"They give the visa only if (the boys) are very young...", a father told author Assunta Nicolini, assessing the chances for his son to be allowed to stay in the UK. The photo of this boy was taken in 2009 at the Herat airport where he was earning some money by helping travelers to carry their luggage. Photo: Christine Roehrs
In the last decade, Afghanistan has produced the largest number of asylum seekers in Europe. Many of them are unaccompanied minors. For her doctoral studies, AAN guest author Assunta Nicolini carried out an in-depth study among Afghans migrating to the UK, summarizing some of her findings for this dispatch. She looks at why families decide to send their children away from home alone, at the reality upon arrival, and at how these young men fare in their new lives. She includes the voices of children and parents themselves, offering personal insights into motives and the emotions of those who undertake this difficult, dangerous and often disappointing journey.
Khairullah* was 15 years old when he arrived at London’s Victoria station. It was a cold winter morning, January 2009. Two years had gone by since he had left behind his village, a few miles from Jalalabad, near Darunta, a lush green area by the Kabul river. In Peshawar he had met the “travel agent” who had organised his journey to Europe. Khairullah might have been 18 at the time of his interview with me. Proudly he told me about his journey overland through the Middle East and Southern Europe, how before he reached England’s coast he was overtaken by anticipation and fear. Dover’s white cliffs – which he had dreamed about – he never got to see, being stowed as he was in the back of a truck.
“What you need is the courage to keep going and never look behind. When you see the dead bodies of other Afghans on Iranian mountain paths, or when you hear that a boat sank just miles before reaching Greece, you just have to shut your eyes and keep going.”
When he left home, Khairullah didn’t know much about the trip ahead; he knew it would be dangerous but this was nothing new.
“I had lived with danger all of my life. I saw my uncle being killed and my sister losing a leg when she stepped on a mine, and all this for nothing. This trip, at least, was a risk worth taking because if you make it to London, then you are set for life. We (my family) knew of many people who went to London and found a job, and we knew that the government there gives help to the unemployed and sometimes even a house, which is very important when you arrive and don’t know your way around. We all agreed that I should try to get there, although my mother was crying all the time.”
Khairullah narrated that his father had sold a piece of land to put together the 12,000 dollars needed to smuggle his son into Europe. Two of his brothers had already migrated to Pakistan and to Dubai, and his father was getting older. Khairullah recounts:
“There was only me who could have worked on that land. But what for? To remain poor like my father? We thought that if I went to London I could find a good job and help my family too. When I left, we performed the common ritual during which I had to cross the doorstep three times while my sister held the prayer beads over my head reciting a prayer. When I crossed the third time, I had to go and never look back as that would bring bad luck.”
Khairullah and his family are not the only ones in Afghanistan who have chosen migration, nor the only ones to have invested all they had to buy a passage to Europe. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, thousands of Afghans left their homeland in search of security and better economic opportunities. With neighbouring Pakistan and Iran no longer the most viable destinations, given their increasingly aggressive return policies, many have set out for distant destinations. Europe remains the favourite, with the largest intake of Afghan asylum seekers – from 26,000 to over 30,000 in 2012 alone.
Minors on the move
Statistics about Afghan minors migrating alone to Europe show that in 2012 over 7,000 youths from Afghanistan applied for asylum there (out of 12,715 youths from all over the world). The UK, together with Norway, was the favourite destination in 2009, when over 50 per cent of all applicants were Afghans. This wave of applications lodged by minors corresponded with the worldwide financial crisis in 2008, which was followed by five years of economic stagnation and increasingly restrictive immigration policies for adult applicants. Border controls became stricter, more asylum seekers were returned home more often and officials looked closer to detect “bogus” claims. In the immediate aftermath of 2001, Afghans claiming asylum in the UK could nourish realistic hopes of having their claims accepted. Now, the number of successful cases involving adults began to drop sharply.(1)
Minors arriving alone, on the other hand, were legally entitled to a higher degree of protection and, in theory, stood a better chance of being given asylum, at least until they reached the age of 18.(2) Many Afghan families became gradually aware of this, as Altaf, a father interviewed in Kabul with three sons abroad, confirmed:
“My son in Manchester told us that they give the visa only if you are very young, so we decided that my younger son should go there while the other went to Germany.”
