By Nada Homsi
October 1, 2017
Afghan immigrant children as young as 14 are being recruited in Iran to fight — and die — in Syria, a prominent human rights organization said Sunday.
The group, Human Rights Watch, said it had verified the deaths of eight Afghan children in Iran, who were recruited and ultimately died fighting for the Fatemiyoun division in Syria, by inspecting tombstones in cemeteries in Iran, cross-referencing them against the names of fighters reported dead in Iranian news reports, and by speaking to the families of several of the teenagers.
The Human Rights Watch report demonstrates that Afghan fighters younger than 18 have died in Syria, and it sheds new light on the recruitment of Afghan Shiites to fight in Syria, where Iran backs the Syrian government in a multisided war. Iran is home to many Afghans, who have travelled there to work or as refugees fleeing conflict in their country. Human rights groups have long expressed concern that vulnerable Afghan refugees are being pressured by the Iranian authorities to fight in Syria.
More graves for teenage fighters are believed to exist, Human Rights Watch says, citing reports of fighters’ deaths in the Iranian news media. According to the group’s report, some of the children’s epitaphs identify their place of death as Syria, while some tombstones bear the inscription “defender of the shrine” — a reference to Sayyida Zainab, an important shrine in Syria revered by the Shiite sect of Islam, to which many Afghans and Iranians belong.
The Fatemiyoun, a division within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that is actively fighting alongside Syrian government forces, consists exclusively of Afghan immigrants to Iran. The Iranian Interior Ministry estimated in 2015 that 2.5 million Afghans lived in Iran, but many do not possess residency permits.
The process of attaining legal status is lengthy and difficult for immigrants, and without it, life is challenging for Afghans in Iran. Human Rights Watch contends that many Afghan refugees in Iran who were said to have volunteered to fight in Syria were motivated by promises of legal residency status and residency permits for their families.
“We spoke to one person who fought as part of the Fatemiyoun Division and he said that he was able to receive a residency permit upon return,” said Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who lead the report. “He explained that he was approached by a recruiter when he was going to the office at the Interior Ministry, which deals with the situation of Afghan permits in Iran.”
Under international law, military recruits must be at least 18, and the training or deployment of soldiers younger than 15 is considered to be a war crime. Some of the tombstones identified by Human Rights Watch put the ages of death at 18, but further investigations by the group found that the children who had died had lied about their age in order to join the Fatemiyoun Division.
“It does not appear to be a deliberate policy to recruit children,” Ms. Sepehri Far said. “It’s more of a sloppiness that the authorities and recruiters don’t care enough to ask for proof of age.”
Syria’s six-and-a-half-year civil war has attracted foreign fighters from every corner of the world, many of whom are serving as proxies for other countries or groups. The convoluted war has a documented history of human rights violations and war crimes committed by every side of the conflict, and reports of child soldiers fighting in various militias have circulated before.
Anne Barnard contributed reporting.