Childhood in his wake: An 11-year-old Afghan boy on the refugee trail

by @kristenchick October 24, 2015 5:00AM ET

Countries along the Balkan route are failing to protect refugee children making dangerous journeys alone

Syrian Refugees
Nasir, 11, fights off the cold at the border between Serbia and Croatia. After his parents were killed by an earthquake, he fled his home in Afghanistan's Baghlan province and was sent to live with an abusive uncle.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America

BELGRADE, Serbia — It has taken Nasir six weeks to reach this muddy park in Serbia’s capital. After leaving his home in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province, he first traveled to Iran, traversing the country on foot and in smugglers’ trucks. At the border with Turkey, he says, he escaped the bullets of Iranian border guards, who killed seven people just behind him. He spent four days hiking in the mountains before arriving in Bulgaria, where he ran from gunshots again. It took him almost three weeks to cross that country, and most of it was spent in a deep forest with little to eat and no shelter at night.

A smuggler deposited Nasir in Belgrade two days ago, and now he is waiting for another smuggler to take him on the next leg of his journey to Germany. Last night, he crowded with four others into a tent — the first shelter he’d had in weeks — to escape the cold drizzle that seeped into everything, spreading a damp chill. But it was too cramped, and Nasir, the smallest, was kicked out. He spent the night sitting in the rain, trying to stay warm.

Nasir is 11. He says he left home to escape an abusive uncle after an earthquake killed his parents. He is one of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children making their way to Europe this year. Without parents to guide them, these minors are often at the mercy of smugglers and face heightened risks of physical and sexual abuse. And governments along the Balkan route, overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of refugees passing through their countries, are ill equipped to handle the influx of children.

Nasir and another Afghan refugee walk in the park near Belgrade's train station, where they expect to begin the next leg of their journey north.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America
The tent where the two Afghan boys, Nasir and Navid, sleep.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America

Under national laws and international human rights treaties, Serbia and other nations are obligated to identify all those under age 18 traveling without immediate relatives and provide them a guardian and accommodation separate from adults. But nations are failing to do so, say human rights advocates, both because they are overstretched and because most of the children do not remain in any one country for more than a few days. Even when police do identify underage travelers and take them to children-only shelters, they often disappear soon after to continue their journeys to northern Europe.

Nasir, just under 5 feet tall with soft brown eyes, is determined to make it to Germany. “My life was awful in my country and I hope I’ll have a better life there. I hope I will be able to go to school,” he says through a translator. He wants to become an engineer, he says, though he can barely read and write. “I hope that first I will be able to go to school and, later, that I will be able to help my brother and sister to come to me in Germany.”

After Nasir’s parents were killed, his two younger siblings stayed with their maternal uncle while the boy was sent to live with his father’s brother. The uncle forbade Nasir from attending school. Instead, he worked in the family’s fields, cared for their livestock and performed tasks around the house. He says he was also subjected to regular beatings.

Eventually, Nasir’s maternal uncle intervened. He sold a piece of land to pay a smuggler to take Nasir to Germany; the 11-year-old says the price was $4,500. “Go and find a better life,” the boy recalls his uncle saying as he put Nasir in a smuggler’s car headed to the Iranian border. His one companion on the trip was another boy from the village, 13-year-old Navid.

Last year, 23,150 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in European Union countries, nearly double the number from 2013, according to the E.U.’s office of statistics, Eurostat. In Germany, which has received more asylum applications than any other E.U. country, 7,428 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum from January through September. Most of the applicants are boys, and more are from Afghanistan than any other country.

Nasir tries to figure out if a pair of pants he found at a distribution center will fit him.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America

Families often pay smugglers to take their children in hopes that the young people will find jobs and send money home or take advantage of family reunification provisions for asylum seekers. In E.U. countries, parents and sometimes siblings can travel legally to join children who’ve been granted asylum, though the process is often lengthy.

“They are feeling really strong pressure from their relatives,” says Rados Djurovic, director of the Asylum Protection Center in Belgrade, which works with unaccompanied minors. Children who receive help from his group sometimes receive phone calls from family members back home who chide the young people for taking so long to complete their journey, he says.

Nasir says he wants to repay his maternal uncle, but he doesn’t feel obligated to do so. When Nasir arrived in Serbia, the smuggler let him speak to his uncle on the telephone for the first time since leaving Afghanistan. His uncle asked if he had warm clothes, Nasir says. “I told him that I hope I will arrive soon and that I will learn, work and try step by step to send money back to him because he helped me. But he said to me, ‘Go, live and work. Take care about yourself and your life, and don’t worry about the money for me.’ ”

Before Nasir left home, the only countries he knew of were Afghanistan and its immediate neighbors. He had no idea how difficult the journey would be. But for the most part, he says, he was treated well. His main complaint was the lack of food on the journey, typically just a piece of bread each day.