Recently, much attention has been given to the vulnerabilities of unaccompanied Afghan youths, for example the risk of exploitation at the hands of criminal networks and smugglers. The issues of detention in transit and in the destination countries, and the traumatic process of age assessment upon arrival have raised critical questions about Western immigration systems and their protection of children migrating alone. However, little attention has been paid to the motivations prompting youths to leave or little acknowledgement that migration in Afghanistan features among traditional economic strategies adopted for centuries to cope with poverty and environmental calamities. Also, little is known about how these youths perceive their everyday life in the West.
The numbers of Afghan youths migrating towards Europe might be a legitimate source of concern; however, this type of migration has always existed within developing countries and Afghanistan is no exception. In contrast to Western youths, many Afghan children grow up learning that migrating can be the only way to provide for the family’s survival. Ahmad, 16, from Logar told me:
“In my family, my father and some of my uncles and cousins all went to work in Iran for months, and even for years in a row sometimes, because there were no jobs in Afghanistan for them. We grew up with the money my father sent.”
Hamid, 17, from Paktia adds that the male members of the family who migrated to the Gulf, sleeping in containers and working 16 hours per day, were regarded as heroic figures, and that their return home was always celebrated by the entire village.(3) Migrant workers bring home wealth and their success confers prestige to the entire family. Not surprisingly, these role models encourage migration for generations to come. “Look at Khost city”, Hamid says, “we call it ‘little Dubai’ for a reason. All these successful businessmen started with nothing, working day and night.”
These days, with foreign troops drawing down, incertitude is rife in Afghanistan and families carefully weigh the options for their children.
“We were poor under the Taleban but today we are fine, our family has never been so rich. We are doing well with the foreigners in Kabul. But I often wonder about the future. I know that everything I have could be taken away from me if the Taleban come back. And don’t tell me the government will be here to protect me. We are Hazaras, we are used to migrate as much as we are used to fight. I want my son to be safe abroad so that he will be able to help his brothers and sisters”, said Ali, a father interviewed in Kabul.
Other parents interviewed in Afghanistan, who were in the process of sending their young children to Europe, said they feared the Taleban could forcibly conscript their boys (although forced conscription by the Taleban is a rare occurrence rather than the norm.(4) As Mujib, a man in his fifties hailing from Wardak province told me: “If the Taleban come to your house and ask you to send your son with them, you don’t have many options. If you have some money, that could keep them at bay, but if you are poor, what are you going to do?”
“Fear of the Taleban” ranks highest among reasons given by youths for leaving Afghanistan. This may be a result of the massive increase in security incidents and civilian casualties all over the country since 2008. This is not the only reason the Taleban factor features so prominently in migrants’ narratives, though. Mentioning the Taleban makes an asylum case stronger as Hassan, 18, from Kabul, confirmed:
“You need to have a good story when you are interviewed. If I had told them that my mother was a widow and didn’t have anyone to look after the family, they would have deported me straight away. Also, instead of telling them that my father died because he was ill, I said that he was killed by the Taleban and that they were after me, too.”
Ironically, it is this “disbelief” that compels migrating youths to tell lies whereas their real cases might have been powerful enough to gain asylum.
British immigration bodies have a hard time assessing the truthfulness of these stories, making fair evaluation of asylum claims difficult. How to judge whether a threatening Taleban letter is real? An assessment requires more than documentary evidence: knowledge of a conflict’s dynamics and of the local socio-economic and political background are just two of the factors that enhance understanding and make a fair evaluation possible. These concerns are addressed by a report UNHCR and the Refugee Fund of the European Commission released in May 2013; the report urges European member states to adopt consistent guidelines when asylum cases are assessed.
When considering their offspring’s future, Afghan families engage in a complex process of cost-benefit calculation, trying to diversify their survival strategies as much as possible. The older son is usually the one who will be staying closer to the family while the younger ones are encouraged to follow different paths, set out for different destinations. Altaf, a father interviewed in Kabul, told me that this was better than having all of them in one country: “If one is sent back, at least the others are somewhere where they can work and have a good life.”
