Iran is accused of recruiting Afghan teenagers to fight in Syria

Human Rights Watch report that Afghan children as young as 14 have fought in the Fatemiyoun division- an exclusively Afghan armed group supported by Iran that fights in Syria.

A view of buildings destroyed during clashes between Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria September 30, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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Human Rights Watch revealed on Sunday that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited Afghan immigrant children to fight in Syria.

The New York based advocate group said: “Afghan children as young as 14 have fought in the Fatemiyoun division, an exclusively Afghan armed group supported by Iran that fights alongside government forces in the Syrian conflict.”

The watchdog identified eight Afghan children who apparently where recruited, fought and died for the Fatemiyoun division in Syria by examining tombstones in cemeteries in Iran, cross-referencing them against the names of fighters reported dead in Iranian news reports.

Iranian media reports also corroborated some of these cases and reported at least six more instances of Afghan child soldiers who died in Syria.

Isa Rahimi, father of deceased Afghan solider Hassan Rahimi, told Iran’s Quran News Agency 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.”

The group said that due to misrepresentations of some of the ages on tombstones it could “indicate that instances of Iran recruiting children to fight in Syria are likely more prevalent.”

Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, urged Iranian authorities to end the recruitment of child soldiers and to ensure they 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,” Ms Whitson said.

Since 2013, Iran has supported and trained thousands of Afghans, at least some of them undocumented immigrants, as part of the Fatemiyoun division, the watchdog reported.

Afghan fighters have also said they have seen children in training camps for Afghan forces.

“Ali,” a 29-year-old Afghan, told Human Rights Watch in August that he talked to 16 and 17-year-old child soldiers who were being trained to fight in Syria.

In 2015, the Iranian interior ministry estimated that there were 2.5 million Afghans in Iran, many without paperwork.

The group urged the United Nations to 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." 

Ms Whitson said that "Iran should be improving protections for Afghan refugee children, not leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous recruiting agents."