15 children from one small village in eastern Afghanistan have migrated to EU member countries, revealing the extent of the economic distress in the country.
On a sunny autumn day in the Qarghayi District of Afghanistan’s eastern Laghman Province, land workers prepared rice paddies for cleaning. Sipping hot green tea, one farmer, Ibrahim Khan, spoke about the recent changes in the country.
"What are mullahs doing in the government?" he lamented, referring to the appointment of religious clerics by the Taliban to most key positions in the interim government. "They should be teaching at a mosque or a madrassa. That is where they belong."
“The Taliban will not be able to improve the economy,” the 39-year-old told TRT World.
He sipped the last of his tea and wiped sweat off his forehead as he explained his future plans. "As soon as my son turns 15 or 16, I am going to send him abroad." His 10-year-old son is currently a primary school student.
"Here, even if you are a high school or college graduate, you will be selling potatoes."
Lack of employment opportunities in the province compels young school graduates to return to working in agriculture fields. Now, many villagers are trying their luck with what is perceived as a better alternative: sending their young children abroad for work.
While Afghanistan struggled with high rates of unemployment under the previous US-backed governments, the economy has plunged further under the Taliban and international sanctions.
While the majority of past emigrants from Afghanistan consisted of young men from urban areas, a new pattern of youth from rural areas taking risks to leave the country is growing.
In just one small village in Laghman of around 40 households, 15 children ended up in EU member countries. Some are still stuck on the journey and awaiting an uncertain destiny, while a few have been deported from Turkey and Iran back to Afghanistan.
All the children are below the age of 18 and had to drop out of school to make the journey. Poor families from rural areas have no choice but to send their children in illegal ways, typically with the help of smugglers. It’s less expensive, but highly risky.
The risks include lack of access to health services, kidnapping, sexual and labour exploitation, injury, illness, and even death.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR), there are 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees in the world and 90 percent of them are hosted in Iran and Pakistan, though sizeable populations exist in other countries in the Asia Pacific region.
Afghans made up seven percent of all arrivals to Europe through the Mediterranean from January to November 2020.
During the same period, Afghans were the second most common nationality to claim asylum in Europe (28,145 first-time claims), after Syrians.
For the families who remain in the village, the hope of a better future for them and their children outweighs the risks of a long and difficult journey to Europe.
"If a family has one member abroad, the rest of the family doesn’t need to worry about anything here," Khan, who is also a van driver, explains.
Families take a financial gamble by borrowing large sums of money to pay for travel and other expenses. It costs between $10,000-$15,000 for one person to reach Europe.
The pressures of familial responsibility is felt by both elders and youth. Hamza, a 14-year-old student from the same village, has long been trying to convince his parents to send him to Europe. Two days after the Taliban's takeover, he even went to the Kabul Airport with his ID and a UN certificate that belonged to his father to leave Afghanistan in one of the evacuation flights.
After spending an entire day waiting in the massive crowd in front of the airport, he succeeded in entering the evacuation area at midnight. But his father's call a while later compelled the helpless young Hamza to return home.
"When I came home [that] evening, I inquired about Hamza," his father said. "His mother told me he has been out with his friends since the morning. I tried his phone but he turned it off. I couldn't sleep the whole night thinking about him."
"It was around 3am that I called his number one last time. He picked up the phone and I told him to immediately come [from] wherever he is and make his way towards home," Asadullah said with a smile on his face.
Hamza broke his arm in the crowd trying to make his way inside the airport, such was his determination. Eventually, though, he obeyed his father’s pleas.
But ever since the economic crisis across the country forced Asadullah to close his business, he regrets making that late-night call to Hamza. He is now convinced he must send Hamza abroad so his son can support the family.
"Hamza told me his dream is to financially help me and his mother," Asadullah shares.
As many as 1,646 unaccompanied Afghan children were reported to be in Greece in September 2020. Afghan children make up 39 percent of all unaccompanied children in Greece.
At least 46,134 Afghans were arrested by the Turkish authorities while 6,000 Afghans were deported from Turkey to Afghanistan from January to November 2020.
More young Afghan men are likely to consider migration as the economic crisis drags on and winter sets in. Remittances from family and friends overseas have long helped Afghans remaining in the country afford basic necessities.
However, the international response to the Taliban poses new challenges. Restrictions on banking transactions and cash transfers make it more difficult for families to receive money in a timely manner.