Near East Observatory: There are many pressing humanitarian issues in the Middle East, but one that is often overlooked and under reported is the issue of child labor.
Near East Observatory
Child labor and human trafficking represent a serious problem in Iran, with many blaming the government itself for perpetuating these terrible crimes.
By Hamid Yazdan Panah
There are many pressing humanitarian issues in the Middle East, but one that is often overlooked and under reported is the issue of child labor. Throughout the Middle East, and in fact much of the world, child labor is a critical issue involving exploitation, human trafficking and a fundamental breakdown in foundations of society.
Human trafficking and child labor have become increasingly prevalent in Iran, which according to reports is now one of the worst offenders of children rights in the world. The Iranian government has done little to resolve this issue, and has in fact been implicated in human trafficking and the exploitation of children.
Historically low income families with multiple children within Iran have viewed their offspring as a source of labor and income for the family. The existing child labor laws in Iran, and the lack of societal support and advocacy for the rights of children have created a climate where children are commonly subject to abuse and exploitation.
According to recent statistics, as many as 3 million or 22% of Iranian children under the age of 18 are not attending school. At least half of these children (1.5 million) are estimated to be in the work force. This trend not only deprives children of a chance to develop through education, but perpetuates a cycle of poverty and ignorance, leaving millions of children without opportunity or freedom- and damaging society for generations to come.
According to Iranian children’s rights activist Ali Akbar Esmailpour the issue of child labor in Iran is far worse than reported. Esmailpour told the Iranian Labor News Agency on Tuesday that the Iranian government has failed to accurately report on just how many children work in sweatshops in Iran.
“The only information at hand is the statistics regarding street children, because they are very visible, but this does not give the complete picture.” Esmailpour noted that the sixth parliament passed a law that exempted workshops with fewer than 10 employees from following labor laws. “This is why the ministry does not stand accountable for the child workers in such workshops.”
Under Iranian law, child labor is prohibited until the age of 15, but there remains a loophole which promotes the exploitation of children.”There is one major problem to this law: domestic work is excluded, which means many children are employed at home or in domestic workshops without any legal prosecutions,” Mahsa Kayyal, head of the child rights committee of the human rights group ODVV.
Current estimates put the number of children living on the streets at 200,000. At least half of Iran’s street children are thought to be Afghan refugees. The problem of “street children” in Iran extends to many urban centers such as in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz. Many of these children are runaways, fleeing from difficult circumstances or abusive families. Others may be Afghan refugees left to fend for themselves.
An article by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting from March 2011 reported that Afghan children were being taken from the streets by the Iranian security forces and deported back to Afghanistan. Some of these children had never been to Afghanistan before and appear to have been deported from Iran without their parents‘ knowledge.
According to the Institute for War and Peace Report, many of the children facing deportation are denied food and forced to perform work while they await deportation in transit camps. These children are also housed in the same facilities as adults, a condition which leaves the children vulnerable.
Abdul Majid, a twelve year old Afghan refugee is one such child who bore the brunt of the inhumane policies implemented by the Iranian government.
“The police beat me up,” he said in an interview in Ansar refugee camp in Herat province. “They asked me whether I was involved in violent groups. I swore I wasn’t connected with any. They finally deported me after eight days, and sent me to Afghanistan.”
Abdul Majid was sent alone back to Afghanistan, without the knowledge of his family, who remained in Iran. “I dream every night that my parents and brothers and sisters are looking for me. I wake up every morning crying,” he said.
Iran: A Hub for Human Trafficking
Though some of these children may survive on the street, or receive aid from welfare organizations, many fall into the wrong hands. Iran is a major crossroads in the world of human trafficking, involving prostitution, drugs and forced labor. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, made note of the ongoing growth of human trafficking in Iran in their strategic programmatic framework for Iran for 2006-2008.
Iran stands as a hub for human trafficking between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf States.
According to the UN, the fact that human trafficking presents a lower risk for criminals than trafficking in drugs under Iranian law makes the practice “a very attractive business alternative to drug trafficking bands in control of the southern drug smuggling routes.” (see pg 4 of UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Iran report)
The United States Department of State, 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report lists Iran as a source, transit, and destination country for sex trafficking and forced labor. In fact the report lists Iran as a “tier 3″ country in regards to trafficking, a status given to countries “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”
The report notes that refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iraq may migrate through Iran, and “are subsequently subjected to conditions of forced labor, including debt bondage, through the use of such practices as restriction of movement, nonpayment of wages, and physical or sexual abuse.”
The Iranian regime claims that it is working to stop the flow of child trafficking and child labor, however the facts paint a very different picture. In many cases it is apparent that it is the authorities who are violating the most fundamental rights of children in Iran.
According to the 2012 US State Department report, criminal organizations with political connections play a significant role in human trafficking in Iran, and “unconfirmed reports indicate that religious leaders and immigration officials are involved in human trafficking.” The report goes on to highlight the mix of government complicity and apathy which enables the exploitation and trafficking of women and children within Iran:
“The Government of Iran does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so. The government did not share information on its anti-trafficking efforts with the international community during the reporting period; this impedes the collection of information on the country’s human trafficking problem and the government’s efforts to curb it. Publicly available information from NGOs, the press, international organizations, and other governments nonetheless indicate that the Iranian government is not taking sufficient steps to address its extensive trafficking challenges. For these reasons, Iran is placed on Tier 3 for a seventh consecutive year.”
The Iranian regime has also reportedly prosecuted victims of sex trafficking for commiting what it claims are “unlawful acts”, despite the fact that they were committed under duress and as a direct result of being trafficked.
The policies of the Iranian government continue to defy international norms and regulations. Iran’s defiance of international law demonstrates the systematic violation of the rights of children, and the government’s complicity with human trafficking within the country.
Though Iran is a party to the Convention for the Rights of Children, its policies are in stark contrast to the articles of the convention.
Article 20 calls for children who cannot be looked after by their own family to have a right to special care and states that they must be looked after properly, by people who respect their ethnic group, religion, culture and language.
Article 22 states that “Children have the right to special protection and help if they are refugees (if they have been forced to leave their home and live in another country),” as well as all the rights in this Convention.
Article 32 calls for government protection for children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education. It further states that “children’s work should not jeopardize any of their other rights, including the right to education, or the right to relaxation and play.”
Article 34 calls for governments to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Article 35 calls for governments to take all measures possible to make sure that children are not abducted, sold or trafficked.
Iran is also not currently a party to the 2000 UN Trafficking Protocol, an important international agreement focused on the prevention of human trafficking.
Indeed much of the blame for the current exploitation of children should be laid at the feet of the Iranian regime. Not only has the government failed to tackle the poor state of affairs but it has, through it’s corruption and malfeasance, in fact enabled the practice of child exploitation to thrive. It is no coincidence that Iran is the only country in the world which continues to execute juveniles.
The children of Iran deserve protection from exploitation and the chance at proper education and societal support- not abandonment and abuse. The international community must do more to protect the vulnerable and invisible children of Iran.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is the co-founder and vice-chairman of Near East Observatory.