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Iran is implementing modern new payment systems to make it easier for its citizens to use public transportation and get their subsidized daily bread. But Afghans living in the country say they are being left behind due to immigration policies that restrict their access to bank cards.

Afghan migrants are complaining that not being able to have bank cards makes it difficult to use city subways, access mobile phone services, and even to get their daily bread.

Mirwais, who has lived in the southwestern city of Shiraz for over 20 years, says the limitations add to the “pressure” he and other Afghans face every day in Iran.

“All the migrants face this,” said Mirwais, who gave only his first name in a telephone interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “Whether in Shiraz, Tehran, or Isfahan, migrants suffer and are under pressure all over Iran.”

Digital Divide

The lack of access to basic services can be traced to requirements imposed years ago that effectively prevent many members of Iran’s large Afghan community from obtaining bank cards. While Iran has made the leap to Internet banking, online purchases, and digital card readers, migrants must still go in person to a bank to make withdrawals or send wire payments.

Some Afghans living in Iran say they cannot open a bank account at all, while others complain that they face limits on the amount they can withdraw. Getting mobile phone service has also been made difficult due to Iran’s crackdown on unregistered SIM cards.

The problem has been compounded by the need for bank cards to purchase transportation tickets or to apply for new smart cards introduced for purchasing subsidized goods from bakeries, meaning Afghans have to rely on workarounds just to put food on the table or travel around.

Iran - Iranians queue at a bakery in Tehran to buy traditional bread.

Iran – Iranians queue at a bakery in Tehran to buy traditional bread.

Mohammad Amiri, 26, has lived in Tehran with his wife and child for more than two years, but still faces difficulties carrying out everyday tasks.

“In the [Tehran] subway, you need to pay with a bank card. They don’t accept cash,” he told Radio Azadi. “Some [Iranians] buy tickets for us [in exchange for cash], but others don’t.”

“Unfortunately, as Afghan migrants, we don’t have the right to have a bank card or even a SIM card. This is a real problem for us,” he said.

Mirwais expressed the same frustration, saying that if fellow passengers are not willing to purchase electronic passes for them, he and other Afghans must take taxis at much greater expense.

He said the same goes for bakeries, which recently introduced a new “smartization” system that uses special cards that allow customers to automatically deduct their purchases from a state-subsidized account.

The initiative has been touted by officials as a way of more effectively distributing subsidies, easing skyrocketing prices for flour and bread, and eliminating graft.

‘They Make It Hard’

Officials have denied they are excluding anyone and have pledged to fix any difficulties stemming from the new systems, saying that there are alternatives to using bank cards and that the Tehran subway allows Afghan nationals experiencing payment issues to ride for free.

But Afghans who spoke to Radio Azadi said the reality is much different.

“My wife offered the baker money six times, but the baker would not accept it, saying she must bring a bank card,” Mirwais said this week. “There are some [Iranians] who offer their cards, one in 1,000. They give their cards and take cash to resolve the problem.”

“We go to the bank, they don’t accept our passports; we go to buy a SIM card, they don’t accept our passports,” Mirwais said. “It should be easy to use the subway, but the government makes it hard for migrants.”

Millions Of Migrants

An estimated 3 million Afghans, many of them undocumented refugees and migrants, live in Iran. Many have complained of widespread discrimination and abuse.

More than 1 million Afghans crossed into Iran in 2021, often en route to third countries, as the Taliban advanced and eventually seized power in Afghanistan that year. Iranian authorities have reportedly deported more than half of recent arrivals.

Many Afghan migrants in Iran moved to the Islamic republic decades ago amid political upheaval and war. Iran has also long been a destination country for Afghan migrant workers seeking seasonal jobs.

Migrants are officially divided into two categories in Iran: those who are documented and have passports, residency, or immigration cards, and the undocumented. The latter group includes Afghans who never held passports in their home country.

Iran provides one-year residency permits for more recent arrivals, and has said that full access to banking and social services, including health insurance, are available to all migrants who officially register their names and information with the Interior Ministry. More than 2 million foreign nationals have complied and are on the books, according to the ministry.

But mired in its own economic crisis amid skyrocketing inflation and rising food prices, Iran has often expressed alarm at the number of undocumented Afghans on its soil.

Undocumented Afghans like Amiri have little hope of gaining access to basic services, and even those who have residency permits can only hold bank accounts for the one-year period of their stay.

“We can’t open a bank account because we don’t have any [identity] documents with us,” Amiri said.

“We applied at several banks, but they’ve told us that we must wait. So, we’re just waiting to see what will happen. Having a bank card is essential for us, for our daily lives.”

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by Freshta Negah of RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi

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