Syrian War and the Plight of Afghan Refugees: Iran Coercing Afghans to Fight in the Conflict


The massive influx of Afghan refugees to Iran started in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Until 1992, Iran was exemplary in welcoming refugees. It granted 3-4 million Afghans work permits, free education and subsidized healthcare. Afghans could stay in Iran indefinitely. In 1992 Iran stopped granting permanent residence rights to Afghans, even though in the subsequent years, civil war and the reign of the Taliban have caused an increase in involuntary migration.[1]

Since 2004 Iran has undertaken different measures to curb and decrease the number of refugees. These include voluntary repatriation with the help of UNHCR, forced deportation and the launch of a new registration exercise called “Amayesh.”  All Afghan refugees, even those who previously had been granted residency rights, were required to go through the new procedure. Currently, only Afghans who hold Amayesh cards are temporarily recognized as eligible refugees. Card holders must regularly renew their card. The registration process is increasingly complex, and due to unfamiliarity with the procedure or long distance, it is difficult for many refugees to obtain it. Refugees are also required to pay a fee with each renewal, which is exorbitant for many. As a result, thousands have failed to obtain or renew their card and are consequently deemed undocumented and subject to deportation. Those who obtain the card are allowed to ask for a work permit and have limited social rights, but these are not comparable to the rights they have enjoyed previously. For example, as part of the repatriation policy since 2004 many Afghan children have had to pay tuition fees for education; because this is beyond the means of most families, many have dropped out of school.[2] In 2011 Iran deported around 150,000 Afghans.[3]

All this has resulted in the increase of undocumented refugees, because many Hazarah Afghans still flee their home country due to discrimination against them.[4] According to the latest report by UNHCR there are about 950,000 Afghan refugees in Iran.[5] However, it is estimated that an additional 1.4 to 2 million undocumented Afghan migrants live and work in extremely low-paying jobs in the country.[6] They are deprived of almost all social rights and are subject to deportation if arrested.

Afghans in Syria

Bashar-al-Assad is deemed by Iran to be an important strategic ally. The Iranian government has steadfastly sided with the Syrian government and has been heavily involved in the conflict. Iran has repeatedly denied having deployed any troops in Syria, and has indicated that its presence is limited to advisory capacity. However, since 2013 there have been reports that Iran has been sending Afghan refugees to Syria.

Although some Afghans join the war out of religious conviction to fight ISIS and other Sunni militias, most refugees are sent through a combination of incentives and coercion. (Iranian law does not permit the drafting of foreign nationals.) Undocumented Afghans are pulled off the streets and threatened with deportation if they do not join the war. Some Afghan fighters are offered 500-700 dollars per month. Also, they are often promised that their families will receive permanent residency or even sometimes Iranian nationality. Although joining the war is immensely dangerous, many see this as the only way left to improve their situation. Confronted with the alternative of either getting deported or fighting in Syria in return for incentives, many choose the latter. Although the precise number of Afghan soldiers in Syria is not known, it is estimated that 14,000 to 20,000 are present[7] because they are organized into the Fatemiyoun— a military unit under the command of Revolutionary guards, which was upgraded from a brigade to a division last year.[8]


A rare photo of Afghans in Syria

Representation in Media

There is a stark contrast between the representation of the situation in state-run news agencies of Iran and what Afghan refugees themselves have told Human Rights Watch and independent media after taking refuge in Europe.

As the unofficial news and rumors of Afghans soldiers spread, the media blackout in Iran was lifted and the news of Afghans was covered. However, this has been limited to the conservative media affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. According to their narrative, Fatemiyoun was first formed spontaneously by Afghan veterans who had fought against the Soviet Union and the Taliban, and were willing to defend Shias and the holy shrines in Syria.  The press reports stated that Fatemiyoun began with 25 volunteers, but little by little Afghans have been signing up enthusiastically to join the war. Soldiers who have been interviewed have been quoted as saying:

“Through some friends, I became aware of what is going on in Syria. For more than a week I had dreams of [Hazrat-e-Zeynab].[9] I then consulted my wife. She didn’t agree at first, but I insisted to go . . . . The first time I arrived at the Holy shrine, I was in a strange mood and wept involuntarily.”

“We first sign up and then wait to be called up. Then we go to a military base and have training between 25 to 35 days, because the situation in Syria is really severe.”[10]

Interviews have been held with family members of those killed in Syria (under a May 2015 law adopted by the Iranian parliament, the families of Afghan martyrs may be granted Iranian nationality):

“60 days ago he went to Syria. He knew in advance martyrdom awaited him . . . [T]he first time he asked for my permission me was when we went to the Macca . . . [H]e said that if I say no, then we would be shameful in front of Hazrat-e-Zeinab.”

In the wake of the escalation of the war and the killing of more Afghans, Iran’s supreme leader has emphasized the necessity of supporting families of the killed soldiers. Funerals are held and Afghans are hailed as Martyrs of Islam.

These “official” accounts differ greatly from the statements of Afghan refugees and their families. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than two dozen Afghans who said that their relatives had been coerced to fight in Syria. Many had refused, and had either fled or been deported to Afghanistan.[11] One 17-year-old Afghan said he had been forced to fight without being given the opportunity to refuse.[12]

Many Afghans complain that the Iranian government does not fulfill its promises to Afghans who fight and survive or to those who are killed in battle.

