When the cargo doors of the orange meat delivery truck open, people in the nearby cars saw something they weren’t expecting: Children, as many of 50 of them, moving around in the back of the truck on Tehran’s Modarres Expressway. 

Several witnesses phoned the police, alerting them to the emergency. But the police’s response was surprising: “What do you want from us?” They tried the Criminal Investigation Police, the Welfare Department and other agencies, but got nowhere. The truck and its cargo of helpless children disappeared into the unknown.

Fatemeh Daneshvar, a member of Tehran’s City Council, has repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of child trafficking, as well as to the bootlegging of children’s body parts. Most of the children affected are born to destitute or addicted parents, many of whom never even try to find their lost children. Daneshvar says that in many cases these children are harvested for their body parts and their bodies are later found in the wilderness, minus eyes or kidneys. Most of the time, the children are sold to couples who can’t have children or to panhandlers who buy children to exploit them by sending them to work or simply out to beg.

In 2015, Daneshvar told Iranian news agencies that in the some of the poorer neighborhoods of Tehran, children are sold for as little as 100,000 tomans, or around $30. Sometimes the trade is conducted right inside hospitals, yet nobody has taken any action, despite the hospitals’ social workers repeated pleas to the Welfare Organization.

There are two main factors that lead people to sell children: Poverty and addiction. There are also cases where young women run away from home and, after an unwanted pregnancy, consent to selling their children because abortion is illegal in Iran. Or a young mother might be an addict or homeless, unable to feed her child or desperate for money to feed her addiction.

The Childless Couple 

Adopting a child in Iran is a long and arduous process,  requiring the approval of several government agencies, including the Welfare Organization, the Judiciary’s Guardianship Bureau, the police, centers for treating infertility and the Legal Medicine Organization. It might take years to go through the adoption process and yet the applicant may still find their efforts get them nowhere. There is a long waiting list for adoption, so some infertile couples opt instead to buy a newborn or small child on the black market.

According to the Welfare Organization of Tehran, the number of adoptions per year is between 800 to a 1,000, while homes run by the organization shelter around 23,000 children and adolescents who lack “qualified or effective” guardians. Of these, 78 percent are abandoned children.

Maiming Children to Make Money

It has been widely reported that criminals running organized networks of street beggars often buy abandoned children. They use them to appeal to the pity of passers-by. And to make the appeal even more effective, sometimes they maim the children in some way, gouging out the children’s eyes or injuring them in some other horrific way. The more damaged a child looks, the more money these criminals make.

The price for these babies and children can sometimes be as high as $1,500. The girls sell for an extra 1 million tomans, or $300, and infertile couples looking to buy a child pay more for girls. Those sold for begging sell for a cheaper price. In many cases, their organs are harvested or they are rented out on a month-by-month basis for begging.

Children of Addicts 

Children born to addicted mothers, or to mothers who used drugs during pregnancy, are born addicts. These babies have short lives, and often die in the arms of the people who use them for begging or other buyers.  

In 2006, Isfahan was witness to one of Iran’s most scandalous cases of child trafficking. The police discovered a trafficking ring that had been active for seven years. The gang was made up of a doctor, three midwives, three nurses and two employees of the Civil Registration Organization. The midwives identified both the mothers willing to sell their babies and the infertile couples in the market to buy them. Then the doctor hospitalized the mothers at his private clinic. The Civil Registration Organization employees issued identification cards for the children, stating the names of the buyers as parents. According to the indictment, the price for each baby was 10 million tomans, or $300, of which one million tomans, or around $30 dollars, went to the seller.

According to the group’s confessions, most of their clients were from Persian Gulf Arab states;  the majority of them wanted girls. There are also reports that the same practice goes on in the south of Iran in provinces bordering the Persian Gulf. In some cases, the reports say, the girls are kept until puberty and then the buyers marry them.

Children for Rent 

Some children are not even sold, they are put up for rent. Every morning, one of the spying ring organizers picks them up, and takes them to various quarters across the city to beg. These children are required to bring in or “earn” a minimum amount each day. If they fail, they are forced to compensate for it —  by working in illegal workshops, or even being forced to have sex with whatever people their “employer” decides. 

Social workers say that in some cases, girls are presented as bonuses to people who buy large quantities of alcohol and illegal drugs. They are forced to have sex, with perhaps a meal or a bottle of nail polish as compensation.

Where “Honor” Trumps Humanity

In a considerable number of cases, however, it is the children’s own families who send them to the streets to work, making them pay for the parents’ drug addiction or even simply to just bring in much-needed money. However, if news emerges that a child has been sexually abused, some of these families often reject the children, throwing them out or putting them up for sale. In this culture “honor” seems to trump any consideration for the fate of the children.

Among the street children who possess no IDs and sometimes do not even know the names of their parents, there are also groups of immigrant children. Many come from Afghanistan, having been sent to Iran to make money. Most live in team houses under the eyes of a supervisor who is sometimes only a few years older than them. They are often abused, both physically and sexually.

According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in recent years child trafficking into Iran from Afghanistan has increased by more than 10 percent. And a 2011 report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting revealed that when the Iranian police round up these children they are taken to transit camps and are forced to work while they stay in the camp. Some of these children, however, have no family in Afghanistan to go back to.

Until 2002, Iran was without a law to effectively combat child trafficking. That year, parliament passed the Law to Protect Children and Adolescents, which was then approved by the constitutional arbiter, the Guardian Council. According to Article 3 of the law, buying, selling and exploiting children, or using them to commit unlawful acts such as smuggling, was declared illegal. But the punishment stipulated was puny: Six months to a year in prison and a cash fine between $300 to $600.

Authorities have also tried to take direct action. For example, they destroyed two run-down neighborhoods that had become centers for child trafficking. A bill was introduced in parliament to sterilize homeless women addicts. Putting the merits of such actions and proposals aside, they have not made a difference to child trafficking in Iran. Children are still begging on the streets, and sometimes their mutilated bodies are found outside towns. And if they survive, they continue to be abused and exploited, like the children that the motorists saw in that meat delivery truck on the highway. 

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