The poorer the family, the fewer the choices, though. It is reasonable to assume that the majority of those Afghans who manage to raise the money to travel long distances are not from the poorest segment of society. “Of course I would be very happy if my son would go to Europe but we are not so lucky to have the money to get him there. We are a poor family, always have been and always will be”, says Baqer, a man in his fifties working as a door keeper in Kabul for 100 dollars per month. For the poorest who are forced to escape conflict, on the other hand, migration rather means internal displacement than migrating abroad.
Apart from decisions taken within the family, young Afghans have their own ambitions and personal desire to migrate and become “successful abroad” – no matter that a neighbour or a friend has been deported back or detained. From their point of view, those who matter are those who made it. “For 200 who die, there are 2,000 who make it, why shouldn’t I look at the majority?” said Rahmat, 16, from Kunduz.
In addition, migration represents an escape from traditional structures and obligations. The expectations of the family, such as being able to provide for the family, are very high from an early age. Samiullah, 18, from Kabul says:
“I came to London because I wanted to be free from my relatives; they had planned my entire life, marriage, job and all. The only way I could buy time without a fight was migrating abroad, which made my father and uncles happy because that way, my family could aim for a better bride, and the same advantage would be also passed onto my younger brothers.”
On arrival in Europe, however, expectations are not always matched by reality. The myth of London is soon crushed by a series of practical concerns that young Afghans and their families did not take into account before leaving.
Those youths without relatives in the host country struggle to adjust to the new society and for many, especially the youngest, the experience can be traumatic. One boy interviewed showed me scars on his body; he had cut himself. He said that since he knew he would be returned to Afghanistan he felt only pain. Getting the help of social services upon arrival is crucial, whether to find a foster family or to be introduced to education.(5) Those under 16, who are sent to live with foster families, remember positive experiences: they learned English fast, for example, and the family supported them to do well at school. Those aged between 16 and 18 live in group homes; their advantage is “having nobody to check on you”, although being “at risk of getting lazy and spend all day doing nothing”, as Rahimullah, 18, from Kabul said. Some live with relatives. According to most of the Afghan youths interviewed, living with relatives can be a double-edged affair, though: on the one hand, relatives can offer support; on the other, such an arrangement offers fewer chances to integrate into the broader society and to learn English.
Often it is the resilience of the boys themselves that allows them to slowly rebuild their lives and to make friends, mostly at school or college and among newly arrived Afghans. Interestingly, among young Afghans there seems to be little or no concern regarding ethnicity, in contrast to newly arrived Afghans in their twenties and thirties for whom ethnicity remains a considerable source of conflict. And little connection is apparent between Afghans who arrived in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s and those who arrived recently. Some people from the older Afghan community in London even expressed anxiety and resentment towards the new arrivals. This is partly because at a time of economic slowdown, with fewer employment opportunities, new arrivals are often seen as competitors, as Mr Khan, a man in his sixties and originally from Spin Boldak clearly states: “Why do they come here? There are no jobs even for us who, like myself for example, live here since 1982.” It is also due to different social backgrounds. Afghans who arrived over twenty years ago tend to be more educated and economically better off while most new arrivals have little or no education. Wali, a young man in his twenties, complained that “they [the diaspora] always look down on you, even when you meet them on the street. They think that [new arrivals] are all uneducated, poor and lazy, and they don’t want anything to do with us.”
“Established” Afghans also seem to fear that without a family looking after them, youngsters easily get on the wrong track, start to drink or behave “improperly” where sex is concerned. In other words, these youths are often perceived as troublemakers and a potential burden for the established Afghan community.
Especially where the two sexes are concerned, the Western social context can be strikingly different from Afghanistan. I found it extraordinary to see groups of newly arrived Afghans aged 16 and 18 “hanging around” in the park with girls, British or otherwise. I asked the boys how they felt and what they thought about the “Western way of life” and whether they told their relatives about it. They said:
“It’s difficult for us. We feel tempted. . . . We never experienced this before. In Afghanistan if you get close to a girl you risk being shot. . . . How could I tell my relatives how things are here? They would never understand and would think that we are doing bad things here. They had warned me about the [perils of the] 3 Ws in London: work, women and weather.”
