As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Iran, and traffickers exploit victims from Iran abroad. The ongoing worsening of the Iranian economy, as well as serious and ongoing environmental degradation in Iran, have significantly exacerbated Iran’s human trafficking problem, particularly for vulnerable and marginalized communities such as ethnic minority groups, refugee and migrant populations, and women and children. Iranian and some foreign women and girls, as well as some men, are highly vulnerable to sex trafficking in Iran. Although prostitution is illegal in Iran, a local NGO estimated in 2017 that prostitution and sex trafficking are endemic throughout the country, and reports estimate sex traffickers exploit children as young as 10 years old. The government reportedly condones and, in some cases, directly facilitates the commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of adults and children throughout the country; Iranian police, IRGC, Basij, religious clerics, and parents of victims are allegedly involved in or turn a blind eye to sex trafficking crimes. The demand for commercial sex reportedly occurs in large urban centers, including the major pilgrimage sites of Qom and Mashhad; reportedly Iranian, Iraqi, Saudi, Bahraini, and Lebanese women in these locations are highly vulnerable to sex trafficking. Poverty and declining economic opportunities lead some Iranian women to willingly enter commercial sex; traffickers subsequently force or coerce these women to remain in commercial sex. Some Iranian women who seek employment to support their families, as well as young Iranian women and girls who run away from their homes, are vulnerable to sex trafficking. “Temporary” or “short-term” marriages – for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation known as “sigheh” – lasting from one hour to one week are reportedly widespread in Iran and take place in so-called “chastity houses,” massage parlors, and private homes. These arrangements are reportedly tightly controlled, condoned by the state, and regarded highly by religious leaders to allow men to sexually exploit female and male Iranians, as well as Chinese, Thai, and other victims, including children. Afghan girls are vulnerable to forced marriage with men living in Iran, which frequently leads to their victimization in sex trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude. Child marriage of Iranian and some foreign girls is reportedly increasing in Iran and is most widespread among communities in lower-income areas of large cities, often with the consent of parents; girls in these marriages may be at risk of sex trafficking or domestic servitude. North Korean nationals working in Iran may have been forced to work by the North Korean government.
Iranian women, boys, and girls are vulnerable to sex trafficking abroad, including in Afghanistan, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2018, a prominent Iranian NGO reported a rise in the number of Iranian nationals in commercial sex in nightclubs in Tbilisi, Georgia, including some child sex trafficking victims; pimps and madams in Tbilisi reportedly confiscate victims’ passports and physically abuse and threaten victims. The media continued to report in 2018 an increase in young Iranian women in commercial sex in Dubai; some of these women are trafficking victims, whose pimps confiscate their passports and threaten them with violence or execution if they return to Iran. Some reports also suggest collusion between pimps in Dubai and Iranian police, the IRGC, and the Basij. Nationals from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar reportedly purchase sex from Iranian women in commercial sex in Dubai, including trafficking victims. Reports suggest that Iranian women are also vulnerable to sex trafficking in Turkey, particularly in Turkish cities close to the Iranian border. According to IKR press reports in 2018, more than 2,000 young Iranian women and girls entered the IKR in 2018, many of whom are victims of sex trafficking in cafes, hotels, and massage centers. According to a regional scholar, traffickers reportedly use Shiraz, Iran, as a transit point to bring ethnic Azeri girls from Azerbaijan to the UAE and exploit them in sex trafficking rings.
Iranian and Afghan refugee children, street children, and orphans in Iran are highly vulnerable to forced labor, and experts suggest child trafficking is increasing in Iran. A local Iranian official stated that the number of child laborers in streets has increased significantly due to the pandemic and the related economic downturn and that some of these children work under the supervision of profiteers and traffickers. Official Iranian statistics indicate there are three million children working in Iran, but Iranian media suggest there are approximately seven million children sold, rented, or sent to work in Iran. Most of these children are reportedly between the ages of 10-15 years old, and the large majority are foreigners with no official identification documents. The number of children working in transport, garbage and waste disposal, “dumpster diving,” car washing, brick factories, construction, and the carpet industry reportedly continues to increase; these children experience abuse and withheld wages and may be exposed to infectious diseases, all indicators of forced labor. Young Afghan children, mainly boys, are forced to perform cheap labor and domestic work, which often involves debt-based coercion, restriction of movement, non-payment of wages, and physical or sexual abuse, all of which are trafficking indicators. Organized criminal groups target children for child begging rings in Iran. Criminal groups kidnap or purchase and force Iranian and migrant children, especially undocumented Afghan children, to work as beggars and street vendors in cities, including Tehran. These children, who may be as young as three years old, are routinely subjected to physical and sexual abuse and drug addiction. Orphaned children are vulnerable to criminal begging rings that maim or seriously injure the children to gain sympathy from those passing on the street. Poor families “rent” their children by the day to criminal groups that force the children, some as young as five years old, to beg in the street; if the children do not collect a specified amount of money by the end of the day, the groups force children to work in illegal workshops or exploit them in commercial sex. Reports indicate that organized gangs force some children, including Afghan children, to engage in unlawful activities, such as drug trafficking and smuggling of fuel and tobacco. Some Afghan children, ranging from ages 14-17, use smugglers to transport them from Afghanistan to Iran in search of work; once in Iran, smugglers turn the children over to Iranian employers who force them to work.
Foreign workers, Pakistani migrants, and Afghan migrants and refugees are highly vulnerable to forced labor and debt-related coercion in Iran. The UN estimates as many as three million Afghans live in Iran and reports there are 951,142 Afghans registered as refugees in Iran. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosts an estimated 450,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 1.5 to two million undocumented Afghans. Undocumented Afghans face increased vulnerability to economic and social hardships and exploitation, including trafficking. Afghan refugees and migrants frequently travel illegally through Iran en route to Turkey, making them ineligible to receive state assistance and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Organized trafficking groups subject Pakistani men and women migrants in low-skilled employment, such as domestic work and construction, to forced labor using debt-based coercion, restriction of movement, non-payment of wages, and physical or sexual abuse. Increasingly, employers seek adjustable work contracts for registered foreign workers where employers deny workers their benefits and coerce them to work overtime, increasing the workers’ vulnerability to forced labor. Traffickers subject Afghan migrants, including children, to forced labor in construction and agriculture in Iran.
Iranian authorities continue to force and coerce Afghan migrants, including children, as well as some Pakistani migrants and Iranian children, into armed groups in the region. Several credible sources continue to widely report the IRGC and Basij coerce male adult and child Afghans residing in Iran, including boys as young as 13 years old, to fight in the Iranian-led and funded Fatemiyoun Brigade deployed to Syria. Officials threaten these individuals with arrest and deportation to Afghanistan. The Basij also reportedly recruits and trains Iranian children who are deployed to Syria. Sources also indicate the government exploits undocumented and impoverished Pakistani adults living in Iran to fight for the IRGC-led Zaynabiyoun Brigade in Syria. According to a November 2020 media report, the IRGC reportedly established three centers located in Al Mayadin to facilitate recruitment and training of Syrian youth from Dayr az Zawr to fight in IRGC and affiliated militia in Syria. Established in 2019, the largest center reportedly houses 250 children between the ages of 13-18 years; the children undergo three months of training in preparation for combat. In addition, the Iranian government provides funding to militias operating in Iraq and to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN), which recruit, train, and use child soldiers in combat in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. According to an Iraq-based observer, the Iranian government also provided funding to the militia Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigades, which used children in combat on the front line in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2016.