Child labour is a priority protection concern in Afghanistan with some estimates showing that more than half of children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in work of some kind (AIHRC, 2018). Children in Afghanistan endure some of the worst forms of child labour from being recruited into the armed conflict, to the production of bricks and carpets, as well as in agriculture, mines, and most visibly on the streets as beggars, shoe shiners and porters/vendors.
High rates of poverty, insecurity, displacement, and natural disasters mean sending school-age children out to work is often essential to the survival of families, placing children across Afghanistan at significant risk.
The 2021 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) for Afghanistan indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation further as loss of livelihoods, coupled with school closures to contain the spread of the virus, likely precipitated increases in child labour.
The economic downturn has seen poverty skyrocket in Afghanistan and, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), almost half the population is now in need of humanitarian support – 18.4 million people – , with 90 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line (less than USD 2 a day). This poverty, coupled with the upsurge in insecurity since intra-Afghan peace talks began in September 2020, has seen unprecedented numbers of undocumented Afghan migrants crossing the border from Iran.
Between January-May 2021 alone, more than 490,000 Afghans returned – an increase of 65 per cent on the same period in 2020, of which more than half are deportees.
Undocumented returnees often return worse off than before they left, having sold property and assets or borrowed money in order to pay for their passage. 19 per cent of returnees surveyed in a Whole of Afghanistan Assessment (2020) were found to have taken on catastrophic levels of debt predominantly to cover food and healthcare needs.
The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Protection Monitoring data shows that undocumented returnees increasingly turned to child labour to support their households during the course of the last year (from 19% reported in May-July 2020 to 35% in January 2021). This presents a key protection risk for children – exposing them to physical, sexual and economic exploitation including trafficking, and putting their physical, psychological and emotional development at stake. It constitutes a violation of their fundamental rights and compromises their ability to reach their full potential.
Like many fathers across the country, Noorullah* (40) took the tough decision to go abroad for work when he couldn’t make ends meet. For two years, he worked in Iran as a casual labourer in agriculture, picking fruit and sending remittances home to support his family of seven.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Noorullah was deported for not having any legal documentation at a time when lockdowns and movement restrictions meant finding work in Afghanistan was harder than ever. For 11 months, the family survived on casual labour and the charity of neighbours, living in a damaged house without windows or a door, with no electricity or heating source. The one small solar light they had was stolen by robbers.
The casual farm work he had managed to pick up dried up when winter started, and the family slipped more and more into debt, borrowing from neighbours and using credit to get food from the shop.
To cope with this dire situation, Noorullah resorted to taking his children out of school. His teenage son was sent to work as a live-in servant for another household, and his two younger sons started to beg on the streets, collecting plastic and wood to meet the household’s heating and cooking needs.
The boys had previously been enrolled in the local government school but were forced to stop, joining some 3.7 million (48% of boys and 59% of girls) of all school-age children across Afghanistan who are estimated to be out of school – returnee and internally displaced children even worse off with 55 per cent of boys and 67 per cent of girls out of school (Afghanistan HNO, 2021).
To address protection risks faced by undocumented returnees, IOM’s Protection Programme works in provinces of high returns and opened a new office in Noorullah’s home province of Badakhshan in January 2021. Having received IOM assistance at the border, Noorullah approached the office for support and the Protection Programme caseworker visited him at his home to discuss his situation in depth and draw an action plan that would allow the family to re-enrol the children in school.
To mitigate the protection risks faced by Noorullah and his family, including child labour, the caseworker provided cash assistance enabling them to buy some essentials for their home – a buhari [a traditional wood-fired heater] and fuel for heating, a solar lamp for lighting the home – and enough to pay back their debts. Together with his wife, Noorullah bought enough flour so they could start a small bakery in their home.
“We started our bakery and, with the support from IOM, we can rent a house in the future and possibly extend our business, so we have income and are able to save for any future needs,” said Bahar*, Noorullah’s wife.
By reducing the economic vulnerability of the household, the protection risks associated with child labour and diversion from education were averted.
The support provided by IOM enabled Noorullah and Bahar to send their children back to school, helping to secure their futures. The two youngest boys stopped begging, and Noorullah brought his eldest son back to live with the family.
The parents are relieved that they can support their children’s education and provide them with a good life thanks to the income of their cottage bakery: “I was exhausted; really sick and tired of doing daily wage jobs. Now I’m self-employed, running a bakery and starting a grocery business which was a dream that has turned into a reality, thanks to IOM’s Protection Programme.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous in a multitude of ways, and in a country where educational needs are exceptionally high, the eradication of child labour remains a key priority for Afghans of all ages. By providing comprehensive assistance to undocumented returnees’ households, IOM aims to build their resilience and reduce the likelihood of child labour amongst some of the most vulnerable communities.
* Not their real names.
IOM Afghanistan is supporting undocumented returnees to access vital protection services thanks to EU Humanitarian Aid.