Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araghchi threatens to expel Afghans over US sanctions

Mr Araghchi has faced criticism for his suggestion the refugees cost the state too much

epa06761971 Iranian Deputy-Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi attends a JCPOA Joint Commission meeting at the Palais Coburg, in Vienna, Austria, 25 May 2018. The JCPOA Joint Commission is chaired on behalf of EU High Representative Federica Mogherini by EEAS Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid and is attended by the E3+2 (Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia) and Iran.  EPA/FLORIAN WIESER
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A senior Iranian official has been criticised after bemoaning the cost of more than three million Afghan refugees living in the country, claiming US sanctions are making it hard to support them.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araghchi said that displaced Afghans are taking up the country's jobs, school places and clogging up its healthcare system, in an interview with Irna, a state-linked news agency, on Saturday.

Mr Araghchi threatened to deport the refugees, saying that Europeans should take in refugees because their continued displacement is due to problems created by Western countries.

If US sanctions bring Iran crude exports to zero "it is possible that we ask our Afghan brothers and sisters to leave Iran," Mr Araghchi said, the Associated Press reported, because hosting them annually costs the equivalent of several billion dollars.

The minister's comments led to criticism from within the country.

Semi-official Tasnim news agency said, "we wish you had not made the statement". Others called for his dismissal.

"Firing Araghchi is the minimum response to his huge mistake,” Ali Naderi, a prominent hard-line political activist, tweeted.

The minister has since been forced to clarify his remarks, claiming he simply meant it is hard to afford to support the refugees and other countries should take responsibility.

Iran, based on "human and Islamic beliefs," is happy to host the refugees, he said, but said Western countries who are "responsible for many of the tragedies of the Afghan people" must also take responsibility.

“More than three million Afghans are now in Iran, more than two million job opportunities have been occupied by good Afghan brothers in Iran, and they are taking out three to five billion euros from our country,” the deputy foreign minister said in an interview on Wednesday night.

Mr Araghchi also listed the cost of educating, training and caring for the refugees.

Mr Araghchi blamed US sanctions for the country's inability to afford to support refugees. The US reimposed sanctions on Iran after US President Donald Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal signed in 2015 with world powers that had removed sanctions in exchange for curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Last week, Iran pulled out of some of its commitments to the deal leading to the United States imposing further sanctions, this time hitting the country's metals industry.

There are approximately one million registered Afghan refugees in Iran, and a further 1.5 to two million undocumented Afghans in the country, according the UNHCR. Since 2015, all Afghan children have had access to primary and secondary education in Iran, the UN refugee agency says.

But there are limited legal avenues for Afghans to get immigration or refugee status in Iran, and they are often arbitrarily detained in the country, Human Rights Watch reported in 2015.

The Afghan refugee situation is one of the most protracted in the world, the UN refugee agency has noted, with many arriving in Iran during the Soviet-Afghan war that began four decades ago. The continued instability in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2003 has prevented refugees from returning, in turn displacing more Afghans.