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Afghanistan: Borderlands: The journey no child should have to make

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Afghanistan: Borderlands: The journey no child should have to make

23 Jul 2019
Source: 
War Child International
By Ben Excell

Every day, 11 unaccompanied children trudge across the border between Afghanistan and Iran.

The line in the sand between the two countries is a dusty collection of sun-bleached buildings and fences. It's also the mid-point of one of the most dangerous journeys in the world.

Thousands of children make that journey every year; some as young as 10 years old. Some never return.

This is the story of that journey and the extraordinary lengths our staff go to, to reunite them with their families.

A DANGEROUS ROAD

Most children set out from home, alone, making the journey to Iran by bus.

This 1,400-mile ring-road snakes through areas controlled or contested by the Taliban and rival armed groups.

Pop-up roadblocks manned by men carrying machine guns are a common sight. NGOs have reported numerous security incidents on the road.

There are no recognisable government or police services; no-one to call when a child is in danger.

The unpredictable, and sometimes extreme, weather doesn't help.

A sudden downpour or snowstorm can derail an entire trip or turn a 20-hour journey into one that takes days.

WEST OF THE BORDER

Children who make it to the Iranian border find little respite there.

Without proper ID and little understanding of their rights, they are essentially at the mercy of the adults around them.

Traffickers and smugglers are always on hand to 'help' children cross the border in exchange for money, labour or abuses of the worst kind.

Children who are able to find work in Iran are often repaying their traffickers for months afterwards in a form of indentured child labour.

Iranian authorities are quick to arrest unaccompanied children.

They are stripped of their possessions and imprisoned alongside adults in crowded cells.

These are places where violence, sexual abuse and exploitation are tragically common. Child protection experts estimate that 40% of children in this situation are abused inside prison. This may result in terrible psychological and physical scars that can last a lifetime.

Instead of learning in school or playing with friends, these children are trapped in a nightmare of vulnerability and exploitation. They're unable to contact their families, who might regard them as failures if they return home without money.

It's a situation no child should ever find themselves in.

But our staff are working every day to make a difference.

6,000 CHILDREN REUNITED

War Child has been working on the ground at the Afghanistan-Iran border since 2014.

We've reunited more than 6,000 unaccompanied children with their families, giving them the chance to return to a safe environment.

Working in tandem with local and international partners, our programme follows four parts:

We identify the most at-risk unaccompanied children.
We deliver psychological first-aid to those who need it most.
We track down and contact their families.
We escort children back to their families by bus.

This is one of the most challenging and complex projects that we deliver, but it's so important to get these children to safety.

On average, more than 2,000 people return from Iran every single day. That's just over 1 every minute. The sheer volume of people returning makes the border a chaotic and frightening place, especially for children.

Many children returning from Iran have serious medical or psychological needs. PTSD, substance dependency and anti-social behaviour are common.

War Child staff deliver vital psychological first aid to the children at the border. The facilities are basic but the children are safe and secure from the threatening environment outside.

Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, too many children don't get the support they deserve. But with your help, we can do even more.

BACK ON THE BUS

Now the painstaking process of tracking down the children's families begins.

Using information provided by the child, War Child social workers attempt to contact their family and arrange to reunite them. Many families can't afford to travel to the border to collect their children.

So our staff have to escort them home by bus, often travelling on the same dangerous highways the children had previously negotiated.

WE REUNITE CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

The journey is arduous and dangerous for a number of reasons. A misjudged look or word out of place can place a child or staff member in serious danger.

The lack of government control in many areas means that our staff are constantly operating with the threat of attack from armed groups hanging over them.

But when it is successful, children's lives can be changed forever. Children just like Abdul*, whose family believed he had died during the journey to Iran.

When they heard his voice on the phone their joy was incredibly moving.

The moment they were reunited was especially poignant given that his brother had already made the perilous journey a few months earlier. As far as we know, he hasn't returned.

The joy that Abdul's family experienced upon being reunited with a child they had believed dead, is what makes our work worthwhile.

We need your help to reunite more children like Abdul with their families.

CHILDREN LOOKING TO FIND WORK

But why are these children making this journey in the first place?

Times are hard for many of Afghanistan's families after decades of conflict and poverty.

Statistics never tell the full story, but they paint a troubling picture: 18% of men and boys aged 15-24 are out of school, work or training and 5.3 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The harsh realities of Afghanistan's economy drive children, especially boys, to find a job as soon as possible, wherever they can.

Sometimes this is in the dangerous basket-weaving industry, where child labour is frighteningly common. Sometimes it's in Iran.

If children return home empty-handed, the shame of failing to provide for their family can be too much to bear.

For hundreds of thousands of men, women and children every year, heading to the border isn't a choice. It's a matter of survival.

That's why our work at the border, reuniting families is so important.

 

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