This week, Afghan prisoners were blindfolded and put in a cage displayed amongst other contraband items in Shiraz, a city in southern Iran. Images of the nearly two dozen prisoners in a steel cage then went viral on social media.
The deputy police chief of Shiraz said the Afghan prisoners were among some 200 foreign nationals who had been arrested for illegally entering Iran. They were displayed in a huge metal cage alongside confiscated soft drinks, firearms, explosives, drugs and alcohol.
The images generated attention on social media, prompting an outcry from the Afghan government and magnifying the issue of the treatment of Afghans in Iran.
"Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees and Returnees strongly condemns this inhumane and humiliating treatment and violation of human dignity of Afghan refugees by the Shiraz city police," the Afghan government said in a statement.
"This behavior undoubtedly contradicts Human Rights, the 1951 [Refugee] Convention, and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and stands against the bilateral refugee agreements between the two countries."
The situation of Afghans in Iran has been a source of international criticism. Of the nearly 3 million Afghans living in Iran, most have fled war and conflict in Afghanistan. Many live without Iranian citizenship and do not enjoy basic rights. Only about 950,000 are classified as refugees by the United Nations because Iran prohibits most from applying for refugee status. Even those who obtain refugee status are not allowed to participate in normal life and are forced to make their living off the black market.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera, an Afghan refugee said that "for Afghans, there is no chance for a future in Iran. For the Iranian government, it wasn't enough that we are Muslims like them. I had to pay bribes to work, and the police were always harassing me."
In addition to economic and social problems, young Afghan men have also been forced by Iran to fight in that country's proxy war in Syria. They have been recruited either for financial reasons or through outright coercion and threats of deportation, according to Human Rights Watch. Most join because they face desperate economic conditions in Iran.
Thousands of Afghans, almost all of them Shiite Muslims from the Hazara ethnic minority, have fought in Syria in the past few years, serving in brigades supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad. Men who join the Syrian war are less likely to be deported and forced to return to Afghanistan, a regular occurence in Iran, even for Afghans who have lived in Iran for years. After a few weeks of training, they are flown out to Syria to fight in poorly-trained brigades who suffer high mortality rates.Individual incidents and alarming statistics have combined to generate increased interest in the plight of Afghans in Iran, especially through their implication in the Syrian war, as well as by the increased influx of Afghans fleeing the situation in Iran for European countries, particularly Germany. If Iran cannot find a way to better accommodate its refugee Afghan population, the problem will certainly worsen, creating yet another black mark on Iran's human rights record.