According to a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been recruiting Afghan children living in Iran to fight in Syria, with children as young as fourteen joining an exclusively Afghan armed militia fighting alongside the Syrian regime.
Since 2013, Iran has trained thousands of Afghans, many of whom are undocumented migrants, to fight in the Fatemiyoun militia, which it describes as a volunteer Afghan force. While no official statistics exist on its size, a news site affiliated with the IRGC said last year that the militia had 14,000 fighters.
In compiling its report, Human Rights Watch reviewed photos of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries where combatants killed in Syria’s brutal war are buried. The organization identified as least eight Afghan children in the Martyr’s Section of Tehran’s Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, including one as young as fourteen. The tombstones described the children as “defenders of the shrine,” an euphemism used to describe fighters in Syria. In two reported cases, the tombstones indicated the age of the deceased fighters as over eighteen, but family members told HRW that they were children who lied about their age to join the Fatemiyoun division.
More than 1,000 Iranian troops have been killed since Tehran intervened in Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad against opposition groups. In August 2016, Afghan citizens made up half of those killed while fighting in Iranian militias in Syria.
In the past, vulnerable Afghan refugees have volunteered to fight in Syria, in the hopes of gaining legal status for their families in Iran. Afghans in Iran told HRW that Iranian authorities have blackmailed some Afghans into fighting in Syria, by refusing to otherwise renew residency permits. There are over 2.5 million Afghans in Iran, many without residency papers.
“They never asked me to show any documentation, but they wanted to make sure we were Afghan nationals,” Ali told Human Rights Watch. “We had to be above the age of eighteen to be recruited, but they only asked for our age, not any documentation.”
Under international law, recruiting children under the age of fifteen to actively participate in hostilities is a war crime. HRW has called on the UN to investigate the IRGC’s child recruitment and to add the organization to its annual list of violators of children’s rights.
“Iran should immediately end the recruitment of child soldiers and bring back any Afghan children it has sent to fight in Syria,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”