About a million Afghans are registered as refugees in the country. Tehran has been praised for providing access to education with 15,000 more classrooms.
Tehran (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Whilst the refugee issue is at the centre of heated political debates in Europe and the United States, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has praised Iran’s approach, calling it "exemplary".
Iran has been sheltering a million registered Afghans for almost four decades. As of June 2016, that was the fourth-largest refugee population in the world, the UNHCR said, after Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon.
Overall, Iran is host to about 950,000 Afghans and 28,000 Iraqis. However, according to some NGOs, another two million are living under the radar.
"The leadership demonstrated by the Iranian government has been exemplary in hosting refugees and keeping borders open," said Sivanka Dhanapala, who heads the UN High Commissioner for Refugees team in Tehran. "It's a story that's not told often enough."
Contacted by AsiaNews, Father Giuseppe Moretti said he is not surprised by this given the presence of ethnic Afghan Hazara.
"There is a religious bond between the Hazara and Iran, because both are Shias. The Hazara are one of Afghanistan’s largest and poorest ethnic groups. They are drawn to Iran, which has the reputation of being a rich country."
According to UNHCR, the Hazara and Tajiks represent 70 per cent of all Afghan refugees in Iran.
As an example of good policy, Dhanapala highlighted the 2015 decree by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordering schools to take in all Afghan children, documented or not -- a move that left authorities scrambling to build the equivalent of 15,000 new classrooms to accommodate some 350,000 Afghan children.
Nonetheless, in view of persistent economic woes due to years of sanctions and mismanagement, many Iranians are not happy about the presence of so many needy refugees.
Speaking about the relationship between Iranians and Afghans, Fr Moretti, who is from Italy, quipped that "There is a bit of the same sympathy that exists between northern and southern Italians."
"At the basis of accepting [the Afghans] lies the concept of the Ummah, [and] of the Muslim family,” the clergyman explained. “At the same time, hospitality is very important in the Orient. Yet, those who come will always be considered outsiders."
In fact, many Afghans complain of discrimination. Iranian authorities discourage them from settling, rounding up the undocumented to send home.
"Even someone like me, who was born in Iran and has lived here 36 years is not yet an Iranian citizen and the discrimination I face in my education and work is suffocating," said one Afghan who asked to remain anonymous.
Although he is grateful for his residency permit, he has to renew it every six to 12 months, and this makes life difficult.
"I've been sent back a few times,” said another who was 14 when he fled the Soviet war in the 1980s. “Either you wait for a new visa or come illegally with traffickers. I don't use the traffickers – it's horrible."
Another thorny issue is the accusation by some foreign governments that Iran recruits young Afghans to fight in Syria. Although Tehran has denied the allegation, it has acknowledged granting special privileges to the families of dead fighters, claiming that they are just volunteers.
Despite the criticism, the UNHCR and many NGOs agree that Iran deserves more credit than it is given. At the same time, the UN hopes Iran will ease restrictions on which jobs Afghans can do, and would like to see Tehran implement a formal registration process for the undocumented.
For Dhanapala, "in a world where you have multiple bad stories about hosting refugees, I think Iran is really a good news story".