The Guardian, June 16, 2008
More smuggled children arrive in UK as Afghan violence escalates
Social workers fear many fall victim to exploitation
The number of Afghan children discovered being smuggled through Dover has risen dramatically in the last 12 months after a surge in violence between Taliban and Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Kent county council picked up 265 smuggled Afghan children between April 2007 and March 2008 - a 55% increase on the previous year. Close to half of all foreign children suspected of being trafficked or smuggled through Britain's busiest ports now come from Afghanistan.
Kent's reception facilities are full, mostly with Afghan boys fleeing violence, and one in five go missing after being taken into care. The authorities suspect they enter the hidden economy or fall into exploitation elsewhere in Britain.
Afghanistan is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and involuntary servitude.
US State Department Trafficking Report, June 12, 2007
Death threats from the Taliban and pressure to undertake suicide bombing missions are among the reasons for fleeing given by the Afghan children.
Speaking at a council reception centre in rural Kent, Khalid, the 17-year-old son of a Taliban farmer killed two years ago, explained that his brother threatened to kill him if he did not join the Taliban too.
"I was forced to leave Afghanistan because of pressure from my brother and other members of the Taliban to join their forces and take part in suicide bombings," he told the Guardian. "I was against the idea, but I had no choice. I had to run away."
The influx extends across south-east England, and the number of Afghan children discovered being smuggled through Suffolk's ports has doubled since 2006. The figures, which were released under the Freedom of Information Act, count only smuggled children who were detected. Countless others have slipped into the country unnoticed.
Kent county council's chief executive, Peter Gilroy, believes the influx of Afghan boys is clear a symptom of growing instability after six years of war in Afghanistan. "You can guaratee that when the numbers of Afghan children arriving here go up it is to do with an escalation in hostilities," he said.
According to figures due to be released by Human Rights Watch later this month, 1,633 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2007, up from 929 in 2006. As many as 950 were killed by the Taliban and 434 by Nato forces, including 321 in air strikes and 113 by ground forces, the organisation said.
Khalid's maternal uncle paid an agent to smuggle him to safety. He said he had not known his destination would be Britain until he arrived here. "I had a horrendous journey," he said. "We were forced to sleep out in the snow and it was really freezing cold in the woodlands in the mountains. The agents mainly fitted us in the backs of lorries. When we got to the channel we were told that after an hour or so we had to get out because then we would be in England. The lorry went on to the boat and that's how we got across."
Haroon, a 14-year-old Afghan, fled violence in Afghanistan, where he lived with his maternal uncle, and arrived in Kent three months ago. His journey involved travelling in the backs of lorries through Iran and Turkey and sometimes going without food or drink for several days.
IRIN: Sayed Ali said he had to sell his daughter to save the rest of his family from starvation.
Up to 18 million people in Afghanistan live on less than US$2 a day and are considered food-insecure, FAO says
"We were involved in a family feud left to us by our grandparents," he said. "They killed my mum, they killed my dad and they killed other members of family. Because of that specific reason I ran away to come here. It took me eight months to travel. I have lost my toenails, as you can see. It was really severe conditions because the agents used to threaten us with knives."
The agents are people smugglers who are paid between $1,000 and $10,000, depending on the level of safety they give the child on the journey, Kent officials believe. The boys are often told no more than that they will travel to Europe, and some have even less idea of their destination beyond neighbouring Iran. Karen Tatom, district manager for reception and assesment for Kent said the children arrive "at the very best hungry, at worst with broken limbs and serious scabies, bad enough for them to go to hospital".
Currently, one in five of the Afghan children who come into Kent's care disappear, although officials stress they often leave before the council has a chance to confirm that they are indeed children and not young adults. The reception centre in leafy west Kent is not secured, and when the Guardian visited, a 13-year-old boy who had arrived from, Peshawar on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, only 24 hours earlier was spotted on a mobile phone, arousing suspicions that he was arranging to be picked up at the gate. The children are free to play football in the grounds of the reception centre and there are piles of Afghan school textbooks and TVs in their rooms showing Indian or Afghan programmes.
"It matters to us [that they go missing]" said Bill Anderson, Kent's director of child social services. "These are young people who may be going off to somewhere they could be vulnerable. It ranges from social to economic and sexual exploitation, the same as other groups. I think the Afghans are probably the least vulnerable. They have the networks and contacts and they are an incredibly resilient group."
In total, 525 foreign asylum seeking children were taken into care in the county between last July and March this year - three times the rate of arrival of the previous three years.
Kent is among a group of local authorities calling on Whitehall to improve funding arrangements for the care of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum so they can reduce the number of children suspected of being trafficked or smuggled who go missing.
It is often hard to trace the smugglers, partly because the boys show them loyalty, according to Anderson. "We have a notion of these agents exploiting these kids, but a lot of these young people protect their agents because they see them as providing a valuable service," he said. "They sometimes see the agents the same way as shot-down pilots in the second world war saw resistance leaders who smuggled them over the border."
Among the 26 residents of Kent's reception centre are boys from Sierra Leone, Algeria, Iran and a group of Iraqis, including Sala, 16, from Kirkuk.
"Both my parents died and the terrorists tried to take advantage of me to get me involved in actions against my own country," Sala said. "I couldn't take such a step. That's why I was threatened and left. I was driven by car to the border with Turkey and then stayed in a flat there and then took four different lorries to get here. For the last time the agent fitted me just behind the axle in a box. I was in there for nine hours. It was so cold I couldn't keep awake. I am happy here but I am very worried about whether this country accepts my asylum claim. I hope they hear our voice and do something for us."
265 Afghan children found after being smuggled into Kent in the year to March 2008, representing a 55% increase on the previous year.
20% will go missing from care.
950 civilians killed in Taliban attacks in Afghanistan in 2007.
434 civilians killed in Nato attacks in Afghanistan in 2007, which is a 75% increase on the previous year.
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