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Invisible Victims: Ahwazi Children and the Price of Iran’s Discrimination

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Childhood plays a critical role in the formation of character and personality. The effects of childhood experiences are shown in human behaviour and progress or regression at every stage of life.  We know that children are the building blocks of a society, that when they are targeted with hostility, it’s the wider group or society they belong to that is actually the target, especially when such targeting is systematic and deliberate; such abusive treatment should be considered wholly negative and e opposed or resisted; otherwise, its effects are extremely detrimental and destructive, not only to the children, but to the whole society.

 Ahwazi child labourers

Certainly, while walking in the alleys and streets of Ahwazi cities and rural areas, one notices that the innocent faces of Ahwazi children and teenagers, both girls and boys,  often look older than their actual age. Their small hands are covered with calluses, while their feet which often have callused toes poking through their tattered sandals and ragged clothes, tell a story of wretched poverty and marginalisation.

These Ahwazi Arab children have had no carefree childhood; instead, they’re forced to work for various reasons, despite their tender years, with most having had no choice but to leave school after only a very few years to become the breadwinners for their families. These Ahwazi children, who have long forgotten their childhood dreams, are forced to take on a heavy burden of adult responsibilities.

According to the Ahwaz Welfare Organisation, over 90% of working children are boys, with girls accounting for 10% of this group. More than half of these child workers reside in Ahwaz city.

The Deputy of Social Affairs of the Welfare Department, Mohammad Reza Abbasi, also admitted that Ahwazi working children mostly come from the marginalised and poverty-stricken areas of the Ahwazi cities.

Instead of playing and studying alongside their peers, these Ahwazi Arab children bear the overwhelming burden of breadwinning. They are robbed of the innocence of childhood, and condemned to a premature maturity that denies them the safety, and the joyous antics and limitless dreams that childhood should bring.

Born into families already scrabbling for survival in the depths of deprivation, these children languish in the clutches of abject poverty. Some are orphans or homeless,  cast adrift to survive on the harsh and unforgiving streets at an age when other children’s greatest worry is homework. Their desperately poor families’ inability to afford school fees or the cost of materials, including textbooks, writing materials, and uniforms, has forced many of these children into the grim world of the child labour market.

The harsh reality and medieval poverty faced by thousands of Ahwazi children starkly contrasts with the vast resource wealth in their homeland of Ahwaz. This region is known for its immense reserves of oil, gas, and petrochemical resources, which are ruthlessly exploited for great gain by the Iranian regime. Ahwazis see nothing of this wealth.

In the best-case scenario, Ahwazi working children will become apprentices in shops or receive training as mechanics or in other trades. In the worst cases, they’ll engage in illicit, often backbreaking, unhealthy and dangerous activities such as searching through garbage to recycle whatever items they might be able to sell for a pittance at the roadside, doing agricultural or construction work, assisting drivers and collecting passenger fares, distributing brochures and advertising cards, providing fortune-telling services, offering curbside weighing scales for passers-by, washing windows of shops and cars, and worst of all, begging.

Ahwazi Children Sifting Through Trash: A Short Documentary

This short documentary film, by Ahwazi rights activist Mohammad Sawari, depicts two Ahwazi children sifting through piles of trash in search of bottles and cans to sell for a meagre amount of money to support their families. The first child, aged 14, explains, “Because we are Ahwazi Arabs, the government and its companies do not offer us employment.”

The second child quickly adds, “I am collecting bottles from trash bags because I have no one to support me or my family, and my father is ill.”

The first child opines, “In Ahwaz, there is no value or opportunity for education. Even if Ahwazi Arabs obtain higher education degrees, the government denies us employment.”

Mohammad, the rights activist, asks the children about the reasons that force them to work in such challenging conditions. The first child replies, “In Ahwaz, there is no value or opportunity for education. As I said, even if we Ahwazi Arabs obtain higher education degrees, the government denies us employment. My family is in poor economic condition. I work here from early morning till night because my father is unable to provide for us. I have no choice, my family have no one to sypport them. So, I have to work and endure this difficult situation to support my family.”

The activist further asks, “Who is responsible for your current situation and the poverty you face while working at such a young age?” The first child straightforwardly responds, “Simply put, the Iranian government is responsible for causing poverty among us.”

The child adds, “Employment opportunities are only reserved for Persian immigrants. Ahwaz is our homeland, it belongs to us. However, the people of Ahwaz face discrmination, deprivation and poverty due to their Arab ethnicity. They negect Ahwaz.  If you were to visit Persian areas like Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, you would see the stark contrast in the quality of life and services enjoyed by the people there.”

 Iranian regime’s Naseem newspaper in Karun City, Ahwaz acknowledged that more than 50% of Ahwazi Arab inhabitants in the Karun district search trash for food daily. They had been farmers, their lands illegally confiscated by Iran. Now they look for food or items to sell in the garbage.
Iranian regime’s Naseem newspaper in Karun City, Ahwaz acknowledged that more than 50% of Ahwazi Arab inhabitants in the Karun district search trash for food daily. They had been farmers, their lands illegally confiscated by Iran. Now they look for food or items to sell in the garbage.

