An Afghan vendor fills a bottle with oil in the Islamghale area near Iran and Afghanistan border December 17, 2009. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY ENERGY) - RTXRXVV

Iran’s Untouchables

Afghans trek for days over mountains to sneak illegally into Iran, where they then slave away in the lowliest of jobs. Why do they even go to the trouble of coming?

Every country has its servant class, the ethnic group that toils away in the bowels of the national economy. In the United States, it’s mostly Mexicans, as well as South and Central Americans. In Iran, it’s Afghans.

To many Americans, Afghans represent potential terrorists. But to Iranians, they’re those people you call to clean your yard or work at that dangerous construction site.

Afghanistan has been war-torn for much of the last century—long before the U.S. military arrived—and for at least 30 years, Afghans have been traveling west in large numbers. In the late 1970s and 1980s, during the first large migration, the Iranian government treated its eastern guests fairly well, allowing most of them to remain indefinitely. Yet, as Human Rights Watch reports, the government has since put in place a series of measures to dissuade would-be asylum-seekers and even force some long-term residents to leave.

For Afghans, life inside Iran, while an improvement over Afghanistan, remains difficult. They are the country’s laborers, janitors and maids. Many are physically and sexually abused and denied earned wages, and Afghan children are often locked out of the country’s public schools. Most of the roughly 3 million Afghans living in Iran entered the country illegally. Some wondered across the border unaccompanied, but many were smuggled in through the mountains of Pakistan.

Iran also has small groups of Germans, Lebanese and Iraqis, all of whom stand a far better chance at climbing Iran’s social ladder than Afghans. Persians, with their Caucasian features, sit at the top of the social pyramid, while Afghans, who tend to look more Asian, flounder at bottom. Some Afghans living in Iran have documented their experiences with discrimination on Facebook.

Still, Iran’s Afghans continue to come to Iran for one main reason: The country is fundamentally safer than Afghanistan, which is entirely lawless in some areas.

Below are some photos of Iran’s Afghans at work and at play.

Many Afghans work as day laborers, hauling bricks and doing demolition work at construction sites.

Working outside for hours, they often cover all but their eyes from the scorching sun.

Children of illegals unable to access the public school system may enter Afghan refugee schools, but many simply wander the streets or go to work.

Idle Afghan teens lounge on the tracks.

An Afghan daredevil rides on the outskirts of an Iranian town.

Young Afghan children play in front of a graffiti-covered wall.

 

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