Not fighting for Allah: how Iran exploits Afghan migrant poverty to fuel the Syrian civil war

Beyond the furore of President Trump’s combative stance towards the Iran nuclear deal and the consequentially combative stance of European leaders towards President Trump in return, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been at the centre of a less public controversy: its exploitation of impoverished Afghan migrants, including children, by sending them to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad.

Of course, such recruitment methods and belligerent military activities are the tip of the iceberg of a long-running destabilisation programme orchestrated by Tehran. For it is not only Iran’s domestic policies that have merited international criticism from a human rights perspective, but also their political and financial support for other human rights abusers in the region; from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militants in Iraq to Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Recruiting Afghan fighters

This latest scandal, however, as reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW) is perhaps particularly disturbing due to both the manifold layers of human rights violations being committed and the fact that young children are being cynically recruited to partake in one of the greatest contemporary humanitarian catastrophes.

Children, some as young as 14, are amongst the recruits of Afghan migrants sponsored by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to support the Assad regime in Syria. They are also amongst the fatalities: HRW has identified eight Afghan children who fought and died in Syria and notes that the Iranian media has reported at least six more such fatalities.

According to Afghan interviewees, Iranian officials ask potential recruits for their age at sign-ups at Afghan migrant registration centres – but they do not ask for corroborating documentation. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court stipulates that the military use of children under the age of 15 is a war crime. Further, the Operational Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iran has signed, though not yet ratified in parliament, argues for an age limit of 18.

The recruits constitute an Iranian-backed Afghan armed group known as the Fatemiyoun division. Its 15,000 fighters’ motives appear not to be religious, but economic: the recruits seek financial support or residency status for them or their families. There are three million Afghan migrants residing in Iran, approximately half of whom are undocumented, and while Iran refers to its Afghan fighters as “volunteers”, these communities’ circumstances call in to question just how voluntary such sign-ups are.

One first-hand account of Iranian exploitation comes from Shams, a 25-year-old who fought in Syria twice in 2016 and now lives in Kabul: “For me, it was just about money. Whoever I saw was going for money and to have free entry to Iran. I never saw anyone fighting for religious reasons.” According to Shams, Afghan Shiites are given one and a half million rials if they register for the Fatemiyoun at a recruitment centre and receive an additional three million rials a month.

Consequently, Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry has called on Iran to stop sending recruits to Syria, and a parliamentarian in Kabul has reprimanded Iran for treating these migrants “like slaves”.  Rebuke also comes from Sarah Leah Winston, Executive Director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division: “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.”

 Afghan migrants living in Iran

The highly unethical nature of such recruitment methods is evident when the migrant communities’ circumstances are assessed. One recent review conducted by Nasim Sadat Hosseini Divkolaye from the Iranian Blood Transfusion Organisation and American physician and human rights expert Frederick M. ‘Skip’ Burkle Junior highlights the plight of Afghan migrants due to poor healthcare provision. Citing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which enshrine the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of health, the authors argue that the problem of limited healthcare access, which is compounded by the migrants’ propensity to work in hazardous labour without work-related insurance, constitutes inadequate human rights provisions.

More stinging criticism, however, can be found in HRW’s extensive report from 2013, ‘Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights’, which draws attention to the desperate situation of many Afghans. Crucially, the report documents the fact that Iran increasingly deploys deportation and detention procedures without due process and has simultaneously limited legal avenues for Afghans to claim refugee or other immigration status in Iran, violating its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Thus, the migrant communities have found it increasingly difficult to claim residency in Iran and their ability to remain in the country without fear of deportation has also become more perilous in recent years. It is no wonder many young Afghans are tempted to risk their lives in a brutal war they do not believe in.

The growing numbers of disheartened Afghan refugees leaving Iran confirms the thrust of the aforementioned reports. One such 26 year-old Afghan refugee who was born in Iran and has his eyes set on living in Germany is quoted saying that “the Iranian government didn't treat us like humans – we couldn't go to the hospital with insurance”. His “first dream”, he says, “is to have human rights.”

These accounts of mistreatment of Afghan migrants jar with the praise bestowed on Iran by the UN in March for its “exemplary” behaviour in hosting refugees. They also provide sobering contextualisation to the undoubtedly positive developments from the UNHCR’s Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR) whereby Iran has provided medical assistance to refugees on the Afghan border, granted health coverage to many documented migrants, and enabled many Afghan children to partake in the Iranian education system.

None of these actions detract from or justify the more expansive areas of Iran’s human rights violations in its use of child soldiers, neglect and exploitation of its vulnerable Afghan migrant communities, and its furtherance of Syria’s humanitarian tragedy by bolstering the Assad regime.

Joel Collick is a research assistant at Bright Blue