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Who are the Main Victims of Human Trafficking in Iran?

July 23, 2018
Faramarz Davar
7 min read

Human trafficking is a common international crime. Are Iranians involved? Do Iranians commit trafficking crimes? Is there any evidence? The answer to all three of these questions is yes.

Relocating to a new country without going through the proper legal channels is a criminal activity, whether the person relocates voluntarily or through force. Iranian law also recognizes this as a crime, and stipulates punishment for those who commit it.

Who are the main victims of human trafficking in Iran?

The Iranian government does not provide any detailed or verifiable information on the issue of human trafficking in Iran. But a wide range of media not linked to the government, including Tabnak News Agency, regularly publish evidence confirming that the main victims of human trafficking in Iran are women. 

These trafficked women usually end up in Arab countries around the Persian Gulf, as well as in Turkey, Georgia and other eastern European countries. Most of them will be forced to work as sex slaves and, in many cases, this takes place with no consent from the women. 

In some instances, women who are hoping to immigrate but do not have sufficient funds to pay for expenses are exploited and sexually abused by human traffickers. The traffickers often take these women’s identification cards away from them, or command control over them by promising to provide them with new IDs as part of the relocation process. Because of this, they effectively have control over these women’s destinies too. 

There are, however, some women who voluntarily join human traffickers, and who are completely aware of the nature of the employment they are entering into and willing to do it for quick money. 

The highest number of Iranian prostitutes have been reported in Iranian tourist destinations – countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. However, the US State Department’s annual report has revealed that Iranian prostitutes also work in Iraqi Kurdistan and, specifically, the city of Sulaymaniyah. The report also addresses the rising rates of sex trafficking in Tehran, Tabriz and Astara in recent years. Shiraz has also been identified as a new base from which Azari girls are sent to the UAE, and specifically Dubai.

Although sexual exploitation of Iranian girls comprises a significant portion of human trafficking in Iran, Iranian girls are not the sole target.

What other kinds of trafficking goes on?  

People who seek to immigrate from Iran are the second largest target for human traffickers. These victims leave their home country with the hope of settling in western countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States. Human traffickers regularly promise their clients an easy path to their destination via Turkey. Turkey is an obvious choice for Iranian citizens, since they are able to enter the country without a visa.

Another method human traffickers use to relocate people without a valid passport is by trafficking them via Iran’s western borders with Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey.

In recent years, the detainment of Iranian illegal refugees in western countries such as the UK and Australia has become a serious challenge for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before re-opening its embassy in Tehran, the UK made it a condition that Iran first agreed to resettle more than 2,000 Iranians who had been denied asylum status and who were held in a refugee camp in the UK.

Australia also established a new refugee camp on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for asylum seekers. The majority of the camp’s residents are Iranian refugees. In order to reach Australia, human traffickers board their clients on small and often unsafe boats for the long journey. These boats are not designed for such lengthy trips, and they are often overloaded. Therefore, the lives of the passengers are always at risk.

Relocating a corpse or parts of a corpse is also considered to be human trafficking. When stealing corpses, a trafficker’s main goal is to sell them to research and to educational institutes.

Several reports from Iran have pointed to various instances of human traffickers digging up graves of recently deceased individuals in order to steal the corpses, or parts of them, and sell them on the black market. Iran itself has a demand for human corpses for research purposes, but it appears that selling such products on the black market is more profitable and less risky.

For this reason, Iranian officials have repeatedly appealed to people to register to donate their bodies to research before death, so that after they have passed away their bodies can be handed over to a research institute, thus preventing any future criminal activities. But, as in many other countries, the request does not meet with the demands, and there is always room for human traffickers to conduct their criminal activities.

A New Phenomenon: Sending Refugees to War

In recent years and under the heat of civil wars in the Middle East, a new phenomenon has emerged in Iran: the human trafficking of foreigners who took refuge in Iran in order to flee the combat zones of Iraq and Syria.

From the very beginning of the war with ISIS in Syria, the Revolutionary Guards formed different militia units consisting of foreign fighters under its command. The “Fatimiyoun Unit” (Afghan Fighters) and the “Zeynabiyoun Unit” (Pakistani Fighters) are two of the main ones. With Iran’s support, various Iraqi Shia units have also been formed, consisting mainly of Iraqi refugees in Iran. The most prominent example is the “Badr Army,” a militia whose roots go back to the era of the Iran-Iraq War and which has been reinforced and fortified throughout the years.

There are no official reports of the number of these forces engaged in regional battles, but, at various stages of the war in Syria, there were reports citing more than 2,500 Afghan fighters in the Fatimiyoun unit alone.

Some of these fighters sought asylum in western countries and were able to escape Revolutionary Guards’ military camps. They told reporters that Iranian officials encouraged, or even intimidated, them to join the war – with promises such as Iranian citizenship for them or for other family members.

Iran denies such reports and claims its military presence in Iraq and Syria is based on requests from these countries’ officials, and that their presence is completely legitimate. 

However, relocating people by force, coercion or deception is considered to be human trafficking, and is relatively new. International law recognizes such activities as crimes.

Organ Trafficking and Child Soldiers

Traffickers in Iran also make money through the illegal sale of human organs. The organs are harvested, and then sold on the black market to people in need of an organ transplant. The targets for these organs are both people who are in financial need and voluntarily sell their organs, or, in more dramatic cases, individuals – most often children – who are kidnapped by human traffickers and mutilated in order that their organs be harvested.   

The US State Department’s annual report states that some militia groups in Iraq, which are under the support and have the guidance of the Revolutionary Guards, deploy children to the battlefield. This is also a form of human trafficking, and is in violation of international agreements and treaties to which Iran is a signatory.

Are Human Organs Trafficked Through Iran?

Selling human organs in Iran is not legal. But people who do sell their own organs are usually financially desperate (in order, for example, to feed their family). In the last few years, there have been reports on how to buy a kidney from Iran, but Iranian officials have never released any statements with respect to such reports.

Does Iran Act as a Pathway for Human Trafficking?

Other than the multi-faceted issue of human trafficking in Iran, Iran is considered to be a strategic point for human traffickers because of its unique landscape and proximity to Europe. Other factors that make Iran a desirable pathway for human traffickers are its access to open waters, its proximity to neighbor countries that suffer serious crises or are under-developed, and its mountainous and often impassable borders that are often not regularly and routinely monitored.

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