By Natasha Phillips
20 Nov – Iran has received Afghan refugees since 1979 and holds the largest Afghan diaspora population in the world. Today, three million Afghans who have fled war-torn territories live inside the country. Of those, around one million are estimated to be children. Fleeing from war, many of these children are being exploited in Iran, and forced to fight in Syria on behalf of the Iranian government.
While Iran’s government has taken steps to provide education and healthcare for Afghans, little has been done to ensure that undocumented Afghan refugees access basic services. It’s an oversight that is forcing Afghan children underground and leaving them vulnerable, in a country experiencing soaring levels of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
In June, reports of Afghan children being abducted, raped and murdered were published across several websites, but were largely ignored by the mainstream media. Public Radio International (PRI), a site that covered the stories, published details of attacks on three children.
According to PRI, a five-year-old Afghan girl was kidnapped and raped in Isfahan in June. Although she survived her ordeal, six-year-old Neda Alizada did not survive hers. Neda went missing in a town near Tehran in March, during the festivities of the Persian New Year (Nowruz). She had been abducted on her way to get bread for her family’s dinner, and was then raped, murdered, and dismembered. Her body parts were later found in a dustbin bag on the side of a street. According to The Iranian Student’s News Agency, one of the family’s neighbors, a middle-aged Iranian fruit vendor named Ali Asghar Ashrafizadeh, confessed to kidnapping, raping and murdering Neda.
PRI also mentions the murder of another six-year-old Afghan girl called Setayesh Ghoreishi, which took place in 2016. Setayesh was raped and then stabbed to death. The killer, who was allegedly a 17-year-old Iranian neighbor, then tried to dispose of the evidence by placing Setayesh’s body in a bathtub filled with acid.
There seems to be some media skepticism over whether the men charged with the deaths of the young girls were genuinely responsible for the crimes, perhaps as a result of past instances involving the exploitation of Afghan boys by Iranian officials. In 2016, Human Rights Watch published a report which said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, many of whom were children. Several teenage boys told Human Rights Watch that they had been forced to fight, while others said they chose to sign up either out of religious conviction or in the hope that participation would lead to the government officially granting them residence inside Iran.
The report also offers insights into some of the boys who found themselves fighting in Syria after being coerced by Iranian authorities. Masheed Ahmadzai was 17 years old when the police detained him and his cousin, who had been living undocumented in Iran for four years. The boys were taken to a military base, where several detained Afghans were being assessed by military officers. Masheed recalled what happened to him and his cousin after arriving at the base:
“The military officers selected us, and then they separated us into those fit to fight, and those not fit to fight. They took me with a group of 20 men, but did not select my cousin and deported him to Afghanistan…They did not give us a choice; they forced us to train and fight. They said, ‘You will fight in Syria and become a martyr, and that is a good thing.’ They forced all of us who were physically fit to fight.”
Masheed goes on to tell Human Rights Watch that he fought for three months in Syria, and that although Iranian officials had promised to pay him 3 million tomans (approximately US$ 1,000 in 2015) a month as a salary, he only received 5 million tomans (approximately US$ 1,650 in 2015) for his three months of service. When Masheed was called up for a second round of duty, he fled to Turkey and then made his way to Greece on a dangerously crowded boat, after being warned by officials that if he didn’t report for duty, his family would be arrested.
A 14-year-old boy called Ali describes his experience of being coerced into conscription. Ali remembers being detained by Iranian border guards along with 150 other Afghans. The guards beat them routinely with sticks and told them that if they didn’t fight in Syria, they would be deported back to Afghanistan. Ali said that some Afghans chose to fight because they had no money and were worried about deportation. He also outlined the process for signing up, which included “[going] to the mosque where [Afghans] would register to fight. The Mullah registers you, and then the army collects you [for training].”
The conscription of child soldiers in Iran has also been commented on by the U.S. State Department, in their Trafficking in Persons Report, which was released in June 2018. The annual report looks at human trafficking around the world, and classifies countries using a tier system.
Countries which are fully compliant with the minimum standards set out in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) are put in Tier 1, with those least compliant and making no significant effort to address human trafficking within their borders, placed in Tier 3.
Although this year’s report says that the Iranian government has tried to reduce its human trafficking problem, for instance by providing support centers for trafficking victims, Iran was placed in Tier 3. The classification stems from Iranian officials’ ongoing reluctance to share updates on its attempts to address trafficking, its funding of the recruitment of child soldiers in Iraq and its continued use of child soldiers to fight in Syria, which include Afghan child refugees.
As a result of its involvement in the conscription of child soldiers, Iran also found itself on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List this year, which identifies countries actively recruiting and using child soldiers. Ten other countries were also listed: Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
It is not just the possibility of forced conscription that Afghan children inside Iran face in 2018. Research by Iran Human Rights Monitor (IHRM) suggests that 80 percent of children in the country who face sexual exploitation are Afghan child refugees. Undocumented and struggling to survive in the shadows, Afghan children are particularly vulnerable to being sexually exploited, and according to IHRM are likely to be sold or rented for anywhere between one to four million tomans by organized gangs.
The plight of Afghan refugees in Iran was also acknowledged this year by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) in a statement issued by Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In his statement, which was published in September, Grandi urged the international community to help Iran support its Afghan refugee population, fearing the worst if they remained on the sidelines inside a country already devastated by economic instability.