Guest post by Sahar Modares Mousavi and Ghazaal Bozorgmehr. Sahar has an MA in Gender Studies from CEU (2013) and an MA in Women Studies (2011) from Tehran University. Since the age of 18 she has been an activist for youth, women and children’s rights. She started volunteering in Nasserkhosro Child-House, a project of the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child in 2009. From 2014 until 2017 she was the head of the Nasserkhosro project and she is still cooperating with them as one of the members of the coordinating council. Ghazaal has an MA in English Literature from Beheshti University, Tehran (2005) and an MA in Women Studies from CEU (2014). She started volunteering at Nasserkhosro Child House in 2014. She has been working mostly as PR and she is now a member of the coordination council of this center. 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. The 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.

afghan children

Migration as a controversial topic has increasingly gained attention around the world. Iran has been one of the main migration destinations for people from various countries in the region. Afghan migrants comprise a large number of the displaced population which has fled to Iran. Even though this number is debatable, according to the 8th National Population and Housing Census in 2016, 46 percent of Afghan (un)documented migrants to Iran are children. They have either accompanied their parent(s) or -in the case of boys (girls are not allowed to migrate without family)- crossed the border to Iran unaccompanied with the help of smugglers in order to find jobs. In this post, we explore the life of this group of Afghan boys through their own narratives and our experience of working with them for a number of years.

Several years of interaction with Afghan boys, who have migrated to find work, as part of our involvement with the NGO ‘Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child’ helped us engage in and observe the complicated web of intercommunication of various participants that try to control/emancipate these children, such as local authorities, institutes promoting/demoting the International Convention of the Rights of the Child and even the children’s communities.

Our understanding of the lives of these children, before migrating to Iran, is based on their own narratives. Most of them come from non-urban areas; that is, small villages near the border with Iran, where the quality of life is very poor. Medical assistance and educational facilities are not available and most children are shepherds. According to some children the place where they live in Afghanistan is not even a village, but rather a gathering of tents in the desert. Some children have the experience of facing wolves and wild beasts when defending their cattle. Most of them suffer from malnutrition. Compounding matters, Afghanistan is still facing an internal war -mostly based on ethnic conflicts. In many corners of the country the Taliban have power over people and their militia is fighting the governmental forces; fights which make the country unsafe for civilians. Considering the circumstances, it is no surprise that people living in this area consider migration.

Listening to these children’s stories, we have made a list of several important reasons why they decided to migrate. Few years ago, the first and most important reason that children mentioned was that there were no jobs where they lived and they traveled to Iran mainly to find a job and send money back to their family. Recently the value of Rial in Iran has dropped enormously and moving to Iran to find jobs seemed less logical to us. However, we noticed that children were still coming to the Child House even at a much younger age than they used to, at the age of seven or eight; in one case one of the former students who was around 16 years old now brought his 5-year-old brother! When we asked them why they continued to come to Iran in spite of the economic recession in the country, they mostly said they wanted to get proper education and that there are no schools where they come from, making education the second most important reason for these children’s migration to Iran.

In addition to the above, the civil war in Afghanistan is still going on. Almost every day the Taliban bring about a tragedy. Safety is compromised especially for women and children. As one of the boys studying at our center explained, in villages you are either with the Taliban or against them and if you are against them you are not safe. Many of the children’s close relatives were members of the Taliban. A worst-case scenario is when these children come from Shia families in which case, they are liable to double discrimination in some Afghan communities inside and outside Afghanistan.

Due to the proximity of Iran and Afghanistan, it comes as no surprise why these children seek refuge in Iran. Iran is the closest safe place where there are still jobs and education available and one does not need to worry about being shot dead.

However, this does not mean that Iran is a dreamland either. Iran signed the Convention for the Rights of the Child in 1994. According to the convention any person below 18, regardless of their nationality, religion, gender, etc. within the borders of a country must be provided for with free education, healthcare and safety by the government of that country. Iran has a long way to go to accomplish this goal. These undocumented migrant children receive no such social services. Most of them do not have an appropriate place to stay. They reside either at their workplace or in a rented room with several other children. If they are arrested, they are in danger of being deported, if not, they are not allowed into official schools and are not given any medical insurance. If they are in need of any medical care, they have to pay an exorbitant price. Few years back the laws were modified to allow all children into schools, including those without legal documentation. However, even then some school principals would not allow Afghan children into their schools just because of their nationality. Besides, the first and most important condition for accepting children at school was for one of their parents to be present in Iran; this excluded boys under our care from the plan. It has now been two years that this law has not been implemented. So for these children, who are here without their family, the only hope for education is NGOs, which continue to substitute the government in education provision. However, not all NGOs can cover the needs of these children because of their very special condition.

afghan children

The children that the Child House is dealing with are working roughly from 10 am to 7 pm or later and the only time they can allocate to studying is before 10 am. Although the labor law in Iran prohibits the employment of children under 15, there is no actual governmental supervision. Moreover, the reason families consent to these children’s migration is the money that they send back. So if they cannot work, they won’t be able to stay and continue studying either. As an NGO we have no authority over their employment and the only thing we can do is to make sure that the employer does not hurt the child. So, in order to be able to provide the children with some education, before the pandemic, the Child House would hold classes from 7:30 until 9:30 in the morning. To the best of our knowledge, this center is the only center in the proximity which provides such service. In spite of the fact that few needs of these children are met even in Iran, we noticed that, the number of children who tend to migrate at young age has not much decreased.

Were we in the dark to assume that these children were simply forced to take the dangerous road trip to Iran and come all the way to Tehran? What if there is an element of agency in the decision to migrate alone?

More inquiries revealed another side of the story. Many of these children come to Iran, and specifically to Tehran, to experience the independence and the charm of urban life which they had heard about from their relatives. Migration seemed to be giving them a certain level of autonomy, an authority over their own lives and the joy of living in a metropolitan. Things that they would not be able to experience at home. We began to notice that the children had formed communities of their own in Iran which gave them a certain agency in a seemingly oppressed situation.

In spite of all the charm Tehran has for these children, it is not a permanent place to stay. No matter how long they stay in Iran, according to the law only children born to Iranian fathers can gain Iranian citizenship. A law has passed recently allowing children born to Iranian women married to foreigners to also gain Iranian citizenship. However, this is a long legal process and has not been implemented yet. Even if these children manage to become documented migrants, they will always stay foreigners in this country and their resident permit needs to be extended regularly. That is why for many of these children Iran is a temporary residence. Most of them leave Iran for Europe and some go back to Afghanistan.

These children are at the intersection of several axes of injustice which keeps their situation dire both in Afghanistan and in Iran. They are working long hours to provide for their families at a very young age; their age makes them very vulnerable to violence and even sexual abuse; for some of them their religious and ethnic heritage can push them further to the margins even in their own society; they have no ID cards, which means they are not recognized or counted as citizens either in Afghanistan or in Iran. Above all, in Iran they are immigrants too. They are children workers who have migrated to Iran irregularly and are deprived of almost all social services provision.

You can watch a video about the lived experience of undocumented Afghan children in Iran here

Note: This post is a simplified summary of our experience with a particular group of young Afghan migrant workers with whom we have been working near the Bazaar area of Tehran. We do not intend to generalize this information to a broader group of people.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Modares Mousavi, S. and Bozorgmehr, G. (2020). Children on the Move: An Account of Afghan Children Workers in the Bazaar area of Tehran. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/12/children-move [date]