More than half of children aged 5-7 in Afghanistan are engaged in work of some kind. The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the situation as the loss of livelihoods, coupled with school closures, is likely to have precipitated increased reliance on child labour for families struggling to make ends meet.
Over 18.4 million Afghans – almost half the population – are now in need of humanitarian support according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), yet the humanitarian response for 2021 remains just 13 per cent funded nearly halfway through the year.
This poverty, coupled with the upsurge in violence since intra-Afghan peace talks began last September, has seen unprecedented numbers of undocumented Afghan migrants returning from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. Between January-May 2021 alone, more than 490,000 undocumented Afghans returned – an increase of 42 per cent on the same period in 2020, of which more than half are deportees.
IOM’s Protection Monitoring data shows undocumented returnees increasingly turned to child labour to support themselves during the course of the last year (from 19% reported in May-July 2020 to 35% in January 2021).
“Undocumented returnees often return worse off than before they left because they have sold property or borrowed money in order to pay for their passage,” noted Floriane Echegut, IOM Afghanistan’s Protection Programme Manager.
“The drivers of outward migration are largely due to insecurity and lack of income, but when people are forced to return, these issues are compounded by the deteriorating situation here. Sending school-age children out to work is often essential to the survival of these families, but it places children at significant risk.”
Children in Afghanistan endure some of the worst forms of child labour from being recruited into the armed conflict, to brick production, in agriculture and mines, and most visibly on the streets as beggars and porters.
Noorullah* (40) was deported from Iran as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A father of six, he had been working as a casual labourer picking fruit and sending remittances home to support his family. Once home, he was unable to get by on the scant work available in the winter months, and reluctantly took three of his children out of school to work and help support the family. His teenage son went to work as a live-in servant and his two younger sons were forced to beg on the streets, collecting plastic and wood for cooking and heating the home.
Following a comprehensive case assessment by IOM’s Protection caseworker, Noorullah and his wife Bahar* received cash assistance to help meet their family’s immediate needs and pay off some of the debts accrued. They had enough to start a small bakery in their home, which meant regular income for the household. This enabled Noorullah and his wife to send their children back to school – the two youngest boys stopped begging, and Noorullah brought his eldest son back to live with the family.
Noorulah and Bahar are relieved that they can support their children’s education and provide them with a better life thanks to the income of their cottage bakery: “I was exhausted, really sick and tired of doing daily wage jobs,” said Noorullah. “Now I’m self-employed, running a business which was a dream which has turned into a reality, thanks to IOM.”
* Not their real names
IOM’s Protection programme is operational at border points and in 11 provinces of high return across Afghanistan to support safe and dignified return and reintegration for undocumented returnees and their families facing protection risks through provision of information, referral to specialist services, and provision of cash for protection. For IOM’s COVID-19 Protection Monitoring reports, visit: https://afghanistan.iom.int/protection