To the border and back again

When children in Afghanistan migrate in search of opportunity, UNICEF helps bring them home to a better life

Ajmal Sherzai
06 June 2022

KUNDUZ, AFGHANISTAN – Ihsan left home at 16. Like many young people in Afghanistan, his family of 11 faced extreme poverty and unemployment, so Ihsan felt he needed to help. He hoped for a better life abroad and headed for Iran.

“My father is a blacksmith and the only breadwinner in our family,” said Ihsan.

“I had no other option but to leave the country to try and help feed my family.”

Ihsan's parents gave him 15,000 Afghani - about US$ 170 - so he could travel with a group of other young people towards Islam Qala, one of Afghanistan's western borders with Iran. 

“At first, I was happy to travel, but I did not realize the shame and misery I would face,” he recalled.

Ihsan
UNICEF Afghanistan/2022/Sherzai
Ihsan, 16, left Afghanistan for Iran to try and earn a living and support his family of 11. UNICEF helped reunite him with his family and enroll in a vocational programme.

He travelled for hours on bumpy, rough roads in pick-up trucks driven by smugglers. Sometimes he had to travel on foot through dark, chilly nights. He jumped fences and climbed steep hills.

“My legs numbed, and I could not walk. The smuggler beat me and shouted at me to walk quickly,” Ihsan added.

Ihsan’s family worried when he lost contact with them after crossing the border into Iran. But they still hoped he would have a better life.

“The smugglers did not allow me to call my family for over eight days,” he said dismally. “To stay alive, they gave me only a few pieces of biscuits and drinking water each day.”

Afghanistan map_ children on move
UNICEF Afghanistan
Originally from Kunduz, Ihsan took a dangerous and illegal journey to the border of Iran, separated from his parents. He traveled through Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and through the southern city of Kandahar before reaching the western Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, near the Afghan city of Herat.

Children on the move

By mid-2022, up to 97% of Afghan families could be living below the poverty line. The desperation that accompanies such severe economic stress has pushed children like Ihsan to take risky journeys out of Afghanistan.

To reach Iran, Ihsan and his young travel companions felt they had to make risky choices to hide themselves from the police.

“I slept several nights in the forest. It was so cold. I shivered the whole night, and I was terrified of animals and deadly insects.”

The journey was physically and emotionally demanding. Ihsan became so distressed that he regretted his decision to leave Afghanistan.

“The smugglers were hard-hearted, and the journey was so horrible,” he lamented. “I realized how much I depended on the smugglers to survive, and I realized that even an enemy can become like a friend on the way.”

With funding from the European Union, UNICEF is working hard to identify and support children who victims of irregular migration.

For children like Ihsan, this meant hope for a new life, in his own country, surrounded by the people who love and understand him.

Ihsan and Abdul
UNICEF Afghanistan/2022/Sherzai
After returning to his home in Afghanistan from his dangerous journey to Iran, Ihsan was enrolled in a UNICEF-supported vocational training programme, which aims to provide opportunities for children and young people at risk of making these desperate decisions again. Ihsan's trainer and mentor, Abdul, is now teaching him to make and mend children's clothes.

A family reunited, and a life reinvigorated

Although Ihsan reached Iran, he was caught by the police within days. Deported back to Afghanistan, he ended up in the capital in Kabul, where he could finally call his family back in Kunduz. It had been weeks since they spoke last.

“After a few days, I received a call,” said Ihsan. Although he did not know the members of the organization who called him, he remembered, “They offered to help me.”

The call came from the Child Protection Action Network, a union of non-governmental organizations and community and religious leaders. UNICEF supports this network with funding from the European Union, allowing these volunteers to connect with and provide opportunities for migrant children in need.

For Ihsan, this meant vocational training to help him build skills to support his family financially.

“They enrolled me in a tailoring programme,” Ihsan smiled.

Iran and Abdul
UNICEF Afghanistan/2022/Sherzai
After returning to his home in Afghanistan from his dangerous journey to Iran, Ihsan was enrolled in a UNICEF-supported vocational training programme, which aims to provide opportunities for children and young people at risk of making these desperate decisions again. Ihsan's trainer and mentor, Abdul, is now teaching him to make and mend children's clothes.

After graduating from vocational training, Ihsan was awarded tailoring equipment to continue working. For the last eight months, he has worked in a small shop and learned to tailor children’s clothes. He also re-enrolled in school to study in seventh grade at Sher Khan High School.

“I really love my job,” Ihsan said. “I earn money every day and it is honest work.”

“I dream of one day opening my very own tailoring shop.”

vocational training
UNICEF Afghanistan

# # # # # # # # #

Funded by the European Union, UNICEF’s “Children on the Move” initiative aims to reunify 18,000 unaccompanied minors with their families as they return to Afghanistan between 2022 and the end of 2024.

These migrant children are often returning from neighbouring countries as well as Europe.

The initiative will also provide psychosocial support for 200,000 children in Afghanistan, and vocational training or apprenticeship programmes for 7,500 children like Ihsan.