Alone at the border

Protecting children on the move in Afghanistan

With reporting by Zaeem Abdul Rahman
Farhad at the Ansar Transit Centre before reuniting with his family
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Rahman
30 November 2017

HERAT, Afghanistan, 30 November 2017 — In late 2015, 16-year-old Farhad left his home in Herat, a large city in western Afghanistan, in search of work. His family was struggling, so as the oldest son, he set out to help. He crossed the border illegally into Iran, where he found employment as a construction worker. Like many Afghan migrants in Iran he endured a hard existence, working long work hours without valid documents. A few months ago, he was arrested and sent back to Afghanistan.

After four days of travel, Farhad and a group of other young men who had undertaken the same journey, exited the bus at the border town of Islam Qala. “I was confused and didn’t know what would happen to me,” Farhad said of his return to Afghanistan.

Back in Herat, his family had heard of his fate but had no news of their son’s whereabouts.

The young man was quickly approached by staff from the Ansar Transit Centre (ATC), a UNICEF-supported facility that assists young people sent back from Iran. The centre screens, identifies and registers unaccompanied minors in situations like Farhad’s, hosting them in a safe, temporary camp in Herat until their families are traced and they can travel back home.

Islam-Qala Border Crossing Point
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Rahman
Young men gather at the Islam Qala border crossing in western Afghanistan. Many of them were sent back from Iran where they lived as undocumented workers, others are migrants who made the risky journey in search of a better life in Turkey or Europe.

“A couple of locals were asking if we were alone,” Farhad said. “When I said that I was alone [without a parent or family member], they took me to a room where someone explained to me that their team would accompany me to Herat, pay the transport, accommodate me in a safe place and find my family.” Farhad’s frightening ordeal finally seemed to be coming to an end.

Farhad spent five days at the ATC base, which offers bedrooms, a kitchen, bathrooms, a park and a football field. “Initially, we couldn’t find the exact address he gave us,” said Ghulam Rasool, an ATC social worker. “We had to do more research to find his parents.”

After nine days of waiting, Farhad’s family learned their son was safe — and coming home.

UNICEF has supported the ATC and its important work since 2011, increasing assistance in 2015 due to higher numbers of unaccompanied minors returning to Afghanistan. In the first 10 months of 2017, about 350,000 Afghans were sent back from Iran, many of them boys aged 13 -17 driven by poverty and in search of employment to help support their families.

Some are undocumented workers like Farhad; others are migrants making the risky journey for a better life in Turkey or Europe. If detained, both end up returning to Afghanistan via the Islam Qala border.

Such returns pose significant risks for young people, who are often separated from their families. Alone and in limbo, they are an easy target for smugglers and human traffickers.

Deportees Registration Room at Islam-Qala
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Rahman
Jawid, 15, was referred to a registration room at the Islam Qala border crossing after being sent back from Iran. He had been trying to reach Europe.

A dangerous journey

In October 2017, less than a month after entering Iran illegally with his uncle, 15-year-old Jawid found himself at the border town of Islam Qala. He had been arrested near the Turkish border and held for a few days before he was put on a bus back to Afghanistan. Jawid had been trying to reach Europe.

Jawid had been in Grade 9 in Dand-e-Ghori district of Baghlan Province, a conflict-affected district that has changed hands between Afghan Government Security and anti-governmental forces several times in the past two years.

He is the oldest of seven. “My father doesn’t have official employment and is a daily wage labourer,” he explained. “My father and I knew that illegal migration is expensive and that there are many risks — even death — but I preferred to leave Afghanistan.”

Nezamuddin, Jawid’s uncle, agreed to join his nephew on the dangerous trip. They paid US$1,200 each to human traffickers that promised to get them to Turkey.

We knew the risks of illegal migration, but because of the situation we suffer in Afghanistan, we decided to leave the country.

Jawid, 15, and his uncle Nezamuddin at Ansar Transit Center
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Rahman
Jawid, 15, and his uncle Nezamuddin, were separated as they tried to reach Europe through Iran. They were reunited at the Ansar Transit Centre.

After their arrest, the two were separated. With ATC staff help, they were reunited at the transit centre.

Nezamuddin is not sure about the future. “Now we are going home,” he said. “But if we find some money, we will try again.”

Between July 2016 to October 2017, more than 3,000 children registered, accommodated, and reunited with their families. ATC workers also help to track and monitor young people after they are reunited with their families and raise awareness about the risks of illegal migration.

With ATC’s help, these vulnerable youths have one less obstacle to face on their own.

Under UNICEF’s Child Protection programme and with funding from the Government of Norway, UNICEF supports the Ansar Transit Centre’s accommodation and recreation costs, transportation to the provinces and case management to reunite children with families, as well as invaluable psychosocial support (debriefing and counselling).