As the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to gain momentum across the world, leading to protests in major global cities, other groups which are systematically discriminated against are seizing the hashtag to advocate for their own lives and human rights. One such group is Afghans, in particular Afghan migrants and refugees, which have been victims of discrimination and xenophobia in both the Middle East and Asian countries as well as in Western nations. There are many Afghan refugees living in deplorable conditions in countries such as Turkey, Greece, Iran, Pakistan, and many generations of Afghans who have only known war in their country.
Afghan refugees burned alive
The #AfghanLivesMatter hasthtag started trending on social media after news reports that Afghan refugees had been burned alive by Iranian police forces in Yazd province. According to Reuters:
“Afghans have taken to social media to denounce Iranian police after a video of a car carrying refugees being set ablaze in Iran went viral, arousing new anger weeks after Afghan officials accused Iranian border guards of drowning migrants. (…) Police fired on the vehicle, suspected of carrying drugs and undocumented migrants after it crashed through a checkpoint, Ahmad Tarahomi, deputy Yazd governor, told state media.
After its tyres were hit, the vehicle continued to drive away on its wheel rims, igniting sparks which started the fire, Tarahomi said.”
The video was especially daunting because it featured a boy pleading with the officers, saying “give me some water, I am burning”. It was widely shared on social media and human rights groups used it as a demonstration of Afghan’s treatment by the Iranian State.
Iran’s mistreatment of Afghan asylum seekers
This is not the first time that Iran has been accused of violating the rights of Afghan asylum-seekers. According to Radio Farda, in May 2020, “Afghan officials said Iranian border guards killed 45 Afghan migrant workers by forcing them at gunpoint into a river on the border”.
Historically, Iran has been hailed as a protector of Afghan refugees. It hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world – widely estimated to be at 2.5 million – which has been growing ever since the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s.
But Afghans have routinely been denied basic human rights and Iranian citizenship. In recent years, Iran has also been aggressively pushing back against newcomers – even as the Taliban resurgence intensifies. According to journalist Fatemeh Aman:
“Afghans routinely cross the border into Iran and are frequently caught and deported back into Afghanistan. They endure inhumane treatment from smugglers and often lose their savings in the process. In 2019, alone, a total of 451,073 Afghans returned from Iran—a big chunk of them forced through deportation. They are usually dropped off at “Zero Point,” a neutral spot between the two countries. Deportees are subject to abuse from Iranian authorities, especially, when tensions are high between the two countries. Many of these Afghans are fleeing political and economic hardship and it is not uncommon for them to make multiple attempts to get into Iran. Others cross into Iran for seasonal work and return home after earning some money.”
Afghans in Iran are not entitled the same rights as Iranian citizens, even those who were born in Iran and have never left the country. Iranian authorities are well-aware of the desperation of Afghan residents in Iran, which is why they came up with a sadistically alluring proposal: recruiting Afghans to fight in Syria in exchange for money and Iranian citizenship.
The international organization Human Rights Watch has been monitoring the situation for years. Already in 2013, they published a report entitled “Unwelcome guests: Iran’s violation of Afghan refugee and migrant rights”, documenting several instances of violence by Iranian law enforcement against Afghans in order to pressure them to return to Afghanistan.
Denouncing the hypocrisy of Iranian officials
This might come as a surprise, but the Iranian government has expressed its full support for #BlackLivesMatter, and is presenting itself as a harsh critic against police violence in the United States.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi released a statement in defense of the protesters:
“To the American people, the world has heard your outcry over the State oppression; the world is standing with you. (…) The American regime is pursuing violence and bullying at home and abroad. We are greatly regretful to see, along with people across the world, the [violent] incidences of US police that have recently unfolded. We deeply regret to see [that] the American people who peacefully seek respect … are suppressed indiscriminately and met [with the] utmost violence. (…) To the American officials and police, stop violence against your people and let them breathe.””
Considering Iran’s track record on respecting the rights of minorities, such as Afghans, these declarations of support were immediately criticized by human rights groups and activists. When the video featuring Afghan refugees burned alive became public, it sparked the hashtag #AfghanLivesMatter in response. But it was not the online hashtag that human rights advocates came up with to expose Iran’s questionable record in protecting its own citizens.
Activisms extensively offered evidence of Iran’s human rights violations on Twitter in response to the tweets by Iranian officials, calling for justice. From the abuse of women to the torture of political activists and persecution of minorities, such as gays and lesbians, Iranians and Afghans on Twitter were in uproar.
One such example is the response of human rights advocate Nazanin Boniadi, who tweeted to Zarif:
“While we’re on the subject of ending bigotry, how about the Iranian Foreign Minister addresses:
And all the people persecuted by your government.”
If the Iranian officials thought standing up for #BlackLivesMatter was an effective dig against the United States, they were sorely mistaken. Instead, it became a heated online debate about State-sponsored violence in Iran and systematic human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian State.