Child workers who risk everything to be smuggled into Iran

By Mahsa Elham 

Sulaiman is just 14 years old, yet he is the breadwinner of his family of five. He lives with his mother, two sisters and a brother in Firoz Koh, the capital of Ghor province. His father died five years ago and his mother, who used to work as a cleaner in a government office, was forced to stay at home with the arrival of the Taliban and their restrictions on women’s employment. So, the burden of providing for the entire family fell on her 14-year-old son. 

Sulaiman was in grade 8 when he was forced to leave school to find work. In an interview with Zan Times, he said: “I washed cars for a year, but I couldn’t earn enough to buy food for my family. When I heard that my friends were going to work in Iran, I also decided to go as well to earn money.” 

Two months ago, Sulaiman left via a smuggling route to Iran. He went with eight of his friends of the same age after they coordinated with a human trafficker. The cost was 18,000 afghanis per person. “My mother borrowed 15,000 afghanis from my uncle and we gave it to the smuggler,” he recounts. The group went to Zaranj city, the capital of Nimruz province. 

According to Sulaiman, he met 28 other children and teenagers in Nimruz who were supposed to go to Iran together as part of the human smuggling operation. The trip proved to be extremely dangerous. As Sulaiman recounts, “The smuggler packed 23 of us inside a car that had the capacity to transport five people, including the driver. We were on top of each other. The space was so tight that oxygen did not reach us properly. I felt suffocated and could not breathe.” 

Two boys in the trunk of the car suffocated due to lack of air, he says. Remembering this memory, Sulaiman is emotional as he continues, “When the driver realized that the two were no longer alive, he threw them out and continued the journey. The others were also in a bad condition, but none of us could lower the windows, because dust and dirt would fill our noses and mouths and we would suffocate” 

Sulaiman spent two days and nights without bread and water on the journey, which included walking 12 hours on the plains and mountains on the land route from Nimruz to Iran. “My food had gone. I was trembling from hunger, but the smugglers did not give us food or water,” he tells Zan times. “The children said that the smugglers would like us to perish, because they received all the money before the trip.” 

Sulaiman and his friends were caught by Iranian border police on the seventh night of their trip. Sulaiman was captured along with 11 other children and taken to a camp in Sang-e Sefid near the border. “In the camp, the Iranian soldiers asked us for money,” he says. “When we didn’t have anything to give, they beat us. They beat us with electric whips. They ordered us to clean the toilets and sinks.” 

After 28 days of hard labour in the camp, Sulaiman says he was allowed to return to Afghanistan after his uncle paid 26,000 afghanis to bribe Iranian soldiers. Still affected by the fears and trauma of his experience, he still must work to provide for his family. He collects and sells plastic, scrap metal, and cardboard, for which he makes 100 to 150 afghanis daily. 

Sulaiman’s story of trying to get into Iran to find work isn’t an anomaly. According to the statistics from the Iranian Ministry of Justice, the number of Afghan child labourers in Iran has increased 20 times since the Taliban takeover, though a story by Iran’s IRNA news agency noted that those figures are estimates.  

Another child labourer who went to Iran in search of work is a 16-year-old named Abdul Aziz.  He tells Zan Times that the first time he went to Iran was six months ago because of poverty and unemployment in Afghanistan.  

Abdul Aziz says his experience at the hands of human traffickers was like that of Sulaiman, with one significant difference: Abdul Aziz was able to successfully cross the border and find a job in Iran. Life is still hard. After working for three weeks in an eight-storey building in Tehran, hidden from police, he says that his employer refused to pay him for his work.  

“When I protested, he threatened to hand me over to the police,” he recounts. Abdul Aziz gave up for fear of being handed over to the Iranian police. Yet, three days after linking up with his cousin, they were both picked up by the police and taken to the Sang-e-Safid camp. He endured hard labour during his week in the camp, after which he was deported to Afghanistan.  

Because his circumstances in Afghanistan hadn’t improved, within a month Abdul Aziz was again travelling on a smuggling route to Iran. “When the smuggler brought us from Zaranj city to the border and handed us over to some other smugglers. They were thieves. They took all our money and mobile phones and beat up those who didn’t have money. I gave them the amount of 12,000 afghanis that I borrowed from my uncle, to save myself,” he says.  

Abdul Aziz and his companions didn’t make it over the border. He returned to his family in Nimruz province. Since both of his parents can’t work, he now sells fresh vegetables, earning around 200 to 300 afghanis a day for his family. He’s given up any idea of again being smuggled across the border. “I suffered enough, I will never go to Iran again,” he says.  

That children such as Sulaiman and Abdul Aziz feel they have no choice but to try to be smuggled into Iran in search of work is an indication of the growing desperation within Afghanistan, which is being engulfed by a massive humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates that 90 percent of families in Afghanistan are facing serious shortages of food and basic necessities. The UN says that, as the winter season approaches, more than six million people in Afghanistan are at risk of acute starvation and the country needs urgent humanitarian aid to prevent a humanitarian disaster. 

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