Hardliners have labeled concerns about rising Afghan immigration as "Afghan-Phobia," defending the government's perceived "open borders" policy, despite public outcry.

The fast-growing Afghan population in Iran has given rise to protests on social media and even debates in Iran's government-controlled media, with many claiming that the government has a hidden agenda in letting thousands of Afghans enter the country illegally every day. Videos from the border regions show crowds of Afghans simply walking into Iran, and some claim that “a network” quickly helps find housing and jobs for them.

Iranian officials say there are five million Afghans in Iran now of which only 780,000 have refugee status. Most others are undocumented. Some estimates of the Afghan population reach as high as 8 million. A Tehran province official said Monday that 2.5 million Afghans have settled just in areas west of the capital.

Some government critics claim authorities are actively encouraging the growth of the Afghan population with incentives such as subsidized energy and food to remedy the problem of population decline or even to bolster its military by recruiting young Shiite Hazara Afghans. 

The Fatemiyoun brigade of Afghan fighters fought for the Revolutionary Guards in Syria. 

Thousands of Afghan militia, recruited and trained by the Revolutionary Guard, played a significant role in supporting Bashar al-Assad's government by fighting in Syria.

Tehran Municipality’s Hamshahri newspaper is among the hardline media that has been describing popular concerns as “Afghan-phobia”. The newspaper whose chief editor Abdollah Ganji is a former editor of the IRGC-linked Javan newspaper, published an article entitled “Who Benefits From the Afghan-Phobia Project” last week. 

The article said “exaggerated” news about the apparently fast-growing number of Afghan immigrants has affected the mindset of Iranians and that the concerns raised on social media have resulted in “unkind attitudes toward Afghan citizens”. 

State media and other hardliner publications also appear to be unusually sympathetic to this unprecedented policy of opening the doors to Afghan immigration.

Recent video of Afghans celebrating the Taliban rule in Mashhad.

Not only reformist media that over the years had been more sympathetic to Afghan immigrants, but also some conservative media and figures such as Jomhouri Eslami newspaper and the former chairman of Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, have become increasingly vocal in criticism of what they call uncontrolled Afghan immigration and warned about “security threats” that may result from that.  

A commentary entitled, “The Dangerous Aspirations of Radical Afghans in Iran” published by the newspaper Sunday warned that the Taliban may be harboring dangerous plans for Iran and may attempt to use “radical Afghans in Iran” toward securing their own interests given “the [existence of a] divide between the people and government in Iran and extensive frustration of the Iranian people”. 

The warning came after a video of pro-Taliban Sunni Afghans celebrating in Mashhad on September 29 went viral on Persian-language social media. The video showed the celebrants raising the flag of the Taliban Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and chanting anti-American slogans. 

The religious city of Mashhad is Iran's second largest city where the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Shiites, is located, while at least a segment of Afghan migrants are fierce Sunnis. 

Hardliners’ positive attitude in the past two years toward the Taliban despite the Shiite-Sunni divide is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic where hardliners and top Shiite clergy have always been highly sensitive to the growth of the Sunni population in the country. 

“Around Mashhad, the Sunnis are buying land and houses from Shiites to increase their weight in the population. I told the officials that if they do not find a solution to these problems today, it may reach a point where no action can be taken," Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a source of emulation in Qom, warned in 2016. 

Similar religious concerns may be behind some hardliners’ concerns over allowing an increase in the number of Afghan immigrants including Kayhan, a flagship newspaper close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei which has been extremely supportive of President Ebrahim Raisi and his government. 

On Sunday Kayhan printed a reader’s message who has urged authorities to expel “illegal” Afghan immigrants because they are benefitting from “hidden subsidies including food, housing, public transportation and healthcare [subsidies]”. 

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