When millions of Iranian children flock back to school in September, thousands of Afghan schoolchildren living in the Islamic republic will remain at home.
Afghan refugees must produce residency papers and pay tuition to enroll in state schools in Iran, where up to 2 million undocumented Afghans live in legal limbo, according to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR.
But a new online campaign is urging Iran's government to change such long-running practices toward Afghan nationals, many of whom are denied basic services, including access to health care, jobs, and even housing in Iran.
The campaign on Twitter was launched on August 27 by Iranian journalist Sadra Mohaghegh, an editor at the reformist Shargh daily, and has gained the backing of prominent Iranians, including the education minister.
Campaigners have used the #Don'tLeaveThemOutOfMehr hashtag to spread their message. Mehr translates to love or kindness in Persian and is also the name of the month the Iranian school year begins.
“Twitter storm in support of Afghan children deprived of education,” Mohaghegh posted on August 27.
Within hours, Iranian Education Minister Mohammad Bathaei had announced his support for the cause.
"Gaining knowledge is the right of all people in all situations. I’m working so that no students, regardless of their nationality, are left out of 'mehr.'"
Habib Rezaei, a well-known Iranian actor and a campaign supporter, weighed in to say that “boundaries do not matter” and that depriving schoolchildren access to education is an “injustice.”
In 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree ordering schools to admit all Afghan children.
"No Afghan child, not even immigrants who came to Iran illegally and without documents, must be kept from an education and all of them must be registered in Iranian schools,” Khamenei said.
At the time, the government said over 350,000 Afghan schoolchildren were legally registered in Iranian schools, and approximately 500,000 were not attending school.
Human rights groups say the children of undocumented Afghan refugees still face major obstacles in receiving an education, with many children going uneducated or attending underground schools.
"International law ensures all children the same right to primary and secondary education, free from discrimination,” Human Rights Watch said in a report issued in May, adding, “But the reality is very far from this."
HRW has reported that, in response, Afghan refugees run unlicensed schools that tend to charge lower tuition fees and do not require residency permits. Iranian authorities have issued warnings to these schools and have sporadically closed them down.
Iranian children born to foreign fathers face similar obstacles to accessing education.
A long-standing law denies citizenship and certain rights to Iranian children born to Afghan fathers; under Iranian legislation, only Iranian men can pass their nationality to spouses or children.
To this point, such children are essentially stateless, although a group of lawmakers is working to scrap the law.
Many Afghans moved to Iran following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Others sought refuge in Iran after the hard-line Taliban took power in Afghanistan. Many have taken on menial work that is of little appeal to Iranians, yet they are often blamed for insecurity and unemployment.
Tehran has expelled many Afghans and periodically threatens those who remain with mass expulsions.