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.