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EghtesadOnline: About 1.3 million foreign nationals are currently employed in Iran, only 300,000 of whom have work permits and the remaining 1 million are working illegally, according to the caretaker of Employment and Entrepreneurship Affairs Department of the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare.

“The financial benefits of taking on illegal foreign nationals is the main reason Iranian employers tend to hire foreigners and refugees for implementing their projects,” Mahmoud Karimi Beyranvand was also quoted as saying by IRNA.

“At present, Iran is hosting five million Afghan refugees,” says Hamid Haj-Esmaeili, a labor market expert.

“Some of these refugees have resided in Iran for some time now and some have recently crossed into Iran after the transition of power in this neighboring state last year. A majority of Afghan refugees in Iran are illegal residents and don’t have passports. Many of these refugees are active in Iran’s job market without having work permits,” he told the Persian daily Jahan-e Sanat.

Ever since the takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan in July 2021, the flow of refugees to Iran has grown.

About 5,000 Afghans have been crossing the border to Iran on a daily basis since the Taliban took over the neighboring country, according to Javad Hedayati, an official with Road Maintenance Organization, affiliated with the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development.

“The number only takes into account legal migrants, that is those holding passport and visa. There is no record on the number of illegal migrants crossing the border to Iran. In fact, most of the incoming refugees from Afghanistan enter Iran through illegal means,” he was quoted as saying by ILNA.

Noting that vehicles used in the trafficking of Afghans account for the majority of road accidents in the eastern provinces of Iran during New Year holidays (started March 21), the official said: “The illegal refugees are put in the trunk of traffickers’ vehicles that speed through the border areas often in the nighttime.” 

Most of the migrants leave Afghanistan in search of work or economic opportunities. 

“We work here from morning to evening, but we don’t get even 200 afghanis, so we have to go to Iran and then to other countries,” Mohammad Arif, a resident of Faryab, was quoted as saying by Ariana News.

Humayon Hemat, a deputy official of Islam Qala Commissary, said some also leave to seek medical treatment.

While the level of migration from Afghanistan to Iran has increased in recent months, hundreds return every day, both voluntarily and involuntarily.

“We were in Iran for one year. They warned they would fine us if we did not leave. So we thought of leaving and coming back with passports,” said Noor Rahim, an Afghan returnee.

Iran shares a 900-kilometer border with Afghanistan and hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, made up mostly of Afghans who have arrived over the past 40 years. Some 3.6 million Afghans reside in Iran.



Implications for Local Workforce

Haj-Esmaeili noted that based on Iranian law, employing foreigners is prohibited when skilled local workers are available, but many Afghan illegal workers are employed in the construction and services sectors that create a large number of job opportunities.

“In fact, most of the jobs in Iran’s construction sector are now filled by Afghan refugee population. They are trained in Iran and are employed as skilled workers in projects. This is while many Iranian job seekers in the same field are made to go through difficult procedures to be employed in the same line of work,” he said. 

“Regulations say Iranian laborers need to have gone through legal training in vocational schools and received technical skill certificates, none of which is free of charge. They then have to wait for inclusion in insurance and legal lists to be taken on by employers. These procedures do not apply to Afghan refugees. This is contradictory and discriminatory against local workforce.”

The expert said many Iranian skilled workers in the construction and services sectors have been deprived of the benefits of social security insurance, causing harm to their families and future. 

“These obstacles faced by local job seekers has led them, over the past few months, to voice their discontent and frustration at officials and authorities who have proved to be ill-suited for managing the situation. The services sector is also affected by mismanagement. For example, municipalities usually relegate their projects to contractors who take on illegal foreign workforce to do the job. The presence of Afghan workers is significant in agricultural and animal husbandry sectors as well,” he said. 

