A report released on October 23, 2017, by the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations departments has found convincing evidence that police used excessive force and committed other abuses against child and adult migrants in Calais, Human Rights Watch said today. The French report comes almost exactly one year after authorities demolished the large migrant camp there, known colloquially as the “Jungle.”
The investigation and report were requested by the Interior Ministry in response to a July report by Human Rights Watch on police abuses against migrants in and around the city. The results of the French investigation are consistent with Human Rights Watch’s principal findings – that police routinely used chemical sprays on migrants, including children, while they were sleeping and in other circumstances in which they posed no threat, and regularly sprayed or confiscated sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, apparently to press them to leave the area.
“The investigation requested by the Interior Ministry confirms that police in Calais used excessive force and otherwise abuse migrants, including children,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “Local and national authorities should put an end to these practices, discipline officers who abuse their power, and carry out the investigators’ recommendations.”
The French ombudsman’s office (Defenseur des Droits) and many of the aid groups operating in and around Calais, including L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees, have published similar reports of police abuse following the closure of the sprawling migrant camp one year ago this week.
Most of the abuses described to investigators were attributed to the French riot police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS). Among other findings, the French investigation noted that police forces do not regularly comply with the requirement that they wear badges with identifying numbers. As a result, members of the police force who commit abuses cannot be easily identified.
The investigators recommended, among other steps, that police forces ensure that officers are aware of the general rules for the use of aerosol sprays and receive specific instructions about methods authorized in specific operations. The investigators said that police should wear visible identification at all times, and use cameras during operations and identity checks. Human Rights Watch has long advocated requiring police to issue a record of identity checks, commonly called a stop form, as proof of a procedure and to enable accountability in case of abuse.
The investigators said that police forces should enter into dialogue with aid groups. They also said that improving migrants’ access to food, water, and other basic needs would reduce tension in Calais, and with it the need for police intervention.
Until July, local authorities attempted to prevent food distribution by aid groups and refused to provide migrants with access to drinking water and showers, saying that doing so would attract more migrants. The lack of basic services contributed to “a state of physical and mental exhaustion” and “inhuman living conditions” among migrants in and around Calais, the French ombudsman observed in June.
One question the investigators addressed at length is whether the hand-held aerosols used by police forces in Calais contain pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum, OC) or teargas (the popular name for aerosols that usually include the chemical agent 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, or CS), concluding that police employed teargas.
At the same time that Interior Minister Gérard Collomb announced the investigation that resulted in this week’s report, a ministry news release reacted to the Human Rights Watch report with the statement that police used teargas rather than pepper spray, as Human Rights Watch had reported. In fact, the effects of CS spray are more severe, and its long-term effects possibly more harmful, than those of OC pepper spray.
“Protracted debate on whether police forces use OC or CS aerosols misses the point,” Jeannerod said. “The real concern is the routine and indiscriminate way police use these sprays, amounting to excessive force.”
During the investigations, three investigation departments – the inspectorates for the National Police, the Gendarmerie National, and the French State (Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale, Inspection Générale de la Gendarmerie Nationale, and the Inspection Générale de l’Administration) – conducted 93 interviews with representatives of aid groups, police and other authorities, and migrants, as well as Human Rights Watch researchers.
“These recommendations are a step in the right direction,” Jeannerod said. “It’s particularly important for national and local authorities to recognize the urgency of addressing the humanitarian situation migrants face.”
Published on HRW on October 24, 2017.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. 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.
Human Rights Watch researchers reviewed photographs of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries where the authorities buried combatants killed in Syria, and identified eight Afghan children who apparently fought and died in Syria. Iranian media reports also corroborated some of these cases and reported at least six more instances of Afghan child soldiers who died in Syria. For two of the reported cases, researchers reviewed photographs of tombstones that indicated the individual was over the age of 18, but family members of these deceased fighters told Iranian media that they were children who had misrepresented their age in order to join the Fatemiyoun division. This indicates that instances of Iran recruiting children to fight in Syria are likely more prevalent.
“Iran should immediately end the recruitment of child soldiers and bring back any Afghan children it has sent to fight in Syria,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
In 2015, the Interior Ministry estimated that there were 2.5 million Afghans in Iran, many of them without residency papers. Human Rights Watch previously documented cases of Afghan refugees in Iran who “volunteered” to fight in Syria in the hopes of gaining legal status for their families.
