. His younger brother just went back to Afghanistan having given up hope of earning enough money to live in Tehran and send part of his wages home to his family. “It used to be that if you found a good boss who paid your salary on time you could earn 15 million rials a month ($336/£279). But six months ago, my boss cut my salary to £115/$137. That makes a big difference when you have to work to support your family.” Like his brother, Javid is toying with the idea of going home too, an unthinkable step only a few months ago. “Many of us were born in Iran and might not like the idea of returning to their country of origin. I used to live in Afghanistan and I don’t want to just waste my time here. I was hoping the situation would improve but it looks like nothing is ever getting back to normal. It’s why there are ghosts in your mind which beckon you back to Afghanistan.”

A Low Cost Workforce

According to the political and economic conjuncture, Afghan immigration is looked upon at best as added competition on the Iranian labour market; at worst, as an invasion of parasites. Today, however, it is a godsend for the country’s small and medium-sized businesses. Farshid is an Iranian employer, working on various building projects in the capital. From time to time, to get away from the racket of the air hammers, he takes a break in his air-conditioned car. “Why do we hire Afghan labourers? First of all, because they’re good workers. And they never complain about what they have to do. They don’t generally have families to spend time with, so they stay on the site longer and work more. Since they’re undocumented, we don’t have to pay any insurance for them. Which is a good way to save money in these hard times.”

Today Farshid is reluctant to hire young Iranians on his work sites. Though he isn’t swamped with job requests, he makes a distinction between the Afghans and his fellow Iranians: “Afghans never want more money while Iranian workers are forever asking for a pay rise and they don’t work as well.” Bernard Hourcade bears out the relative advantages of the Afghan workforce for the Iranian economy: “It’s obvious that Iran needs those workers. If you are a farmer in Khuzistan , and an Afghan farm worker costs you 20% less than an Iranian, all in all that undocumented workforce is a solution.”

However, he refutes the idea that these Afghan refugees are competing with the local workforce. “The country is not that poor yet. Afghans generally take jobs Iranians don’t want. That immigration has existed since 1973, it began with the country’s first economic boom. It doesn’t cost the economy anything in housing or schooling and the country profits by it.”

A man comes up to the car in which his foreman, Farshid, is sitting and raps on the window. Ali, Javid’s co-worker, has come to tell his boss how the work is coming. He is a young man of 26, from Kabul. He has no intention of going home. “Javid comes from a part of the country which is safer and more peaceful than Kabul. That’s why he can think of going home. I know that if I go back, I’ll be risking my life. I already did that coming here illegally. No, I don’t want to pay a visit to the past. Iran is a stepping stone to Europe. I’d rather save my money and go to Turkey or Greece.”