London, 2 Oct – Human Rights Watch revealed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been recruiting Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in the Syrian Civil War on the side of Bashar Assad.
Afghan children, some as young as 14, are fighting in the Fatemiyoun division (an Afghan armed group supported by Iran). Not only is this morally reprehensible but, under internal law, recruiting anyone under 15 to fight in a conflict is a war crime.
It also contravenes the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which Iran has signed up to, which states that the minimum age for participation in armed conflict is 18.
Human Rights watch were able to uncover these crimes by reviewing the tombstones in Iranian cemeteries where combatants who died in Syria are buried.
They identified eight Afghan children so far from the tombstones. The Iranian media reports corroborated some of these cases and recorded at least six others.
At least two of these tombstones have been falsified with an earlier date of birth, according to the families of the deceased, and it is unlikely that this only happened twice.
Isa Rahimi, the father of deceased Afghan child soldier Hassan Rahimi, said, in November 2016: “On his tomb, his birthday is printed as 1995, but his real birthday is 1999. He had lied about his age so they would allow him to join the forces easier.
They hadn’t asked him for a birth certificate, and that’s how he got away with it.”
We must also consider the fact that many Iranian-backed fighters in Syria are not returning home and are buried in Syria to avoid public outcry at the sheer loss of life, so many child soldiers may be among them.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Iran should immediately end the recruitment of child soldiers and bring back any Afghan children it has sent to fight in Syria. 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.”
Many Afghans “volunteered” to fight in Syria because they were promised that their family would be given legal status and allowed to stay in Iran.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Executive Committee noted that these incentives, without the protection of asking for legitimate ID, could increase the risk of child recruitment and called on Iran to implement policies to prevent this human rights violation.
They said: “Refugee children and adolescents… are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by government armed forces.”
Human Rights Watch said: “The UN should investigate child recruitment by the IRGC, and the secretary-general should consider adding the organization to his annual list of perpetrators of violations against children based on evidence of child recruitment.”
Whitson said: “Iran should be improving protections for Afghan refugee children, not leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous recruiting agents. Iran should immediately ratify the Optional Protocol and ensure that Afghan children are not being recruited to fight in Syria.”