At a dusty border crossing known as Zero Point, a group of tired teenage boys are queueing to get back into their own country. They are crossing from Iran, where they have been working as labourers, into Afghanistan.
With US sanctions biting, the Iranian economy is in collapse, and hundreds of thousands of workers are being forced back across the border, including busloads of vulnerable and unaccompanied children.
Every day at the town of Islam Qala, Iranian authorities transport at least one bus of unaccompanied minors before they are met by authorities on the Afghan side.
These children have been living a precarious existence in Iran as undocumented workers, often in the construction industry.
But it was an existence that was likely extremely important to their families’ economic situation – and, summed together, to the economy of Afghanistan.
On some estimates, as much as 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the income of rural Afghan communities comes from remittance payments sent from Iran – usually males who have travelled by themselves across the border.
The World Bank says Iranian remittances make up around 6 per cent of the Afghan economy.
But it was only in 2016 that a program started to help children and teenagers deposited at the border make their way back to their Afghan families.
“Before this program there were reports of children being abused in different forms basically, sexually as well as physical abuse on the way from the Islam Qala border to Herat City,” said Farzan Hussaini, a child protection officer in charge of the western region for UNICEF.
Herat is the closest major Afghan city to Islam Qala – about a two-hour drive. It is a perilous journey if unaccompanied.
“We received complaints from Herat police department that there were a high number of children in the hotels, staying in the hotels, and these traffickers were still with them, and they were abusing them in the hotels,” said Mr Hussaini.
There were also rumours, though unconfirmed, that unaccompanied children had been recruited by the Taliban, he said.
In response, and in part because of requests from Afghan police, UNICEF and the non-government War Child UK set up a repatriation program for deported youth.
On a visit last week to Islam Qala and Zero Point, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age spoke with minors returning from Iran – typically teenagers around the age of 15.
The teenagers were exhausted from their treatment at the hands of Iranian border authorities. On baking hot days, they had been squeezed into overcrowded minibuses. Some, including Abdul Mohammad, 15, said they would not return to Iran – the process of deportation had been too traumatic.
Mohammad had spent around 10 months in Iran as a daily wage worker, mostly digging wells, and earned about $400. But he had spent most of that, largely on repaying smugglers who got him into the country.
Another boy, Asdullah, left for Iran because of conflict in his home province of Faria. “We had some sheep back at home but the Taliban came and took them all,” said Asdullah. “If there’s fighting you can’t find work.”
Babur Islami, 15, had worked in construction in Iran, but would now return to Faria. Another teenager, Mohammed, 18, broke his arm on an Iranian construction site. He did not get paid for the last couple of months he was in Iran, yet said he would have to return to the country if he could not find work in Afghanistan.
“My father’s so old and I’m the eldest in the family among our five siblings,” he said.
From Islam Qala, the program run by UNICEF and War Child buses unaccompanied children to a transit centre in Herat. From this centre, social workers attempt to connect the children or teenagers to their families, and then accompany them on their journey home. Children typically spend about three days in the transit centre.
Ahmed Nazari, 17, was an exception. He has lived in the transit centre for three months because he had no Afghan relatives to which he could be returned.
Nazari was living in Iran with an Iranian mother and an Afghan father who had since died, and he wanted to return to Iran.
Unfortunately, his mother could not be contacted.
The number of unaccompanied minors returning from Iran has slowed compared to 2018. That is in the context of a major decline in the Iranian economy and currency, largely attributable to US sanctions. Since January, more than 214,000 Afghans have returned from Iran, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Jacob Saulwick and Kate Geraghty travelled to Afghanistan with the assistance of UNICEF. Readers can make donations here online at www.unicef.org.au/afghanistan or by phone on 1300 884 233.
Jacob Saulwick is City Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Kate Geraghty is a photojournalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She has won multiple awards including the Gold Walkley in 2017.