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Through hell to limbo in a lorry

“In my life I will forget lots of things, but I will never, ever forget those two small boys … left behind in the snow.” Elizabeth Kennedy reports on children’s journeys from Afghanistan to England and life in limbo as they approach 18.

Elizabeth Kennedy
8 October 2012

For the duration of my Masters program which I completed in the UK in July 2011, I mentored and tutored an outstanding boy from Afghanistan who arrived alone and weary to the UK a few months before I did. I arrived as an international student from the US; he arrived as a refugee. When I met him he was 15.

While my student has remained in the UK, I returned to the US upon finishing my Masters and we have remained in contact via email ever since. He keeps me abreast of his success in school (he’s gone from barely passing lower level classes to achieving 4 As at GCSE) and I provide him with all of the advice, assistance and encouragement that I can, given the circumstances.

A few months ago, he conducted the interviews featured in this article as part of a school project to raise awareness of the difficult situation faced by young Afghans in Britain. Like Qadir, Jamal and Sahil, his three interviewees, he took a horrendous, long journey to England from Afghanistan more than two years ago without a parent or legal guardian and without the legal documents to remain. While he initiated this article and contributed most of its content, because of the uncertainty surrounding his future he decided against authoring the article himself and also chose not to disclose his name. “I would love to write articles and books”, he told me via email, “I really want to be the author, but I might face some problems.” Unfortunately he will have to wait for the credit due him.

He explained why he was keen to share his research: “on the way to UK, from everyone’s face, you could understand that everyone had something to tell, but there was no time. … Sometimes, it really helps to share with others what you have kept in your heart. … When I read stories about other people, or someone shares his story with me, then I think I am not the only one in this world who has got problems. There are lots of people who have a hard life.”

Afghanistan, country of origin to 1/3 of the world’s refugees

War-torn and impoverished, Afghanistan is the most common country of origin among refugees under the responsibility of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Approximately 2.5 million Afghan refugees are exiled in the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran and growing numbers seek asylum further abroad. In 2010, the UK received 1,596 applicants for asylum from Afghans. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the numbers of internally displaced rose sharply in 2011 and 1.3 million Afghans remain “of concern” to UNHCR, despite the return of 5.7 million Afghans since 2002.

Afghanistan is a country where a strong respect for tradition and family honour are engrained and women do not always hold the same rights as men. Thus, when 15-year-old Qadir’s father died and his mother demanded her share of the family land to continue caring for her children, her brother-in-law refused her request. Qadir’s brother then retaliated and went into hiding outside their village in the capital, Kabul. Qadir’s uncle determined to come after Qadir instead and Qadir’s mother hurriedly arranged for him to escape to save his life.

Like Qadir, 15-year-old Sahil was expected to pay for the crimes of his older brother who had already escaped their village outside Kabul. His brother was accused of having premarital sex, an offense punishable by death. With the local militia after him, Sahil’s family arranged for him to be sheltered elsewhere.

Similarly, problems arose when the wishes of Jamal’s elders were not heeded. Jamal found himself torn between which elder to follow in his home of Jalalabad in East Afghanistan. His older brother had joined the Taliban and wanted Jamal to join him. However Jamal’s uncle forbade it and the Taliban came after Jamal. In the end Jamal’s uncle paid for him to leave the country.

None of the boys knew where their journeys out of Afghanistan would end. They did not know the price of their voyage, and ultimately, their family members who paid did not know the total costs either.

All of the boys started their journeys in a lorry – large trucks used to transport commercial goods. After marching through deserts, over mountains and deep into jungles for several months, they arrived to the UK smelling like meat, watermelon and sugar. Two years later, Qadir summarized the sentiment of all four: “If someone tells me that there is a way to Heaven, but it’s as hard as the journey to [the] UK, I prefer to go to Hell.”

The Journey through Hell

Each boy began his story: “I went through so many difficulties.” Qadir said it was his “most difficult time ever”, explaining, “It was a battle between me and death. I was sure that death was going to win and I would lose, but Alhamdulillah, finally I won when I arrived to [the] UK alive…None of us could believe afterwards that we were in that kind of situation and were still alive.”

None of the boys knew through which places and countries they had passed, although Qadir recalled seeing the Persian language on one of the water bottles given to him early on. Similarly, several landmarks were consistently mentioned in each boy’s story – a large desert, tall mountains with snow that took three days to cross, and a dense “jungle” where they waited two months before completing the final leg to the UK.

All were trafficked by smugglers who according to Jalal “take things or people from one place to another through illegal means.” These agents, called qachaqbor in Pashto, were men and between the ages of 20 and 50. One group spoke Persian and were either from Iran or Iraq. The other group spoke Pashto and were from Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Sahil’s first shock came when after being placed in the car with a particularly scary qachaqbor, he was instructed: “if on the way police ask you about our relationship, you tell them that I am your father.” Even though no one stopped them, Sahil could not imagine “giving his father’s status to anyone”, especially not a man who would never equal his father’s kindness.

