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Afghan children caught between fear and despair

By M. Nadeem Alizai-Pakistan has been major host of Afghan refugees since 1979 when the then Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Currently, around 1.5 million registered and over one million unregistered Afghan refugees live in the country. Since ouster of the Taliban from power in 2002, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has facilitated the return of approximately 3.8 million registered Afghan refugees from Pakistan. The repatriation process is almost at a standstill now because the Taliban control more areas in Afghanistan than the last 14 years.

Children are the worst affected segment of the refugees. There are thousands of child refugees in Pakistan who are living in miserable condition because most of them neither have access to education nor to basic health facilities. They see no ray of hope in Pakistan. They are also afraid of coming back to their homeland because they know that security situation has deteriorated rapidly. A large number of these migrant children are doing hard work to improve their family’s income so they could live for another day. They are prone to sexual assaults at the work environment, but yet they fight for their survival.

They defy the odds to feed their siblings and share economic burden of their parents. In the age which is supposed to be for schooling and playing, they are working in different hotels and workshops. A large number of Afghan children scavenge for recyclable items.

Most of them are teenagers and working in different restaurants in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. They get approximately 39 US dollars per month. Their job is to serve food and tea to the customers. The restaurants are not big enough and can accommodate 20 to 30 people at a time. Most of the customers are those who visit the provincial capital for business, shopping or medical treatment. Some of the customers visit the city to watch Pashto movies in cinemas.

Supporting a big family is a difficult task. The task is shared by these homeless boys who mostly live in camps and small rented houses. They race against time. In this race they are deprived of fundamental human rights such as education. Girls help out mothers in the housework.

Most of them cannot go to school because their parents emotionally or physically force them to work. Therefore, they are left with no choice but to help parents financially. Some of the child refugees sell vegetables in a pushcart in different parts of the host country. They acknowledge that their parents could barely feed them after paying the house rent and meeting medical expenses.

Ask these children about the work environment and answers of all would be same—they are mentally tortured everyday when the owner and customers insult them. These little souls are trying their best to adjust themselves in such harsh environment. They fear that resisting the rude behavior of superiors and customers could cost their job; thus, landing them into troubled waters because they are not sure that they would get another job.

These children see no ray of hope in the race for better future. Mohammad Ashfaq, 10, is a scavenger. He does not know that when his family came to Pakistan. However, he heard the stories of the Soviet invasion, resistance and then emergence and fall of the Taliban.

Talking to Afghanistan Times, he said that he scavenges for recyclable items. “I cannot go to school because we cannot afford it. My father says that our worst days will come to an end soon, but I don’t think so because neither we can go back to our country nor we can enjoy life like Pakistani children. Sometimes my mother says that we are cursed. I think she is right because we have nothing to talk about, except miseries,” the disappointed child refugee said.

When asked why his family does not return to Afghanistan, Ashfaq said that security situation in the war-hit country is fragile. He furthered that even if he was repatriated, he is not sure that he could get education because presence of the Islamic State in his province, Nangarhar, made it difficult.

There are hundreds of thousands children like Ashfaq. Most of them have no access to education and are abused on daily basis. Their life as a refugee will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Neither the Afghan government nor the international humanitarian agencies have any solution. Perhaps, they have but they are focused on other areas. These children will continue to be engaged in difficult tasks in order to improve their family’s income until peace and stability returns to their homeland or the local communities own and support them.

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