To be an Afghan child worker in Iran
More than a million Afghan children are trying to make their way in Iran. What could smooth the path for them?
“We must have the right to work!” a boy shouted when, at an introductory course on children’s rights, the teacher asked her students to think about the rights they need. This was several years ago, and the child who shouted was one of the many working migrant children learning to read and write at our centre near the Grand Bazaar in Tehran. At the time his remark came as a surprise to the teacher and to all of us at the Nasserkhosro Child House. We all imagined that the most important thing for these children is to quit working and start living like other kids do. Yet after interacting with them for several years, we now realise that there is more to their story than we believed.
Iran is a popular destination for immigration in the region, particularly from Afghanistan. There are no reliable official figures, but the 2017 census found upwards of 1.2 million Afghan migrants in the country and NGO data suggest the real figure is more than twice this. A great part of this population consists of boys under 18. They come to work, but also to learn to read and write. Afghan girls of the same age or even older are not allowed to travel on their own. That is why all the children at the Child House are boys.
They cross the border into Iran without their parents and with the help of smugglers. They can be as young as seven years old, and are usually accompanied by an adolescent relative or friend. This is a very dangerous trip that can easily get them killed. And, since they are undocumented on both sides, if they get shot at the border there will likely be no record of their deaths.
Why do they take this risk? If they manage to safely cross the border, what is waiting for them in Iran? What do these children really look forward to?
Boys looking for options
The children who come can be divided into two main groups. One comes from small villages near the border where, they say, they are deprived of basic necessities such as clean water, electricity, medical services, education, and safety. They chiefly earn income by keeping animals and selling their products, or by keeping animals for people who are better off.
Apart from difficult living conditions, the high rate of unemployment is another reason for these children to migrate to Iran: they come to find a job and to save their families from starvation. For many of them the right to work is equal to the right to live.
For many Afghan children in Iran the right to work is equal to the right to live.
For the second, smaller group life has not been so hard. Their families have some land and decent livelihoods. Still these boys find a way to get to Tehran. When asked for the reason, they mostly reply that they find urban life charming and feel independent away from their families. They especially like their ability to earn their own income.
And, of course, fleeing conflict in Afghanistan is a reason for immigration that is common to both groups. Iran is a safe place, but its border villages do not offer enough job opportunities for migrants. That is why many make their way to larger cities such as the capital, Tehran.
Finding their own way forward
It will surprise some to learn that many of these children arrange employment in established Afghan communities in Iran before they leave. They mostly sleep where they work, or in a rented room with several other boys of similar age and an older one who is ‘in charge’. They form a type of household, and share the chores amongst themselves to maintain it.
Living and sleeping in a shared space without parental supervision can expose these boys to some dangers, such as being bullied by older children or sexual harassment. At the same time, distance from family and new responsibilities give them a sense of independence that, especially older ones, would like to retain.
Since these children do not possess the skills required in the job market, they mostly take jobs that are not complicated but require physical strength. These are, at times, hazardous to their health. We have occasionally encountered children who have been hit by motorbikes while carrying goods, or those who suffer from deformed spines because of moving heavy loads in warehouses.
These children are mostly illiterate. But, since they are undocumented, they are not allowed to go to school. The formal system in Iran would also not make it easy to do so, since school time and work time overlap. They would have to choose one over the other. They are also deprived of the right to access free health care or medical insurance. They cannot open bank accounts and, if they get robbed, they cannot go to the police for fear of deportation.
Child House: a place to learn, relax and grow
Our NGO attempts to provide these children with basic services: education, social work and health care.
At the centre students learn reading, writing, basic math skills, sports, the ‘ten essential life skills’ designed by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and children’s rights with a focus on the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
They have very limited time (about two hours) in the morning to spend on learning. That’s not much, but the rewards are high. Literacy gives the children the opportunity to find less dangerous work, while basic calculation skills help them get promoted in their job from carrying heavy things to recording prices and preparing bills. The Child House also has a big football field which provides the children with a space to do a sport they love. As the children themselves have said, within the walls of this centre they have found a safe haven to socialise and relax without the fear of being arrested and deported.
Since undocumented children must pay large sums for even simple treatment, they usually ignore any health problems they face.
The boys at the Child House can also enrol in vocational skills courses to help them move into different sorts of work – for instance mobile phone or car repair. Not all children choose to attend such courses. They require a full-time commitment of at least one month, and some cannot afford to stop work and lose income for that long. But those that do, have successfully managed to find jobs in those areas upon completion.
On occasion we have managed to find one of these boys placement in a government school, and it is worth mentioning that they rarely last long there. This is not only because they find schooling “too time consuming”, stopping them from earning money, but also because most government schools in Iran are not child-friendly, unlike the warm atmosphere that they experience at the Child House.
The social work section of the Child House prioritises children’s needs at the beginning of each year. Usually healthcare is one of the main priorities. Vaccinations for newcomers, annual general medical exams, and followups for all children are at the top of the list. Since undocumented children do not have access to medical insurance and must pay large sums for even simple treatment, they usually ignore any health problems they face. By making a small set of services available to them free of charge, we try to help them at least stave off the worst before it is too late.
The social work section of the Child House also attempts to stay in touch with children’s employers. Our goal is to protect the children from being abused and to make the workplace as safe as possible for them. This section also tries to help the children with the challenges they face in their everyday lives. In sum, the centre does its best to meet most of the children’s basic needs and some even some of the more complicated ones. Neither Iran’s public schools or public services providers even attempt this when it comes to irregular migrant children.
Unfortunately the Child House does not reach everybody. Many working children live in Iran with no support from non-governmental organisations. NGOs have limited resources, authority, and access to children. For this sort of support to become widespread we need the state to take the reins. If the government would at least cover the basic needs of these children, such as access to free healthcare, medical services, and education, and if the Ministries of Education and Labor would cooperate to reconcile educational with vocational needs, children would at last have the opportunity to choose between working during school years or studying first and entering the market later. Only when they are given this choice will we be able to figure out what these children really wish for!
The Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child in Tehran, Iran was established by several lawyers in 1994, immediately after the Convention of the Rights of the Child was signed by Iranian government. Its primary mission is the promotion of the convention in Iran. This NGO has several field projects in order to stay in touch with children and their problems. Nasserkhosro Child House is one of these projects located in the Bazaar area of Tehran, which offers education, social work and healthcare to underprivileged children (Afghan migrants and Iranians) who reside near the Grand Bazaar of Tehran.
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