Risking it all

The dangers of illegal migration for children in Afghanistan

With reporting by Murtaza Mohammadi
Awal Khan, 15 year old boy in a hotel in Kabul
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Mohammadi
28 December 2017

Khost, Afghanistan, 30 January 2018 — Awal Khan is a 15-year-old boy with a gentle smile. He comes from a nomadic community settled in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan. Historically, the community raised livestock for their livelihood, but decades of conflict have meant a radically different life for families like Awal’s. Not only have they faced great physical danger, but they have also been deprived of educational and economic opportunities. Many children are vulnerable to recruitment by different armed groups. Two months ago, Awal decided to leave his family and join his brother in Turkey, hoping to find work and the chance for a better life.

Awal contacted smugglers to take him on the dangerous journey for the price of 90,000 Pakistani rupees (about US$815). Another 50,000 rupees was to be paid when Awal got to Turkey. The family worried for their son, but hoped their decision would ultimately ease their desperation and borrowed the money for the trip. Little did they realize the despair, pain and anguish that awaited him.

After departing Afghanistan, Awal lost contact with his family. His father desperately sought news of his son’s whereabouts, ultimately receiving news Awal had died on 10 December 2017. The family held a mourning ceremony for their lost child. But on 20 December, the phone rang with unbelievable news: Awal was alive. The call had come from a Child Protection Action Network (CPAN) officer in Khost Province.

I am so happy to see my family again, yet I feel so unsure about the future. We have so many needs, too many to name them all.

Awal, 15

Reuniting families

Supported by UNICEF, CPAN is a national network of government and non-governmental organizations working together to protect and promote the rights of children in Afghanistan. UNICEF continues to provide financial and technical support to its members, who provide case management services to unaccompanied minors returning to the country, working with communities and organizations to develop the national understanding of child protection issues. All unaccompanied children are referred to provincial CPANs to be reunited with their families, which is how Awal’s father found himself on the phone receiving news that Awal was coming home.

“They were in a state of shock when I called,” reports Bakhtullah, the CPAN officer. “They didn’t believe me. But I had a copy of Awal’s ID and a recent photo when I met them. When his brother looked at the photo, tears rolled down his cheeks and he exclaimed, ‘That is my brother!’”

A terrifying journey

Awal’s hands were badly damaged from frostbite
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Mohammadi
Awal’s hands will heal. But only time will tell how long it will take the boy to recover mentally and emotionally from his experience.

From the beginning, Awal’s journey was precarious. He was beaten by the smuggler, who only spoke Balochi, a language Awal didn’t understand.

“I had to walk and walk, but I didn’t give up,” Awal told the CPAN officer in Kabul, where he waited to be reunited with his family the next day. The boy trekked through heavy snow for four days, spending nights in the extreme cold. Once he was buried in snow up to his neck. “That was the most painful part of my journey. No one helped me except for a friend who was making the trip with me,” Awal said.

The snow-covered hills became impassable, forcing the group to turn back for another route. As they crossed a river on a ferry, they encountered the police near Iran’s border with Turkey and were arrested. Awal’s hands were badly damaged from frostbite, so he was separated from the group to receive medical care. He was hospitalized for eight days before being sent back to Herat in western Afghanistan, where he was received by CPAN officers to reunite him with his family.

Awal Khan, reuniting with his family.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Khost CPAN
The end of Awal’s journey, reuniting with his family.

“I am so happy to see my family again,” Awal said. “Yet I feel so unsure about the future. We have so many needs, too many to name them all.”

“I do not know about life, I do not know what God has in store for me.”

In the meantime, CPAN and UNICEF continue to support children like Awal, working in communities to teach them and their families about the value of child rights and the risks of irregular migration.