As journalist Caroline Brothers listened to some boys in a shelter telling their stories she was taken aback by some of the experiences they recounted at such a young age.
Brothers, a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, was interviewing Afghan children at refugee shelters and day centres in Paris for her latest book, “Hinterland”.
She wanted to give voice to the experiences of some of the thousands of minors who leave Afghanistan every year to escape war, violence, child labour and early recruitment by the Taliban.
“I’d never expected to meet a 12-year-old boy at a bus stop showing me his ticket to Scandinavia,” Brothers told AlertNet over the phone. “He didn’t have any address, didn’t have anywhere to go at the other end . . . he’d been told to get a ticket, get this bus and go there.”
Children as young as eight years old walk some 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles), or are smuggled in trucks or boats – alone or with other young people - through Iran and Turkey to Europe in a hazardous journey that can last up to two years.
About 20,000 migrant children from Afghanistan are scattered throughout Europe, Brothers said. They move from country to country in search of a safe enough place to put down roots.
In Paris – which took in over 300 unaccompanied Afghan kids in 2011, according to an article by Brothers published in Britain’s Observer newspaper - they sleep on benches in public parks or on the streets because the only night shelter in the city is often full.
Brothers first witnessed child migrants for herself when she saw a group squeezing through a rail fence of a train station in Paris.
“I knew already that this migration route went through Paris and people would go from there to Calais to try to get to England or north to Scandinavia,” she said, describing how the Port of Calais can play a vital part for those seeking asylum.
“I was so amazed that such small kids could be tangled up in this maelstrom.”
She approached some of the children at a soup kitchen in the French capital and was later given access to a night shelter – run by the Salvation Army - with help from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
“The kids…are not like other children, they have seen so much serious stuff in their short lives.”
“There is so much shouting around (migration issues) and you almost couldn’t hear the voices of the people concerned here… I wanted to win back a little bit of space to get their version across,” Brothers said during an interview about her book.
Many of these children have no memories of Afghanistan because they were born in refugee camps in Pakistan or Iran, which together host some 3-million Afghan refugees, she said.
They often have no idea of either the journey or the destination when they are sent on the road by parents or relatives trying to spare them a bleak future in their home country.
It might be years before they reach Europe.
Some families in Afghanistan spend a lot of money to pay smugglers in the hope they will take their children safely to Europe.
However, the children face many possible pitfalls en route.
Smugglers might take the money and abandon their charges half-way through the journey, or police might stop and detain them in foreign countries where they don’t speak the language or know anyone.
Some have walked for miles on snowy paths across the Alps or been forced to swim through freezing water when they couldn’t find a more appropriate means of transport.
But they keep on moving until they find somewhere safe even though - if and when they do - they might find out they are not welcome at their destination.
Some European countries are planning send the children back in part due to budgetary pressures resulting from the global economic downturn and the high number of asylum appeals. For example, Sweden received nearly 1,700 asylum requests from Afghan teenagers in 2011, according to Brother’s article in the Observer.
Sweden, Britain, Norway and the Netherlands have created the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM) a project funded by the European Union (EU) that aims to repatriate minors who have exhausted asylum appeals.
A joint programme by Save the Children and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has been trying to promote good policies and get good practice in place, but there isn’t a European-wide programme on migrant children yet, Brothers said, and the risk is that migration policies prevail over child protection.
“They’re carried away by these forces that are much bigger than them.”
While hearing their stories, Brothers was struck by their high degree of motivation and ambition.
Many said they want to go to school – a privilege for many Afghan children who have never received an education – and they were eager to learn the local language.
Given the security situation in Afghanistan, which has been called one of the most dangerous countries in the world for children, and amid growing uncertainty over the imminent pull out of U.S. troops, more and more children might be forced to embark on the long, sometimes deadly, journey to Europe.
“It ‘s dangerous (even) for adults, this journey, and… one thing that made me feel it was urgent (to write this book) is that children are dying,” Brothers said.
(Editing by Julie Mollins)