ISLAMABAD - An international rights defender has accused Iran of committing war crimes by recruiting and sending Afghan immigrant children “as young as 14” to fight in Syria alongside government forces.
In a detailed report published Sunday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says its researchers reviewed photographs of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries and identified eight Afghan children who apparently fought and died in Syria.
The report charges Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) with recruiting and providing combat training to mainly Shi’ite Hazara Afghans who have settled in Iran after fleeing decades of hostilities in their native country.
“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. Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime,” warned HRW.
The watchdog noted that Iranian media reports also corroborated some of these cases and documented at least six more instances of Afghan child soldiers who died in Syria.
HRW’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, called on Tehran to 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,” she said.
The persistent conflict in Afghanistan has led millions of its citizens to take refuge in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.
Iranian officials estimate there are around 2.5-million Afghan refugees living in the country, many of them without residency papers.
Rights groups have documented cases of Afghans, mostly Shi’ite Hazaras, in Iran who “volunteered” to take part in the Syrian conflict in the hopes of gaining legal status and a monthly income for their impoverished families.
Pro-government Iranian media describes the Fatemiyoun Division as a volunteer Afghan force fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran is said to have supported and trained thousands of Afghans, including undocumented immigrants, in the past few years and sent them to the battlefields in Syria.
Iranian authorities reportedly tell Afghan recruits they are being trained to fight to protect major Shi’ite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa.
The tombstones also identified the children’s places of death in Syria, and in seven of the eight cases, the tombstones described the Afghan child as a “defender of the shrine,” the euphemism the Iranian government uses to describe fighters it sends to Syria, according to the HRW report.
HRW in its report has called on the United Nations to investigate alleged recruitment of Afghan child soldiers.
Iran has not yet commented on the report though officials in Tehran have previously denied allegations Afghans are being recruited and sent to the Syrian conflict.
Iran is reported to have poured billions of dollars into Syria in addition to raising Shi’ite militias from countries with significant Shi’ite population, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, which also hosts millions of war and poverty-stricken Afghans.
Pakistan has also long been accused of encouraging Sunni Afghans in the refugee settlements to join ranks of the Taliban waging insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.