Dealing with unaccompanied refugee minors who were forced to fight in Syria

As in other sectarian wars, the main actors in the Syrian war target and exploit vulnerable groups, such as minors.

ISIS Footage Shows Bosnian Children in Syria (photo credit: MEMRI)
ISIS Footage Shows Bosnian Children in Syria
(photo credit: MEMRI)
Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, one of the most vicious sectarian wars of the past few decades, the Iranian government has provided massive assistance to Bashar Assad.
Drawing from more than three decades of experience in proxy wars, the Iranian government has been expending significant resources to save Assad.
Their interests include sabotaging any democratic or peace process in the Middle East, destabilizing the region, and paving the path to fuel regional conflicts through Hamas, Hezbollah and other similar organizations.
As in other sectarian wars, the main actors in the Syrian war target and exploit vulnerable groups, such as minors.
“Dear uncle, please! Wire some money to me. I swear to God I have no money and my mother cannot help me now. I even borrowed a phone from a guy in the camp to call you,” an Afghan boy recently implored a relative by phone from one of the refugee camps in Athens, Greece.
The enormous number of refugees on the move, risking their lives on land and at sea, seeking safety and better lives is one of the consequences of the turmoil in the Middle East. All refugees are vulnerable; sub-groups such as single mothers and unaccompanied minors even more so.
When refugees run out of money, they seek aid from their families, relatives and anyone who can help them to survive on their journey. Meanwhile, until money reaches them, they are stranded in parks, or, when lucky, in a camp far from downtown.
Stranded unaccompanied minors in places like Athens are at particular risk.
There is no functional guardianship program for unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece. There have been reports of transferring unaccompanied minor refugees to official shelters in Athens while handcuffed.
Ali (a pseudonym), who recently turned 17, was sent to the Pazouki military training camp in Varamin in Iran by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) for basic training, to be deployed to Syria afterwards. At the time of his training, he was 16 years old.
“I was lucky that I made it out alive. I was in Syria for two tours of 90 and 75 days. The last time I was there, we were 15 young friends, all Afghans with Shi’ite backgrounds. The oldest was 19. Only three of us returned alive. The only reward that the families of the killed ones received was a free grave – although it was promised that they would be registered as martyr families to enjoy benefits.”
A LARGE number of unaccompanied refugee minors have been through unbearably harsh experiences and had to grow up much earlier than they should.
Adapting an adult life style, implementing adult attitudes and dismissing things pertaining to their youth can seem to minors the best way to save themselves on their journey, but often this is not a solution that can save them.
Ali’s case is but one of many Afghan children who have been induced to take part in the regional wars.
There are countless unaccompanied minors like him, who have fled and seek asylum.
“We were receiving a monthly salary of 2.5 million Tomans (2,300 shekels), with the last payment usually suspended until the fighter showed up for the next tour. In addition, we were given a one-month residency permit after the first trip, allowing us to freely move around in Mashhad, Qom and Tehran.
They promised that we would receive a long-term (at least one-year) residency after completing three tours in Syria.”
There are many unaccompanied minors departing from Afghanistan, Iran and other countries in the region on a daily basis, headed toward the western European states. They have gone through a range of abhorrent experiences with one element in common: mistreatment and traumatization by different groups.
The Syrian war is a nightmare for forced children soldiers.
“Nobody who has power to make a choice would ever risk his life if he could stay back and watch,” said Ali. “There were Iranian commanders and Basijis, but they stayed mostly in the kitchen or hundreds of meters away from the front line, walkie-talkies in hand, watching and commanding us.”
The children soldiers go through experiences that are unbearable even for adults. Involved against their will, they are not only traumatized, but also victimized.
Ali still carries the scars of two shells on his body.
Based on experience, the commanders give capsules to the fighters before dispatching them to the front line. Once Ali went into a convulsion as a result of an overdose.
“I attended school, but only until fifth grade. I had to leave for various reasons, such as being breadwinner of the family. I want to continue my schooling and live a normal calm life.”
Minorities inside minority groups can be unintentionally overlooked, due to planning and procedures based on the needs of the group but not the needs of its individuals.
In general, the needs of unaccompanied minor refugees can include foster parents, shelter, school and perhaps some fun to raise their living standards toward the level of the European children.
The needs of children like Ali can be different.
When a child has been forced to take part in war, killing others to stay alive, a new peaceful life cannot be achieved merely by a pack of candies, some video games and new clothes.
Only more efficient and practical targeted rehab programs can provide hope to restore such children to normal life conditions.
The author has worked as human rights observer and journalist with field experience from Colombia, Iraq and Greece. In the past two years he has been working in Greece as the refugee problem has become the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Born in Iranian Kurdistan, he was exile for the past few years, and now lives in Norway. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook; email him at