On Monday, the Islamic Republic News Agency—Iran's official press outlet—reported that the nation's parliament had passed a law allowing the state to grant citizenship to the children, parents, and wives of foreigners killed while fighting for Iran. The legislation applies explicitly to those "killed on a mission for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988," during which an unknown number of foreigners—mostly Afghans and Iraqis—aided the newly formed Islamic republic in its struggle against Saddam Hussein. But the law also creates a path to citizenship for families of foreigners who die in other conflicts supporting Iran, leading many to interpret it as a strategy to help recruit refugees into brigades bolstering Syrian president Bashar al Assad's forces against the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates.
"There's no other reason [this law] would come about now," said Philip Smyth, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who monitors Iranian-backed forces in Syria, where he said Afghan migrants are treated like cannon fodder.
Iran is home to a huge number of migrants from neighboring countries. About 3 million of them are Afghans, many from the ethnically Hazara, religiously Shia minority. Some have lived in Iran since the Soviet invasion of their nation in 1979; others are recent refugees fleeing war in the country, or short-term residents trying to build up the resources to move elsewhere.
"Many Afghan refugees, both documented and undocumented, are deprived of many basic and essential human rights and public services," said Khadija Abbasi, a former Hazara Afghan refugee in Iran now working on a PhD in Geneva related to her community's experiences. Reportedly, Afghan refugees are denied access to education, jobs, driver's licenses, or even phone SIM cards.
Afghans from Iran have been in Syria since 2012, just a year into the nation's civil war. By late 2013, they formed the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia force of between 10,000 and 20,000 Afghans that reportedly fights under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary guard.
The Iranian government has repeatedly denied any direct connection to the group, insisting instead that the hundreds to thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers in Syria are there as advisors to the Assad regime or as volunteers who are helping to organize other groups of volunteers, including foreigners from Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan. The Iranian narrative suggests that the Fatemiyoun Brigade is made up of pious Shia volunteers who are in Syria to protect sacred shrines against Sunni extremists.
That may be partly true. A few of the brigade's numbers are Afghan migrants who'd lived near an important shrine since the 1990s, when they fled the Taliban to Syria, and mobilized around the structure in 2012 after a suicide bomber allegedly tried to attack it. Others have come directly from Afghanistan explicitly to protect the shrine.
But ample evidence suggests that the Fatemiyoun Brigade is actually a shock troop trained and coordinated by Iran. "The Fatemiyoun are a very significant fighting force," said Peter Bouckaert, the author of a recent Human Rights Watch report on the issue. "They were involved in the battles around Aleppo that retook two small towns just a few months ago… The same goes for the recent battles in eastern Syria around [Palmyra]."
Rather than devout volunteers, numerous accounts attest that Iran has used carrots (like the promise of citizenship and a salary of $500 to $1,000 a month for deployed fighters) and sticks (like the threat of jail or deportation for illegal migrants, or migrants involved in illicit activities) to coerce migrants into joining the Syrian conflict for years. They've also given them state funerals, attended by Revolutionary Guard, military, and other officials and reported in national media. According to Scott Lucas, a professor at the University of Birmingham who monitors Iran's activities in Syria, the state tries to recruit all Afghans, whether long-term or transitory refugees.
Amir Toumaj, a researcher examining Iranian domestic policies for the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, suspects the new citizenship law may serve to discourage desertion from the brigade. It also implicitly publicizes the incentives for fighting under Iran, which to date have mostly been communicated through one-on-one interactions, and sweetens the pot to potentially boost recruitment.
Given the recent crackdowns on Afghan migration into Europe, one might think that these carrots would siphon a number of mobile migrants into Iran. But Lisa Schuster, an academic at the City University London who recently conducted fieldwork on migration issues in Afghanistan, said that most of these migrants—even those temporarily camped out in Iran—are likely still intent on making it to Europe.
Still, Abbasi suspects that the new law will push a number Hazara Afghan refugees toward participation in the Syrian conflict—especially second- or third-generation folks who've never been to Afghanistan and who identify with Iranian culture, despite being discriminated against. "One can understand why people [might be] happy to risk their [lives] in order for their children to be able to go to school in Iran," Abbasi explained.
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that these individuals' families will actually reap the benefits if they die fighting for Iran. The state's already broken similar promises to members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, who say they were denied Iranian citizenship after fighting in Syria. And Lucas suspects Iran may not have the bureaucratic infrastructure to offer blanket citizenship. Instead, he and Schuster suspect the state will make just a few controlled and highly publicized citizenship grants to help the war effort.
No matter how many migrants the law draws into the Syrian conflict, or how many it winds up granting Iranian citizenship, the idea that Iran is coercing a marginalized peoples, many of whom cannot go back to Afghanistan for fear of their lives and whom need support, into entering a deadly war zone just for a vague chance at human dignity is disturbing, to say the least.
"To me," Abbasi said, "this law is disgusting."
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