Referring to the high unemployment rate in Iran, especially among the youth population, Haj-Esmaeili said, “When we have so many jobless Iranians, we are not legally allowed to employ foreigners. Employers usually prefer to work with Afghans and have their own reasons for it. For example, they claim that Afghans do honest work and cooperation with them is easier. On the other hand, we must acknowledge the fact that right now we are sharing our resources and general services with some 5 million refugees, which has implications in all areas, particularly housing, essential goods, foodstuff and all commodities for which subsidies are allocated. Many products in Iran’s market are subsidized and a population that’s no longer a minority is taking a share of it. A majority of Afghan refugees have not legally come to Iran and do not possess work permits.”

According to the Statistical Center of Iran’s latest report on Iran’s job market, the youth unemployment rate of those between 15 and 24 years stood at 23.1% in Q4 of fiscal 2021-22 (Dec. 22, 2021-March 20). 

The unemployment rate of those between 18 and 35 years stood at 16.6% and the share of higher education unemployment from the total unemployed population was 38.1% in Q4.

The unemployment shares of male and female graduates from the total unemployed population stood at 26.8% and 71.8%, respectively, while the share of higher education unemployment from the total unemployed population was 41.9% in urban areas and 23% in rural areas during the period.



Legal Measures Ineffective

Recently, the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare set a fine of about $25 for each day an employer uses an illegal worker, which shows a 57.4% rise compared with last year’s fine. 

This is among restrictive measures taken by the government to prevent the employment of foreign illegal workforce. Yet, the measure has shown to be ineffective.

Mohammad Mehdi Mafi, a housing expert and member of board at Tehran’s Mass Housing Builders Association, says all developed countries tap into the capacity of foreign workers, especially young ones, to further their economic growth.

“In choosing workers, local job seekers are prioritized but evidently Iranian workers are reluctant to take on difficult jobs, especially in construction projects. The government thinks the main reasons illegal workers are preferred in Iran is that first, the employers don’t need to pay for their insurance and second, such workers are cheaper than local workers. Yet, the main reason as I said is that our workers refuse to do labor-intensive jobs,” he said.

That said, Mafi added, experience over the past three decades shows that it is impractical to eliminate foreign nationals from the workforce.

“Foreign workers provide us with many opportunities, despite the problems they cause,” he said.

“If these workers have the opportunity to be trained and make progress in their field of activity, they can be much more beneficial in development projects. If employers are compelled to use local workers, who are much more expensive than foreigners, it will have implications on the end prices for consumers.”  



Call for More Funding

The Norwegian Refugee Council recently called for more funding and responsibility sharing amid the growing rate of Afghan migration to Iran. 

“Iran cannot be expected to host so many Afghans with so little support from the international community. There must be an immediate scale-up of aid both inside Afghanistan and in neighboring countries like Iran,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Secretary-General Jan Egeland on a recent visit to Iran.

According to NRC, while a fraction of people have returned to Afghanistan, the numbers arriving continue to rise. In addition, the country’s economy is in freefall and the humanitarian crisis is intensifying. 

“We commend Iran for welcoming and hosting millions of displaced Afghans for the past four decades. But now the international community must step up to support Afghanistan’s neighbors and share the responsibility to help them continue welcoming refugees. Afghans represent one of the world’s largest refugee caseloads. Now return conditions are set to become ever more elusive,” it said.

While a large number of Afghan refugees are not moving toward Europe, all rich nations should ramp up aid and keep their borders open to those fleeing conflict and persecution. European nations, including Poland, must stop deporting Afghan asylum seekers and review all failed applications in light of the crisis, the NRC added.

Iran’s Interior Ministry has already warned the international community that if the economic problems of Afghanistan are not solved, the world will see another wave of migrants.  

Ahmad Vahidi, Iran's interior minister, said the freezing of Afghan assets and the lack of humanitarian aid are the main reasons for the new wave of migrants.  

“If these migrants don’t stay in Iran, where will they go?” he said. “They will go to the borders. We have returned some people from the border with Turkey.”


Iran foreign nationals