“There were a lot of poor Afghan families in Iran whom the government promised to pay if their sons went to Syria to fight . . . . And many of their young ones were killed and their families were just hoping to receive ID documentation or residence permit. But in reality many of them received nothing.”[13]

Another Afghan describes how her brothers who were 19 and 21 were coerced to join the war:

“My brother wanted to go to Syria. If he was in Syria for at least six months, they [Revolutionary guards] said that both of my brothers could start school; my father would get permission to work with everything he wanted, and they would . . . get Iranian passport, not just residence permit. . . . My parents didn’t agree, but he went to Syria. They paid him good money, 1.5 million toman per month [470–500 US dollars]. It was a big help for my family, but at the same time my brother’s life costs more than a few million (toman). My mum cried and said: ‘Every minute I feel like I’m dying.’”[14]

Her brother was injured in Syria and returned for treatment. When he got out of hospital, Iranian Revolutionary Guards came to his house:

“They brought cookies and flowers to our house and said: ‘You are a special family, you should be proud of your son.’ But they didn’t pay him the last money and they didn’t give him a passport. Instead he was asked to go to the front again. . . .The Revolutionary Guards wanted both of my brothers to go. They were forced. I called him and said: ‘You are crazy, don’t go.’  But my brother said: ‘I don’t have a choice. They won’t leave me alone.’ . . . We used all our spare money and both of them came to Europe last year.”[15]

A seventeen-year-old Afghan coming to Greece by boat had been living undocumented in Iran as a construction worker for four years. Police detained him and his cousin while they were in Iran and took them to a military base outside Tehran:

“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 . . . . It is true that others had volunteered at the mosques to fight, but the Iranian military officers were much nicer to those volunteers and they were trained at a different base; many went to fight for money. But on our base, the people I talked to said Iranian authorities had forced them to go to the training.”[16]

Another refugee says that Iranian police detained his brothers while they were going to work:

“A year ago, they took two of my brothers from the streets to fight, and for a long time we had almost no news from either of them. My young brother came back from one round of fighting and was briefly in Tehran. We saw him for one day and he gave us some money . . . We have had no news from my older brother, Rahman, for the past six months. They arrested him a year ago and threatened to deport him to Afghanistan if he didn’t go fight in Syria. The authorities said they would deport him to Afghanistan, and we said ok, but when I called Afghanistan and asked my relatives where he was, they said they did not know. After a while, some of his friends came back from fighting in Syria and told us that they had seen him fighting there. His friends have come back, but we have no news from him. He didn’t go voluntarily. They arrested him and forced him, he told his friends who fought with him in Syria. His wife and children are here with us [in Greece].”[17]

A fourteen-year-old boy was detained with 150 Afghans while trying to cross from Iran into Turkey. At the police station his group was told that they had to go to Syria to fight in return for money or they would get deported. None of them agreed to go, so they had to go back to Afghanistan. Another Afghan who was interviewed in Norway said that after being arrested twice by the police, he was persuaded by another Afghan to go to Syria to defend Shias. Although he volunteered, the possibility of getting deported was a factor in his decision. After training for 19 days, he was sent to Syria.

Afghan soldiers fighting in Fatemiyoun division face grave risks. Their commanders usually order them to fight in the most dangerous zones against ISIS with light automatic weapons.

“ISIS was advancing, and the Arabs were retreating. The Syrians were too afraid to fight. So they ordered us to the front to fight against ISIS. There were almost no Syrians with us. They said that if we refused to advance, they would shoot all of us, saying we could not retreat. If people still refused, the commander would shoot them in the leg. He shot two people in my group that way.”[18]


Funeral of an Afghan soldier killed in Syria

Not all soldiers become martyrs, and some get badly wounded. Many do not receive help from the Iranian government and are left on their own, especially those Afghans who live in small cities. “I wish my son had become a martyr,”[19] says a father whose son has been left paralyzed and sent back home and for whom the family had to pay all medical expenses. In an interview with an Iranian news agency, an Afghan woman talked about his brother who volunteered to join the conflict in Syria. “We were not even aware that he signed up for it . . . Our parents didn’t want him to go, but he talked them into it . . . He did not become a martyr for money, but out of his belief. But we ask the government to care for the families. All we want is a document so that when we go to the cemetery police do not arrest us. We cannot go back to Afghanistan because ISIS is there and we are not safe. Please, give us a valid residency permit.”[20]

Threatening registered refugees with deportation for refusal to fight is tantamount to refoulement; it is thus a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention to which Iran is a signatory. But so far, reaction from the international community has been scant. UNHCR guidelines try to prevent the recruitment of refugees who are in camps and settlements.  However, because of the increasing obstacles for Afghans to apply for and gain refugee status, thousands remain undocumented and therefore vulnerable to Iran’s arbitrary policies.


[1]Janne Bjerre Christensen, Guests or Trash: Iran’s precarious policies towards the Afghan refugees in the wake of sanctions and regional wars (Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier Dec. 2016), page 10
[2] Ibid, page 14.

[3] Unwelcomed Guests: Iran’s violation of Afghan Refugees and Migrant Rights by Human Rights Watch (2013).


[5] UNHCR: Solution strategy for Afghan Refugees (2016).

[6] Unwelcome Guests :Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights by Human Rights Watch (2013). Page 70.



[9] A holy figure for Shias.



[12] Ibid.

[13] Janne Bjerre Christensen, Guests or Trash, page 31     .

[14] Ibid: page 31

[15] Ibid: page 31


[17] Ibid.




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