The EU is failing Afghanistan’s unaccompanied migrant children

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

More than 45,000 unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, mostly boys, arrived in Europe in 2015. [Save The Children]

Afghan children deserve better – the EU needs to focus on education and protection in Afghanistan, rather than implementing harsh returns policies, writes Karen Mets.

Karen Mets is Save the Children’s Senior Advocacy adviser on Asylum and Migration

At the EU-Afghanistan donor conference this week (4-5 October), EU and Afghan officials will meet behind closed doors for a ‘High-Level Dialogue on Migration’. Recent media reports and statements by officials indicate that returns will be high on the agenda. According to a document leaked to the Guardian, Afghanistan will lose aid if it doesn’t commit to taking in 80,000 returnees.

In 2015 more than 90,000 unaccompanied children reached Europe. Over half of them were from Afghanistan, mainly boys. Afghans constitute the world’s largest protracted refugee population. In spite of these stark numbers, very few people seem to ask the question so many Afghan children undertake the treacherous, often traumatising, 5,000 km journey to reach Europe.

Here we would like to shed a light on what it’s like for a child to grow up in Afghanistan, what children are running away from, and the risks they face en route.

There’s no easy way to explain why children leave. Motives are often complex. According to UNHCR, children travelling on their own in 2014 were mostly boys between the age of 13 and 17. Some children flee from violence; others are looking for a better education or ways to make money. More often than not it’s a combination of the three. Sometimes the family decides to send them. Other times children decide to leave on their own, either with financial support of relatives of by gathering necessary resources on the road. Iran is often an intermediate stop, as relatives there can help children find a job to finance their onward journey. People that can afford to send their children are generally not the poorest, as the price to pay smugglers is high. Parents often mortgage or sell property to pay for the trip, which raises the pressure to succeed.

Widespread violence against children

Today Afghanistan is less safe for children: 2015 saw the highest level of violence since UN reporting started in 2009, with one in four of the 11,000 civilian casualties injured or killed in conflict a child. In the first six months of 2016, nearly one in three casualties was a child. Child recruitment in 2015 has also doubled compared to 2014, mainly by police forces or the Taliban, who deploy them for suicide attacks.

Violence against children is widespread. Save the Children conducted a household survey among 1,000 Afghan citizens early this year. More than half of the respondents were below the age of 15. 91% of the children reported experiencing some level of violence, mainly kicking, beating with objects, choking or burning. Nearly 40% saw a household member being killed in the last year. One in three have been exposed to gun fire, bombing and fights. About one in five children reported being subject to rape and the most egregious forms of violence.

The vast majority of Afghan refugees live in Iran or Pakistan. Due to increased harassment, violence and intimidation, IOM now estimates that about 600,000 refugees will be returning to Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Traumatising journey

The journey to Europe is often traumatising. In Norway, Save the Children interviewed 78 children coming from Syria and Afghanistan. Children suffered from hunger and thirst along the route, and they were lonely and scared.  Some were shot at, received death threats, almost drowned or were nearly killed. They mentioned police brutality and violence at the borders.

In the meantime, more member states are approving new laws that facilitate returns to Afghanistan. While legislation allowing forced and voluntary return of children has been in place for many years, it was very rarely implemented in practise. This is now changing.

Governments like to tell that Afghans coming to Europe are job-seekers looking for a better life. The reality is much more complex. Afghanistan is still one of the worst countries in the world to grow up as a child. If governments want fewer people to come to Europe, they should invest in education and services for children. They need to recognise that there is an increase in violence and do something about it. Children or adolescents that are sent back face many difficulties in re-connecting with their families and communities. Coming back to Afghanistan empty-handed, without meeting families’ expectations is a potential source of stigma and isolation. Many find it difficult to readjust.

EU’s moral obligation

As long as Afghanistan does not have the systems in place to guarantee protection, children should not be sent back there. The EU’s obligation to protect and promote human rights does not stop at its borders. Return and readmission form the centrepiece of the EU’s new migration policy. Agreements are being negotiated with countries like Niger and Ethiopia, which promise trade and financial concessions in return for keeping migrants out. These countries do not have the capacity nor the systems in place to host large groups of refugees in a humane and dignified manner.

In order to better deal with migration at a global level, we need to understand its complex and multi-faceted drivers. Right now the EU is investing in defence and border controls, while many reports point out that quality education for boys and girls is key when it comes to tackling the drivers of migration.  We need to take a step back and analyse migratory movements in each context. Catering to populist demands in Europe will not lead to pragmatic and balanced solutions addressing the reasons why these children take to the hard road. We cannot forsake our duty to uphold human rights. And we must not disinvest in our children’s future wherever they are on life’s journey. We Europeans must not kill their hope. We will do ourselves a disservice in the long run.


Subscribe to our newsletters