Human Rights Watch says Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been recruiting Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in the conflict in Syria.
The New York-based rights advocate said in a statement released on October 1 that Afghan children as young as 14 have fought in the Fatemiyoun division, an exclusively Afghan armed group supported by Iran that fights alongside government forces in the Syrian conflict.
“Iran should immediately end the recruitment of child soldiers and bring back any Afghan children it has sent to fight in Syria,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.
HRW said a review photos of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries identified eight Afghan children who apparently fought and died in Syria. Iranian media reports corroborated some of these cases and reported at least six more instances of Afghan child soldiers who died in Syria, according to Human Rights Watch. The advocacy group said that due to misrepresentations of some ages on tombstones could indicate that “instances of Iran recruiting children to fight in Syria are likely more prevalent.”
“Rather than preying on vulnerable immigrant and refugee children, the Iranian authorities should protect all children and hold those responsible for recruiting Afghan children to account,” Whitson said.
The Interior Ministry estimated in 2015 that there were 2.5 million Afghans in Iran, many without proper paperwork. Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases of Afghan refugees in Iran who “volunteered” to fight in Syria in the hopes of gaining legal status for their families.
There are no official public statistics on the size of the Fatemiyoun division, but according to Tasnim News, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, it has about 14,000 fighters. Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime.
There is little transparency in Iran’s recruitment of soldiers to fight in Syria, including whether it has implemented measures to prevent child recruitment. While Iran officially claims that all Afghans living in Iran who join the Fatemiyoun division are volunteers, the vulnerable legal position of many Afghan children living in Iran and their fear of being deported to Afghanistan may contribute to their decision to join up.
Authorities have attempted to extend rights to Afghan children living in Iran. In 2015, Iran reportedly allowed all Afghan children, including undocumented ones, to register for schools after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a ruling emphasizing that “no Afghan child, even the undocumented ones, should be left out of school.”
Yet, this research demonstrates authorities have done too little to protect Afghan children from being recruited to fight in Syria, particularly in light of the fact that the government has proposed offering incentives such as a path to citizenship for families of foreign fighters who die, become injured, or are taken captive during “military missions.”