Since 2013, Iran has supported and trained thousands of Afghans, at least some of them undocumented immigrants, as part of the Fatemiyoun division, a group that an Iranian newspaper close to the government describes as volunteer Afghan forces, to fight in Syria. In May 2015, Defa Press, a news agency close to Iran’s armed forces, reported that the Fatemiyoun had been elevated from a brigade to a division. There are no official public statistics on its size, but according to an interview published in the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Tasnim News, it has about 14,000 fighters.
By reviewing photographs of their tombstones, Human Rights Watch documented eight Afghan children who fought and died in Syria. Five of them, one as young as 14, are buried in the Martyr’s Section of Tehran’s Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery. Writing on the epitaphs of the tombstones indicates that they were all probably killed in combat in Syria and that all of them were below the age of 18 at the time of their deaths. Human Rights Watch was able to document three more cases, of a 17-year-old, a 15-year-old, and another 17-year-old, who were buried in Alborz, Tehran, and Isfahan provinces, respectively.
In four of these cases, 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. Domestic media reported their funerals and memorial services, along with their membership in the Fatemiyoun division and their place of “martyrdom” in Syria.
Domestic media reports also indicate that at least six more “defenders of the shrine” from the Fatemiyoun division are buried across the country and were under the age of 18 when they died. In two of these cases – Hassan Rahimi and Mohammad Zaman Atayi – information engraved on their tombstones indicated that the two were over 18 when they died, but media interviews with their families reveal that they were actually both children, or under 18, when they died fighting in Syria.
For instance, Isa Rahimi, the father of deceased Afghan child soldier Hassan Rahimi, told Iran’s Quran News Agency in November 2016, “On his tomb, his birthday is printed as 1995, but his real birthday is 1999. He had lied about his age so they would allow him to join the forces easier. They hadn’t asked him for a birth certificate, and that’s how he got away with it.”
Afghan fighters have also said they have seen children in training camps for Afghan forces. “Ali,” a 29-year-old Afghan, told Human Rights Watch in August that he talked to 16 and 17-year-old child soldiers who were being trained to fight in Syria. Ali said he joined the Fatemiyoun division after a recruiter approached him while he was trying to renew his residency permit at the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) office in a city outside Tehran. He said the recruiter told him he could get his permit if he joined up.
“They never asked me to show any documentation, but they wanted to make sure we were Afghan nationals,” Ali told Human Rights Watch. “We had to be above the age 18 to be recruited, but they only asked for our age, not any documentation.”
There is little transparency in Iran’s recruitment of soldiers to fight in Syria, including whether it has implemented measures to prevent child recruitment. On January 27, 2016, Mohsen Kazemeini, commander of the Tehran-based Mohammad Rasoul Allah division of the IRGC, said in a media interview that Basij paramilitary branches affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards are in charge of recruiting forces to fight in Syria. While Iran officially claims that all Afghans living in Iran who join the Fatemiyoun division are volunteers, the vulnerable legal position of many Afghan children living in Iran and their fear of being deported to Afghanistan may contribute to their decision to join up.
Authorities have attempted to extend rights to Afghan children living in Iran. In 2015, Iran reportedly allowed all Afghan children, including undocumented ones, to register for schools after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a ruling emphasizing that “no Afghan child, even the undocumented ones, should be left out of school.” Yet, this research demonstrates authorities have done too little to protect Afghan children from being recruited to fight in Syria, particularly in light of the fact that the government has proposed offering incentives such as a path to citizenship for families of foreign fighters who die, become injured, or are taken captive during “military missions.” These incentives without sufficient protections could increase the risk of child recruitment; as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Executive Committee has emphasized, “refugee children and adolescents… are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by government armed forces…” and has called upon governments to implement policies to prevent this human rights violation.
Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities” is a war crime. Iran is not a party to the Rome Statute, but is bound by customary international law which also provides that recruitment of children under age 15 is a war crime.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict that entered into force on February 12, 2002, provides that 18 is the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities. Iran has signed the Optional Protocol, but the parliament has yet to vote on its ratification. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the use of child soldiers in the Syrian conflict by the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) – the Kurdish Democratic Union Party affiliate.
The UN should investigate child recruitment by the IRGC, and the secretary-general should consider adding the organization to his annual list of perpetrators of violations against children based on evidence of child recruitment, Human Rights Watch said.
“Iran should be improving protections for Afghan refugee children, not leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous recruiting agents,” Whitson said. “Iran should immediately ratify the Optional Protocol and ensure that Afghan children are not being recruited to fight in Syria.”
Published on HRW on October 1, 2017.