Maryam Heydari is an undocumented Afghan mother, who lives with her three children, also undocumented, in Isfahan, Iran. She does not know how old she is. “Maybe 27, 28, or 29. I don’t know how old I am, as I have no ID card.”
Although she was born in Zahedan, Iran, and lived her whole life there, Heydari is not considered an Iranian citizen or an Afghan refugee. “I really want to get a solid ID,” Heydari said.
It explains why in January; undocumented Afghans in Iran were happily surprised when the Iranian Interior Ministry invited them to participate in a special two-phased census.
The government’s brief census announcement didn’t promise anything specific to those who register. But it raised hopes among many Afghans living in legal limbo, that they might finally receive documentation to live in Iran.
Besides the almost one million Afghans registered with UNHCR, Iranian officials say around half a million Afghans have Iranian residency visas in their Afghan passports. But at least a million more, like Heydari, have no documentation at all.
The census was designed to be conducted in two phases, at Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) offices throughout the country.
Phase one began in late January and ran for three weeks During that time BAFIA offices throughout the country invited three groups of Afghans to come in and register: those who have married Iranians; those registered with UNHCR but who have spouses or children who are undocumented; and families who never registered with UNHCR but have children studying at Iranian state schools.
The second phase of the census, now underway, targets additional groups: Afghans who have been in Iran on valid household passports till last August, children and grandchildren of such passport holders, and their sons/daughters-in-law. Iran has stopped renewing residency visas of many Afghans due to some disagreements between the two governments in Tehran and Kabul over the conditions. However, Iran did not deport passport holders even after their visas were expired, as Bahadorani said.
“We have long lines in front of BAFIA offices since the Interior Ministry officially called for the census,” said Alireza Bahadorani, a BAFIA official in Isfahan, a central province, which has hosted many Afghan refugees since the early 1980s.
Heydari registered in the first phase of the census. “My two younger children, 11 and 12, were studying at Iranian schools, so I could get registered, thanks to Ayatollah Khamenei,” she said.
In 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, ordered all state schools to register Afghan students, regardless of their legal status. The order increased enrollment of Afghan students at Iranian schools by 10 percent; currently, more than 350,000 Afghan students study in Iran, according to Arjun Jain, a UNHCR senior policy adviser.
Besides access to education, if the registered Afghans are granted either official temporary residency or an Afghan passport, their mobility and path to access healthcare will be facilitated.
These are hopes that Heydai shares with many participated in the census: “maybe we get a residency card, maybe an Afghan passport.” Any of the two would enable them to travel and to access healthcare and other social services.
But what participants in the census have received so far is a “follow-up code.”
“This code is a valid residential document for its holders,” said Mohammad Ajami, head of the (BAFIA) office in Khorasan Razavi, an Iranian province that borders Afghanistan and hosts some 320,000 Afghan refugees. Ajami said the code would protect census participants from deportation, though women and children like Heydari have not been deported in the past.
The results of the census may take time to tally, as the information provided by the newly registered Afghans must get verified.
“Verification takes time,” Bahadorani said. “We have some teams who are responsible to check the information we’ve got from undocumented Afghans, like the address they provided us.”
Even though the government did not explain its goal with the census, “it makes a lot of sense to know how many they are,” said Barnett R. Rubin, professor at New York University and an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “No matter what decision Iran wants to make, either repatriate them, or to get them registered and keep hosting them as documented refugees or immigrants, it is necessary to have a more accurate statistic.”