He’s luckier than some, says Jelena Hrnjak, program manager with Atina, an organization in Belgrade that assists victims of human trafficking. She says her organization has worked with a handful of refugee children who have been sexually exploited by smugglers.

Children who run out of money or become separated from their group are at greatest risk, Hrnjak says. In some cases, smugglers agree to take children only in return for sexual favors or on the condition that children repay the smugglers after arriving at their destination, which often means they are coerced into joining criminal gangs.

Nasir holds a packet of biscuits he received at the distribution center.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America

Nasir’s uncle paid for the boy’s passage all the way to Germany, so there’s little chance he’ll be stuck in Belgrade. But he’s dependent on this multicountry network of smugglers: Nasir lost the piece of paper on which he’d written his maternal uncle’s phone number, so he has no way of contacting his family without the smugglers’ help. Since the smuggler who took Nasir through Bulgaria left him in the Belgrade park, the boy has been waiting for the next agent to find him.

Nasir spends his time with Navid and Yousef, a 9-year-old from eastern Laghman province who he and Navid met in the park the previous day. All the boys are orphans; both Navid and Yousef say their parents were killed by the Taliban. The armed group forcefully recruited Yousef after shooting his parents to death, he says, but he escaped after three days.

Yousef is almost a foot shorter than Nasir and Navid. He wears three thin jackets layered on top of one another. The boys bicker playfully about whether the next leg of their journey will be difficult. Yousef expresses concern, and Nasir tells him to be quiet. Navid puts on a brave front. “We are Afghan mountain boys,” he says. “This is nothing for us.”

When the boys head to a center where volunteers are handing out food and clothes, they look through the contents of the bag they were given — bread, cookies, toiletries and a razor. Nasir holds up the razor, laughing. None of them have begun to shave.

Nasir's friend Yousef, 9.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America
Nasir and Navid, 13.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America

Although all the boys registered with the Serbian police and say they gave their true ages, none were offered a guardian or the special housing that the country is legally bound to provide.

Many countries do not seem to be identifying or protecting children traveling alone. While more than 234,000 refugees arrived in Greece between January and August of this year, only 831 unaccompanied minors were referred to Greece’s National Centre for Social Solidarity for accommodation. In Serbia, 5,755 children have registered with police so far this year, Djurovic says. But the country’s Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs, which runs centers for unaccompanied children, says that just 63 children have registered in those shelters. Forty-three departed after only a few days.  

Children often try to avoid detection, telling authorities they’re 18 because they fear being detained or delayed. In an email, Nenad Ivanisevic, the Serbian Labor Ministry’s State Secretary for International Cooperation, wrote that the Ministry had acted on every request to protect an unaccompanied minor. To find unaccompanied minors, they send social workers to centers where refugees are registered, he wrote, adding that many youths don’t want to be identified.

Nasir waits on the bus that will take him to the Croatian border.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America

Djurovic says that police need to do a better job of recognizing unaccompanied minors and escorting them to asylum centers, which can be up to 200 miles away. But amid the influx of people, police don’t have the capacity to do so — they don’t even have enough interpreters to communicate with the children, he said.

His organization has already provided medical, legal and psychosocial support to 175 unaccompanied minors this year, but “we are just touching the peak of the iceberg,” he said. “Most of these kids never enter the asylum system, they never reach us.”

As countries confront the growing challenge of trying to protect minors, they need to get more creative and flexible, says Michael Bochenek, senior counsel to the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. He says that the current influx of children staying for short stints in particular countries is “new territory.” “At a minimum, “they have to ensure that the kids can pass through safely and they’re afforded the kind of protection they need from exploitation and violence and other risks.” How to accomplish that, he says, is an “evolving question.”

Nasir waits in line with other refugees to cross into Croatia.
Alessio Romenzi / Cesura for Al Jazeera America

On his third day in Belgrade, Nasir receives word that it’s time to leave. He’s at the volunteer center with Navid getting breakfast when Yousef arrives, breathless, to inform them that their smuggler has appeared.

The smuggler, a Pakistani man, gives them tickets for a bus to the Croatian border. With a journalist watching, he treats them warmly, giving Nasir a hug as they walk to the bus. Nasir carries few belongings, just a fluorescent green fleece blanket and an extra shirt he picked up at the volunteer center. Navid wears flimsy shoes without socks, ill-prepared for the deep mud they will have to trek through at the border. They have little idea how many countries are left to cross or how long it will take. The boys board the bus, alone except for each other.