Millions of Afghans live in countries bordering their homeland as refugees who fled the Soviet Union’s invasion of 1979 and the subsequent brutal rule of the Taliban, making them the largest refugee population in the world. Many Afghans went east to Pakistan, where they live in extreme uncertainty and under resentment from the local populace. Others departed west to Iran, where their predicament may be even worse.

The New York-based human rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), released a damning report Wednesday condemning the Iranians for their treatment of the estimated 3 million Afghans in their country. Iran has already deported thousands of Afghans – often without providing them even a hearing to hear their pleas to remain, HRW stated. Iranian officials allege that some two-thirds of the Afghans in the country are illegal immigrants. Nonetheless, thousands of Afghans continue to cross the border into Iran annually.

HRW lays the blame for this gathering crisis on the Tehran government, asserting that they "have in recent years limited legal avenues for Afghans to claim refugee or other immigration status in Iran, even as conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated.” The organization accuses Iran of endangering the lives of Afghan deportees by forcibly moving them back. "Iran is deporting thousands of Afghans to a country where the danger is both real and serious," said Joe Stork of HRW's Middle East division. "Iran has an obligation to hear these people's refugee claims rather than sweeping them up and tossing them over the border to Afghanistan… Afghanistan may be even more dangerous now than when many of these refugees first fled. Now is not the time for Iran to send them home."

Dilshod Achilov, assistant professor of Political Science at East Tennessee State University, and an expert on Middle East affairs, told International Business Times that there are two major highways that lead to Iran from western Afghanistan. Consequently, Afghans who live in the western and central Afghanistan find it more practical to flee to Iran rather than Pakistan. “The big influx of [Afghan] refugees began to pour to Iran after the Soviet Invasion and continued during the US intervention,” he said.

HRW further charged Iranians of committing serious human rights abuses against Afghans, including physical abuse, imprisonment in unsanitary facilities, forced labor and separation of families. “Members of the Iranian security forces have absolute power to deport Afghans,” HRW said. “Afghans facing deportation are typically bused to Afghanistan within a couple of days of being detained without any opportunity to prove that they have a legal right to live in Iran or to lodge an asylum claim.” For the 800,000 or so Afghans in Iran with legal refugee papers, Iran provides some scant hope for a better future and education for their children. But even the possession of such legal documents do not guarantee them the right to stay, mch less find meaningful work.

Indeed, Iran seems committed to expelling its illegal (and even semi-legal) Afghan population, HRW said, noting that the Tehran government just passed an order calling for the deportation of 300,000 Afghans who possess residency permits. (This order has now yet been implemented). In November of last year, the cabinet of ministers in Teheran issued an edict calling for the explosion of 1.6 million foreigners “illegally residing in Iran” by the end of 2015.  That bill also called for the termination of the refugee status of another 700,000 Afghans.

Meanwhile, many Afghans who are allowed to stay in Iran cannot send their children to school, while migrants are largely restricted to “dangerous and poorly paid” labor. Making things worse for the refugees are western sanctions on Iran over its nuclear power program which has severely dented the Iranian economy, thereby increasing xenophobia and resentment of foreigners like Afghans. In the past five years, as Afghans continue streaming in, Iranian authorities have denied them the right to even register as asylum-seekers – making their subsequent deportations that much easier. Often, these expulsions separate families. "[We] interviewed parents separated from their children during the deportation process with no idea how they would find their children again,” HRW stated. “Young men and women born in Iran and effectively prevented from ever gaining Iranian citizenship [are] being deported to a country they had never visited in their lives.”

Achilov also suggests that in the short term, Iran views the influx of immigrants as a potential security threat as well as an economic burden. “In the longer term, Iran seems to be concerned over the demographic shifts occurring in Eastern Iran,” he said. “Of course, Sunni Muslim Afghans (ie, the Aimak, Tajik and Pashtun people) are more likely to face abuse in Shia Muslim-dominated Iran as compared to Hazara Afghans, who adhere to Shia Islam. Overall, 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population practice Sunni Islam, and 20 percent practice Shia Islam. “So, religious denomination is not unimportant in this context,” Achilov added.

HRW conceded, however, that Iran has “shouldered the burden” of hosting one of the world’s largest refugee populations for more than three decades. But [Iran] needs to meet international standards for their treatment,” HRW’s Stork said. “Iran is failing on many counts to respect the rights of Afghans living in Iran. Even migrants without refugee status have clear rights to educate their children, to be safe from abuse, and to have the opportunity to seek asylum prior to deportation – none of which the Iranian government is respecting.”

But it wasn’t always like this. Aryaman Bhatnagar, a Research Officer at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), an independent security research firm, wrote that following the 1979 theocratic revolution in Iran which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Iran had an “open door” policy for Afghans refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of their country. “Khomeini wanted Iran to be seen as a champion of oppressed Muslims and to spread the message of Islam having no frontiers,” Bhatnagar said. “As a result, the Islamic Republic considered it a ‘religious duty’ to protect the Afghans from a ‘godless Communist government’.”

But after Khomeini’s death in 1989, attitudes towards refugees hardened under a more pragmatic ideology that viewed the Afghans as an economic and financial burden. Bhatnagar estimated that the cost to Iran of maintaining its large refugee population amounts to some $2 billion per year, posing a heavy strain on an economy already under pressure from sanctions.

“The fall of the Communist government in Afghanistan ended any ideological and emotional obligations the Iranian state had,” Bhatnagar stated. “It is for this reason that the attitude towards Afghan refugees has undergone a significant change since the 1990s from integration to repatriation and prevention of future flows due to continuing instability and uncertainty in Afghanistan.