The recent bomb attack in Kabul has affected many Iranians, who are showing solidarity with their neighbors on social media. But will this extend to Afghan refugees who are made to feel unwelcome in Iran?
"Bloody Ramadan in Kabul" was the headline in Iranian media outlets after the horrific May 31 terror attack. At least 90 people were killed when a truck bomb exploded in the city's diplomatic district. Images of the heavily damaged Iranian embassy spread quickly on social media. For the last 30 years, war, violence and blood have been a part of daily life in neighboring Afghanistan. But now, many Iranians seem to have been moved by events.
The Twitter campaign that translates as #Kabul_Condolences has featured stirring images and emotional messages for Afghanistan – a country which is generally seen as the source of drugs and illegal refugees by many in Iran.
Iran shares a 1,000-kilometer (620 mile) border with Afghanistan, which produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, the basis for heroin. Iran and Turkey are the main smuggling corridors for Afghan heroin into Western and Central Europe. The long border, with its high mountains, is very difficult to cross, and even more difficult to control. Everyone in Iran and Afghanistan knows it. It is unclear just how many people have crossed this border over the last 30 years.
Negative portrayal of Afghan refugees
NGOs estimate that some 3 million Afghan refugees currently reside in Iran, two million of them illegally. They possess no documents and live as second-class citizens on the fringes of society, some for generations. For years, these people have been the subject of mainly negative news headlines. Iranian media outlets often focus on illegal labor and supposedly high crime rates among Afghans.
But reports about refugees' rights and the rights of children born in Iran have become the new focus of Iran's media. Above all, the reform-minded Rouhani administration has been responsible for the change in attitude. In 2015, the government gave unregistered refugee children the right to attend Iranian schools – something that Iranian NGOs have been demanding for years.
Mahnaz Afshar, a popular Iranian actress, has been one of the most well-known figures in the debate. She is also hugely popular in Afghanistan and is a favorite guest at the annual women's film festival in the Afghan city of Herat.
After the Kabul attack she tweeted: "Blood and the Middle East. I was only in Kabul once, but I left part of my heart there."
EU financial aid for Iran
An important factor in the change in media attitudes toward illegal Afghan refugees in Iran has also been European interest in improving of their living conditions in Iran. The EU is keen to fight the causes of migration at the source - a policy that also applies to refugees from Afghanistan.
On May 29, the European Union announced that it would provide some 44 million euros ($49 million) to help Afghan refugees in a number of different countries. Among others, the aid package is intended to help refugees in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Some 10 million euros will be focused on helping needy Afghans in Iran.
Children of Afghan 'martyrs'
Conservative media outlets have also helped portray Afghan refugees in a more positive light of late. They report extensively on the martyrdom of Afghan refugees fighting as militiamen in Syria. Reports often celebrate volunteer soldiers in the Fatemiyoun Division, a Shia militia, as "defenders of holy sites."
Named after the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, the Fatemiyoun is mainly made up of Afghan fighters. The division belongs to Iran's Quds Force, a special forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for foreign operations. According to conservative Iranian media outlets, the Fatemiyoun Division consists of roughly 20,000 fighters.
Able-bodied Afghans that volunteer for combat missions in Syria are paid up to $500 dollars per month, say refugees. Furthermore, they are also promised a high school or university education as well as improved living conditions for their families.
"They also defend the Islamic Republic of Iran and its ideals. The terror organization Islamic State (IS) was created to curb Iran's influence in the region and to do us harm," explains General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Forces. General Soleimani is often featured in media stories when he visits the families of fallen Afghan fighters and is photographed with their children.