When home does not exist, what does self-quarantine mean: street children in Tehran

Published 31 March 2020 / By Shahram Khosravi

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"Afghans do not get infected by the Coronavirus, only Iranians do", Hamed said and laughed. He is 14 years old and has been working on Tehran's streets since he was seven.

A son to undocumented migrants from Afghanistan, poverty pushed him into the streets to work when other kids started school. I met him first when he was ten and wouldn't let me pass until I bought something from him. He worked as a street vendor around Pol-e Karim Khan in central Tehran, known for its bookstores and coffee shops. He waited outside the coffee shops, selling petty goods but mostly fal, fortune-telling cards.

In August 2019 he told me that he was planning to go to London, where his aunt lives. He worked hard to save for the smuggling fee. During our several meetings, I tried to give him information about the lethal risks at the Iran-Turkey border, the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos, Eurodac, and the failing asylum process in Europe. Not to deter him from escaping the unbearable predicament of being undocumented in Iran, but to equip him with information about what he might face during his journey to Europe.

When I called him in just a couple of weeks ago to warn him to be careful about coronavirus he joked and said "Afghans do not get infected". What else could he say? How can a street vendor ensure 'social distance'?

When a home does not exist, what does self-quarantine mean?

Hamed is one of the three million children in Iran who earn their livelihood through working on the streets of large cities. Almost half of them work and live in Tehran. They mainly sell flowers, cigarettes and chewing gum to car travellers or in the Tehran underground. Official sources claim that up to 80% of street children in Tehran are 'foreigners', usually meaning undocumented Afghanistani nationals.

How mobility and visibility of the urban poor (including vendors, street children and homeless people) is controlled and regulated by the authorities reveals the structural racist and class discrimination in Iranian cities. In the eyes of the authorities, and the middle-class Tehranis, informal work by street children is considered a source of chaos and the violation of urban aesthetics. The municipality agents in collaboration with private security companies have been chasing 'foreign' street children, arresting and then deporting them to Afghanistan for some time.

The Iranian authorities have found the current health emergency an opportunity to, in their own term 'collect' and deport more street kids to Afghanistan. After the fast-spreading outbreak of the coronavirus in Tehran and the soaring death cases, the authorities identified vendors and street children as actors in spreading of the virus. The children move through the streets and the underground without face masks and gloves. Almost all of them live in informal settlements on the outskirts of Tehran, where many people live in crowded spaces and have limited access to running water to wash themselves. Where Hamed lives in average there are only three toilets and two baths for 400 people. Moreover, as undocumented non-citizens, they lack entitlement to healthcare and emergency public services. The coronavirus outbreak has impacted the livelihoods of all the urban poor who lack a safety net, including street vendors. On 23 March, to constrain the spreading of the virus, the authorities announced that if vendors show up on streets they will be arrested. Since vendors’ work is considered irregular and in fact is not regarded as work they automatically are excluded from the benefits packages offered by the government to the (self)employed. The condition of 'undocumentedness' means invisibility and thereby vulnerability to the pandemic.

But this reaction is not new. The crisis has given the authorities the opportunity to intensify the decade old crackdown of vendors and street children. In recent years, the municipality of Tehran has launched a mission of "removal of barriers of crossings" in order to "alleviate traffic congestion" and enhance the mobility of cars. In collaboration with the police and private security companies, a new semi-official body has been formed whose main task, effectively, is to bully the urban working poor, particularly vendors and street children. Harassment, extortion, plundering, and demands of bribes are daily experiences for street children. All forms of mobilities in the street are controlled and regulated by the state through traffic laws and the police force. Not surprisingly when the "Corona suppression operation" was launched in early March in Tehran, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp (IRGC) used anti-riot vehicles with water cannons to to 'disinfect' streets.

While imposing immobility on street labourers in the name of "protecting the well-being of citizens" and thereby ending their livelihoods, there is no huge change in the mobility pattern among middle-class Tehranis. As Hamed knows, despite his joke, the urban poor have been familiar with 'social distancing', i.e. stigmatization, racism, and exclusion long before the arrival of coronavirus.

About the author: Shahram Khosravi is Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University, and co-ordinates the Critical Border Studies Initiative, a forum for interdisciplinary studies on borders.