Ahwazis of all ages are consistently denied employment opportunities in the oil industry, despite this being the primary employment sector in the region. Jobs, varying from manual labour to engineering and administrative positions, are exclusively filled by individuals of Persian and Lor ethnicities. While these individuals are relocated to Ahwaz from their original provinces elsewhere in Iran and provided with well-equipped homes and well-paid jobs, the local Ahwazi population is left to struggle for survival and denied all but the most menial jobs. While the regime in Tehran reaps the benefits of the bounteous natural resources on their land, all that the Ahwazi people receive of this vast natural wealth is choking pollution from the oil and gas fields that blankets the skies, resulting in serious health issues like cancer and respiratory problems.

Ahwazis also face exclusion in non-industrial sectors, particularly within the state sector, where they are, once again, invariably unable to secure any higher-paying positions, regardless of their qualifications and suitability. At best, Ahwazis are left with low-paid and unskilled jobs, such as janitorial roles. Unfortunately, even these opportunities are commonly seized by Persians who were recruited through the influence of family members with influential positions within government offices. This ethnic exclusionary policy implemented by the Iranian regime has resulted in a system characterised by gross racial discrimination and huge inequality in Ahwaz.

Contaminating the Rivers: How Hospital Waste Compounds Ahwazis’s Suffering

IRIB News Agency

 In a recent interview conducted by  Dialogue Institute with Mrs. Maryam Kaabi, a well-known advocate for the rights of Ahwazi children in Ahwaz, Mrs. Kaabi shared a heart-wrenching story.

Maryam recounted how she was walking along the Karun beach one day when a glimmer of light caught her attention. As she approached, she was confronted with a sight that was truly difficult to comprehend.

“I witnessed a couple of Ahwazi Arab children, their small bodies bending and straightening as they labored along the Karun beach,” Maryam shares. “Curiosity pushed me to take a closer look. It seemed as though they were picking up items from the ground and placing them in the bags that hung from their frail shoulders. A peculiar smell filled the air, reminiscent of betadine or antiseptic liquid.”

Compelled to delve deeper, Maryam’s eyes caught another shimmering light. To her disbelief, she discovered discarded syringe needles scattered on the beach, resembling irregular thorns. Nearby, she noticed pieces of fabric and sanitary bandages. Further along still, hospital bags and serum containers were strewn about. Encountering a young boy engaged in the task of separating these objects, Maryam couldn’t contain her astonishment and inquired about their activities.

“I asked the child, ‘What are you doing?’ what is your name? Maryam recounts. The child responded, “Ahmad. I’m collecting plastics, cans and bottles to sell.”

With his small hands unprotected by any gloves, this young boy, who she discovered was only 11 years old, was tirelessly sifting through the hazardous medical waste discarded carelessly by hospitals, separating used syringes and other medical materials, searching for anything that could be sold to the recycling factories. She noted that this child’s search among the potentially lethal clinical waste from hospitals was akin to playing with death.

Upon witnessing this destitute child scavenging through this dangerous waste, Maryam felt compelled to question why infectious waste was being indiscriminately dumped near the Karun River by hospitals in the first place. Not only are the lives of these children and of other Ahwazi people living in the vicinity endangered by such horrendous irresponsibility on the hospitals’ part, but the dumping of hospital waste also poses significant health and environmental risks to Ahwazi rivers like the Karun(karoon), due to the presence of dangerous, toxic, pathogenic elements.

Maryam’s story shows not only the grim reality of too many Ahwazi children’s lives, but also demonstrates the indifference of Iranian society to Ahwazis’ lives, even from medical staff supposed to provide healthcare and protection to Ahwazi citizens; instead these hospitals dump their toxic waste and medical trash into the Karun River, which is the primary source of household and drinking water for the region’s peoples. This provides further clear evidence of how Ahwazis are targeted collectively from childhood onwards, with even children being the victims of the Iranian regime’s discriminatory and exclusionary policies towards Ahwazi Arabs, being forced to give up on school and instead work on the streets to help their families.

The hospitals’ grotesquely irresponsible actions further compound the suffering of the Ahwazi people, contaminating their only source of clean drinking water. This story serves as a stark reminder of the interconnected challenges faced by Ahwazis and the detrimental impact of these policies, particularly on the future of the children, who are the core and future of Ahwazi society. As a result of such policies adopted at every level of the Iranian state, this cycle of deprivation perpetuates the spread of poverty within an already crisis-ridden society, affecting its economy, social fabric, and cultural heritage.

Ahwazi Rights Groups Reveal Partial Findings on Extent of Ahwazi Child Labour

Regime officials are actively concealing the actual number of child labourers among Ahwazi children in order to hide their ongoing discrimination and the poverty they have imposed on the Ahwazi people.    However, Ahwazi rights groups based in Ahwaz have conducted extensive on-the-ground research and documented their partial findings and their preliminary observations, revealing a significant number of children in urban areas of Ahwaz being forced to work.  Child labour is particularly prevalent in cities such as Abadan, Muhammarah, Mashour port city(Ma’shour), Falahiyeh, Susa, Khafajiyeh,  Howeyzeh and Ahwaz City (the regional centre of the Ahwazi region).

