VOA's Mohammad Habibzada contributed to this report from Washington.
WASHINGTON - Recent comments by a senior Iranian official about the possibility of deporting Afghan refugees living in the country has drawn widespread criticism from governments and rights groups.
Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister, said last week that his country would consider asking Afghan refugees to leave Iran if the United States continued to put economic pressure on Tehran.
If U.S. sanctions bring Iran crude exports to zero, "it is possible that we ask our Afghan brothers and sisters to leave Iran," Araghchi told Iranian state television.
Afghan officials downplayed Araghchi's remarks, however, saying that Afghanistan and Iran have formal agreements on the issue of Afghan refugees living in Iran.
"They have not said anything serious," said Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, minister of refugees and repatriation in Afghanistan.
"They have said if the [U.S.] sanctions put more economic pressure and their oil sales drop to zero, they might ask the Afghan refugees to leave Iran. But overall it was not that serious," he told VOA in a phone interview from Kabul.
"We have several agreements and understandings with Iran," Balkhi said.
He added that there is a joint Afghan-Iranian commission that has worked on an international memorandum of understanding, which included the issue of Afghan refugees in Iran.
"Iran will discuss it with us if it is serious about the expelling of Afghan refugees. They will not take such a big measure without discussing it with the Afghan government," Balkhi said.
Rights groups say, according to international law, Iran cannot expel refugees to a place where their lives or freedoms would be in danger.
"Reckless statements like that of Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi represent a disturbing global trend of using people as bargaining chips for political ends," said Anna Shea, a researcher at Amnesty International.
3 million refugees
Iran hosts about 3 million Afghan refugees who have fled violence and war in their country. An estimated 1.5 million to 2 million of those refugees are without legal status, rights groups said.
But refugees without documentation live with the daily threat of deportation to Afghanistan, and they face serious barriers to accessing essential services, such as education and health care, experts said.
"The Afghan people living in Iran are human beings with clear rights under national and international law - they are not foreign policy tools to be wielded by government officials," Shea told VOA.
Afghan refugees have often complained about their living conditions in Iran. Some are even sent to fight in Iran's proxy war in Syria in support of the Bassar al-Assad regime with the promise that they would be given legal status to live in Iran.
Assif Faizi, an Afghan refugee who lives in Shahr Rey near Tehran, told VOA that Afghans are treated as second-class citizens in the country.
"My son faces discrimination every day at school, not only from other students but also from teachers and other school staff," Faizi said.
"They just allow us to breathe here. We are ready to leave Iran if we are offered another destination," he told VOA.
For now that destination is not their home country, Afghan officials said.
"Based on the current situation, we are not ready to accept all the Afghan refugees from Iran," Afghan Minister Balkhi said.
He added, "There are some countries that always support and cooperate with Afghanistan. So, if all refugees are expelled [from Iran] at once, these countries will act accordingly."
Not the first time
Analysts say that Iran has often threatened to deport Afghan refugees, especially when it is under political pressure.
"The deportation card is not new, but one of many that the [Iranian] regime has wielded against the population," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
"Such statements, while aiming to undercut or soften American sanctions, only show the brutality of the Islamic Republic," he told VOA.
Refugee rights groups say Iran has granted the right to attend primary and secondary school to Afghan children, including those without legal status, but as of 2018, only 420,000 were able to actually register.
"Iran should be recognized for hosting this population of Afghan women, men and children," Shea of Amnesty International said. "Wealthy nations around the world have utterly failed to do their fair share for people who have been forced to flee their homes, and should be doing much more to provide funding, as well as resettlement opportunities."
But she added that "past generosity does not absolve Iran of its ongoing obligations as a member of the international community."
Iran also has been receiving funding from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, which has supported Tehran's effort in providing protection and services to Afghan refugees.
Contacted by VOA, UNHCR said it doesn't comment on politically sensitive issues related to refugees.
Some experts say that if Iran put pressure on the Afghan refugees to leave the country, Turkey most likely would be their next destination.
"Afghan refugees would prefer to seek refuge in Turkey instead of going back to Afghanistan," said Murat Erdogan, director of the Migration and Integration Research Center at Turkish-German University.
"In that case, it would pose a greater risk for Turkey since these Afghan refugees will stay in Turkey and only a small group of them might return," he told VOA in a phone interview.
Turkey has been building a security wall along its eastern border with Iran. Turkish officials say some parts of their border with Iran have long been infiltrated by smugglers and human traffickers.
Turkey is already home to nearly 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have settled in the country since the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011.
Some analysts also charge that Iran might be attempting to use the issue of Afghan refugees living in the country as a bargaining chip to put pressure on the EU to show leniency toward Iran in the face of crippling U.S. sanctions and ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran.
"Iran is threatening Europe by implying that Afghan refugees would be entering Europe through Turkey. I think Iran expects the European Union to show some effort to ease U.S. sanctions," according to Erdogan at Turkish-German University.
Following widespread criticism by rights groups, Araghchi slightly retracted his initial comments, saying his statement had been taken out of context.