When they reached the desert Sahil was handed to another agent who took him to a halfway house, called a musafir khana in Pashto. As was the case with agents, some musafir khanas were better than others. At one point, all the migrants were forced to stay in donkey’s quarters and one boy was severely beaten when he indicated the conditions were unjust. At the same time, Qadir found the diversity in these transition points remarkable: “I met so many different people of different ages and different languages. … I saw my own people, Arab people, Iranian, and Kurdish people. Most were teenagers and some parts of the journey had us travelling with girls.”

The boys referenced being transferred to many agents throughout their trip. Sahil stated: “Some of them were nice, but some of them were worse than animals.” Those, he said, were “cold hearted people. In 24 hours, they gave us only a boiled potato and a boiled egg. This happened three days in a row [when we were walking great distances].”

Jamal said the same happened to him, and that it coincided with his time crossing the snow-covered mountains. He referred to this part of his odyssey as the hardest part. Qadir said that they walked from sundown to sunrise to avoid detection. By morning, their toenails were black and “their fingers no longer worked.”

The experience worsened on the final night when two boys died in the snow and were left behind. Qadir explained that “those boys who had some money were put on the horses, but those who didn’t have money, like those two boys, had to walk.” At midnight, one of the boys said: “I can’t walk anymore. Can anyone help me?” Qadir and the other boys walking asked the agents if they could help, but they refused. The agents further ordered that the boys be left in the snow, because the police would come soon and catch everyone if they did not keep moving.

Qadir is still haunted by this decision: “In my life I will forget lots of things, but I will never, ever forget those two small boys who were left behind in the snow.”

Sahil remembered the last stretch of his trip as the hardest. No girls were present and “we were living in tents; most of the time it was raining and cold. We had insects inside the tents, so we couldn’t sleep.” The agents there, all between the ages of 25 and 28, were “the most cold hearted we saw”. They made the boys bring water from a graveyard at night and sent them to steal needed materials from fields several miles away. Some of the boys were sexually abused there. Those who could not walk back after were left for dead.

All four boys spent two months in this “jungle of darkness” before finally leaving on a lorry to the UK. Jamal received a beating after he resisted riding in a meat lorry full of ice, saying “I was sure that if they put me in this lorry I would not see tomorrow.” Upon arrival in the UK, Sahil required vaccinations and medicine to treat a “screeching problem” initiated by the insect bites.

 Demotix

Lorries in France carrying asylum seekers to England. Photo: Demotix

Now in limbo in the UK

All boys say that they are now happy living in the UK and they are thankful to the government for their rights. They can carry out their religious activities and can still follow their Afghan traditions. Qadir did remark that sometimes “I think about my family, how they would be and where they would be. It’s so hard to live without a family.”

More than anything, what worries them all is whether or not they will be allowed to remain in England. They all have dreams of attending university and taking the acquired skills back to their families and communities. However, Jamal commented: “An uncertain future affects me and my education a lot. When I work hard and get nice feedback from my teachers, the uncertainty doesn’t allow me to study properly. If you have a certain future, you know what you need to do to achieve what you really want to achieve, but if you have uncertain future it’s so hard to live seriously. My friends have told me a million times, why do you study so hard? What if one day they send you back, then your studies will be incomplete, so what’s the point of studying?”

Like most children who enter the UK unaccompanied, upon arrival in the UK all of the boys applied for asylum and were granted discretionary leave to remain (DLR) in the UK. This is the most common status given to minors who arrive in the UK unaccompanied. Before they reach 17 ½ they must apply for an extension of this leave but the outcome is uncertain. As few as 290 unaccompanied children have received an extension of their leave in the past five years.

Even if the boys have their leave to remain extended, there is no guarantee that they will be able to pursue their studies here in England. Because of access reforms introduced by the government in 2011, individuals with DLR are now regarded as international students, ineligible to apply for student loans and forced to pay the higher rate of international fees.

Jamal has already been forced to sit out school field trips abroad and university visits because he “lacks papers” and Qadir and Sahil similarly feel that their uncertain future affects them “in many ways”. “It’s like you don’t have any hope, and life without hope is not a life” said Sahil. “We don’t know what will happen to us, what kind of life we will have or where we will be. All of these questions are in our head, and we think about them all the time. We can become depressed or worse.”

The time is now for taking action to ensure that these boys do not suffer more than they already have. We must demand more – for their futures and our own.

Elizabeth Kennedy would like to thank the student who conducted the interviews and his friends who shared very intimate details of their lives to hopefully effect change for themselves and those in similar positions. They are deserving of all credit for this article. Please note that interviewees’ names have been changed.

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