According to these Ahwazi rights groups, the number of working children in each city is as follows:

Abadan: 938 children are engaged in work.
  Mashour: 520 children are engaged in work.
  Muhammarah: 407 children are engaged in work.
  Falahiyeh: 116 children are engaged in work.
  Ahwaz City: 2400 children are engaged in work.
  Khafajiyeh: 317 children are engaged in work.
  Hamidiyeh: 126 children are engaged in work.
  Susa: 340 children are engaged in work.
 Howeyzeh city and its rural areas: 438 children are engaged in work.

The Ahwazi rights groups noted that due to limited resources for documentation work, they are currently slow in documenting child labour in other Ahwazi Arab areas. Additionally, they face security threats from the regime and must be cautious in their documentation efforts to avoid arrest and persecution.

Furthermore, the rights groups reported that in each of the cities where they documented child labour, there are extensive oil, gas, and petrochemical companies. For example, Abadan is home to one of the largest petrochemical refineries in the Middle East, and Mashour is home to several petrochemical companies. Falahiyeh’s lands have been taken over by multiple state-run sugarcane and sugar refining companies, while Howezeyh has significant oil reserves and oil fields. Susa has a major sugarcane company, and Ahwaz City is surrounded by a large number of oil and gas companies. However, these companies have only contributed to pollution to the local Ahwazi people and have denied young Ahwazis in the local area even the most basic job opportunities.

 

“The colonisation of Ahwaz by Iran has led to deprivation, poverty, illiteracy, and a denial of basic necessities for Ahwazi children, hindering their personal growth and future prospects.” – Kamil Albushoka.

 It is important to note that Iran is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally, Article 79 of its constitution emphasises the prohibition of child labour for those under the age of 15. Despite these commitments, however, the necessary measures to effectively address and combat child labour have never been implemented. Specifically, Ahwazi children face discrimination and are denied the same rights and opportunities as their Persian peers, such as access to education.

Kamil Albushoka, an Ahwazi rights activist and specialist in international law, as well as a researcher in DIRS, remarks, “The colonisation of Ahwaz by Iran has deeply impacted the Ahwazi people, especially children. These consequences are evident in the form of deprivation, poverty, and illiteracy, all stemming from Iran’s colonising policies. For decades, the Ahwazi people and their resources have been exploited, resulting in the majority of Ahwazis experiencing severe impoverishment. Consequently, Ahwaz Arab children face poverty, neglect, and a denial of basic necessities due to their marginalised status.”

Kamil added, “Iran purposefully undermines the education system in Ahwaz, leading to an alarmingly high illiteracy rate among children and hindering their personal growth and future prospects. The Ahwazi  children continue to endure limited access to education as a direct consequence of Iran’s colonisation policies.”

Kamil concludes that “unless the multifaceted colonisation by Iran in Ahwazi lands is addressed, the situation for Ahwazi children, women, and all Ahwazis will not witness any improvement”

As Albushoka explained, it is perhaps wildly over-optimistic to expect the Iranian government to support the rights of Ahwazi children. This is because the government engages in wholesale exploitation and theft of the region’s resources, while simultaneously denying young Ahwazis fundamental rights in employment and other fields. Moreover, this colonising exploitation of Ahwaz’s natural resources has led to devastating environmental pollution.

The Iranian state also denies the Ahwazi people’s cultural and educational rights, including the right to education in their native Arabic language, a central part of their identity. This denial, coupled with poverty and unemployment, contributes to a high rate of school dropouts among Ahwazi children, who struggle to learn in the imposed Persian language during their formative years in education. As a result of such injustices, these children often face a grim future characterised by poverty and deprivation, forcing them into child labour.

What can be done for the rights of Ahwazi children?

It is essential to highlight the human rights abuses inflicted upon Ahwazi children by the Iranian regime. Ahwazi rights groups should be provided with platforms to raise awareness and shed light on these violations that are targeting Ahwazi children. By enabling the Ahwazi rights representatives to reveal the mistreatment and injustices faced by Ahwazi children and Ahwazi people, the international community can gain a thorough understanding of the gravity of the situation.

International organisations should work with Ahwazi rights groups to gather evidence, document atrocities committed against Ahwazi children, and take legal actions to hold the Iranian regime accountable for their actions. Such measures are crucial in ensuring that the rights and well-being of Ahwazi children are protected and that those responsible for their suffering are held accountable under international law and conventions protecting children’s rights.

In conclusion, this report aims to shed light on the regime’s blatant disregard for international conventions regarding children’s rights, with a specific focus on Ahwazi Arab children. The decades-long policy of marginalisation imposed on the Ahwazi people tragically makes Ahwazi Arab children the primary victims. They endure extreme poverty, systematic targeting, and denial of the most fundamental rights solely due to their Arab ethnicity. Consequently, these children are deprived of their rightful childhood and forced into labour at an early stage of their lives. These dire circumstances directly result from the deeply entrenched discriminatory practices and exclusionary policies of the Iranian regime.

By Rahim Hamid

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi freelance journalist at the Dialogue Institute for Research and Studies.

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