The Guardian reported that Iranian authorities have lured some of the estimated three million Afghan refugees living in their country to fight in Syria by offering a regular salary and permanent residence in Iran.
The Shia Afghan recruits have been told by Iran that they are fighting to defend religious shrines in the Syrian capital Damascus.
The Afghan military unit is called Fatemioun and was set up in Iran after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. It is now the second biggest foreign force fighting for President Assad, behind the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the Guardian reported.
Daily recruitment of Afghan refugees is taking place in the Iranian cities of Mashhad and Qom, which the Guardian said has the highest population of Afghans.
Juvenile Afghans under the age of 18 are being accepted to go and fight if their parents grant them permission. At least one 16-year-old has been killed this year in Syria’s brutal civil war.
At least 200 Fatemioun militants have been killed in Syria, Iranian media reported in May.
Afghan refugees in Iran are not readily able to formalise their residency and struggle to open bank accounts, find education, and move freely in and outside the country.
Mujtaba Jalali, an Iranian-born Afghan refugee who has fled to Europe, told the Guardian that recruiting refugees to fight in Syria is exploitation.
“This is the war Iran is fighting at someone else’s expense,” said Jalali, who attended at least 10 funerals in Mashhad for Afghans killed in Syria.
“It’s Afghan refugees in Iran who are paying the price of Tehran’s support for Assad and they are being lied to about the real motives. It’s not religious, it’s political. Instead of protecting its refugees, Iran is using them.”
Iran describes people killed in Syria as “defenders of the holy shrine” but Jalali said Afghan refugees are not fighting in Syria for religious reasons. He said they are going because of the salary and residency promised by Iran.
It remains unclear how many Afghans have been recruited by Iran to fight in Syria. However, the Fatemioun unit was upgraded from a brigade to a military division earlier this year, the Guardian reported, which means it is likely to have between 10,000 and 12,000 members.
Iran has repeatedly said it has only supported their ally President Assad with commanders to direct military operations but senior members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have recently been killed fighting in Syria.
Jalali told the Guardian that an Afghan refugee who fought in Syria for Iran said: “Tehran’s morgues are full of dead bodies killed in Syria.”