Reporting back to Afghanistan
These youths, beyond having trouble adapting to the new social context, have the additional problem of explaining to their parents that reality on arrival did not match the expectations. The boys often find themselves compelled to lie to their families. Some told me how they took pictures of themselves in front of beautiful houses to show their relatives in Afghanistan how comfortable their lives were. Those using social networks, such as Facebook, are wary about friends or cousins, if not parents, following them from Afghanistan and often resort to having different accounts. “I don’t want people in Afghanistan to know what I do every day, how I dress and which friends I have. So I keep one account for them and one for my stuff [life in London]”, said Sami, 18, from Kabul.
False information passed home of course reinforces an unrealistic view of the West, thus building a myth that is inevitably passed on to the next generation of potential migrants.
Other Afghan youths are worried about not being allowed to work, especially those who grew up combining school and work.(6) Several interviewees told me: “By this time I should have found a job and sent some money back home. My family needs my help but here I can’t work, I can only go to college.” Not being able to send money home means that the family carries the entire burden of the thousands of dollars they paid for their son to be smuggled to Europe, another aspect often not taken into account before leaving. Caught between the pressure of the family’s expectations and the demands posed by the new Western environment, many struggle to find a balance.
But what really scares these young Afghans is that once they reach the age of 18, or in certain cases even earlier, they risk being deported back to Afghanistan. Minors’ deportation, however, is a complicated matter, as it raises human rights issues. It would breach several articles of the Convention on the Right of the Child, for example Article 3.1, which stipulates that the best interest of the child should be the primary consideration in all actions concerning children.
The European countries hosting the largest numbers of unaccompanied minors, in January 2011 set up a (pilot) project, among them the UK, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, with Denmark and Belgium acting as external observers. The European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM) is a scheme aiming to return Afghan and Iraqi unaccompanied minors whose asylum claims have been rejected. “The aim of the project is to develop a humane and safe return process for the unaccompanied minors. An important step in the process is to make sure that these minors are reunited with their parents.” For the program to be legitimate and lawful – operating “in the best interest of the child” – it is crucial that returned minors are reunited with their families. Therefore, the countries implementing ERPUM have agreed to set up a reintegration centre in Kabul, in the Jangalak area, where the International Organization for Migration IOM already runs a return and reintegration facility. Its function, in theory at least, would be to receive minors upon return and to host those without families while their relatives are traced.
The Afghan government in the meantime seems to be struggling to take a definitive position. The Ministry for Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) initially signed a memorandum of understanding with ERPUM, then together with other ministries, decided that the centre would breach the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, according to Liza Schuster, a scholar working on asylum and deportation issues, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally agreed to carry out the project on condition that the funding – 2.5 million dollars – would go through the MoRR. ERPUM countries, however, rejected this condition, and instead cut the budget to 1.5 million dollars and assigned it to IOM, which already runs return and reintegration programs. An MoRR official laments that his ministry anyway had too limited a capacity to make decisions and “after three years of nonsense talks in Afghanistan it is still not clear what will happen”.
When I talked to Hamid, 17, from Paktia, about deportation, he asked
“Why do they want to send me back? I have no future there, no jobs, no schools, nothing. In my area, the only thing I could do is fight – fight for the Taleban as they pay the best salaries. Working for them, I would also protect my family.”
There is no proof so far that those deported back would join the Taleban. What is more relevant, however, is that deportation does not persuade many Afghan youths from trying again. Multiple deportation is common and, according to several interviewees, “travel agents” allow more than one attempt with the same sum of money. Guljan, 18, from Jalalabad says:
“I have been deported five times and spent a lot of money. I have no intention to give up. I will make it to London, Inshallah.”
*All names have been changed in order to protect the interviewees.
(1) This link provides a comprehensive overview of asylum trends in the UK.
(2) However, in more recent years the number of minors given asylum has also dropped. Dr Nando Sigona, a British migration expert, notes that in 2010 only 16 per cent of minors were granted asylum versus 21 per cent of adults. See here.
(3) In Khost province, whole villages consist of women, children and old men almost entirely because the young men have left to work in Gulf countries.
(4) “In 2012, the country task force on monitoring and reporting in Afghanistan reported 66 cases of recruitment and use of boys, some as young as 8 years of age. Verification of such incidents remained a challenge, however, owing to the prevailing situation of conflict and resulting security constraints.” See here.
(5) Once social services recognize the claimant as a minor, the process begins of needs assessment, finding a placement and education and training.
(6) Read more here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020