Shimmying his trousers down a little, an Afghan father on the Taliban’s hit list exposed a torso pitted with shrapnel scars to justify an agonizing decision—entrusting his sons to traffickers smuggling migrants to Europe.
Young Afghan boys, such as Mohamed’s two teenage sons, are pouring into Europe in unprecedented numbers, becoming the new face of the migrant crisis that has convulsed the continent. Risking trafficking and sexual abuse on the migrant trail, unaccompanied children often sent by war-weary Afghan families pose a critical new challenge in the crisis.
“Suicide attacks, bombings and killings—my children deserve a life away from this carnage,” said Mohamed, lifting up his tunic and loosening his drawstrings to reveal deep lacerations. A public prosecutor in eastern Ghazni province distinguished for sending Taliban fighters to prison, Mohamed has been preparing for months to send two of his eight children, aged 14 and 17, with human smugglers to Germany. He narrowly survived two grenade attacks in recent years on his house in Kabul, its forecourt littered with concrete slabs pocked by shrapnel.
One of several threat letters he has received bearing the Taliban’s crossed-sabers emblem warns: “Next time we will kill you.” A letter from the Afghan intelligence bears another grave warning: his entire family, including his three daughters, are at risk of abduction.
That threat amplified after a Taliban jailbreak in Ghazni last September which freed hundreds of inmates, erasing years of work Mohamed put in to get many of them convicted. “My kids may get killed en route to Europe, but if they stay they will get killed,” Mohamed said, requesting that his last name be withheld. “Even if Europe seals its borders, trapping my sons in a no-man’s land, they will be in a safer place than Afghanistan.”
His predicament spotlights the anguished choices faced by Afghan civilians, increasingly caught in the crosshairs of a lethal insurgency. Markets and bus terminals are awash with people smugglers as Afghanistan witnesses an unprecedented exodus that appears unlikely to slow down despite an E.U. migration deal aimed at curbing the influx.
Unaccompanied minors—believed to have a better chance of asylum—are leading the outflow.
Many Afghans are selling their properties and homes to send male children with smugglers, often in the hope that a successful asylum application could pave the way for other family members.
Afghans are the largest migrant group entering Europe in the category of unaccompanied minors, while Syrians make up the largest number of adult asylum seekers. Sweden, a popular destination for minors, alone received around 24,000 Afghan child migrants in 2015, more than what all of Europe received in the previous year.
“You have to imagine the desperation that forces parents to make that impossible choice,” said Sarah Crowe, from the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF). “Only then can you understand why they send their own children on such a dangerous voyage, exposed to a litany of horrors.”
Two children drown every day on average trying to reach Europe, according to the U.N. And many thousands have gone missing in the human tide washing up on European shores, activists warn.
“Friends who have made it to Germany make impassioned pleas over Skype—‘Don’t come! Don’t risk your life! We are stuck in overcrowded shelters, Syrians are given priority over us’,” said Hamid, Mohamed’s 17-year-old son.
Recent Islamist attacks in Brussels and Paris are also likely to intensify anti-immigrant fervor and heighten the risk of deportation. “But really, what choice do we have?” said Hamid.
His Plan A is to fly to Turkey and head to Germany via Bulgaria, instead of Greece, where a string of border closures has left thousands of migrants stranded. A treacherous land route, Bulgaria recently saw the death of two women migrants in freezing conditions and several children in their group hospitalized for hypothermia.
His Plan B is to take the well-trodden route via Iran, where his friend was recently shot in the hand by a border guard.
Amid tightening controls, getting a European visa is a challenge—but the growing exodus has spawned a cottage industry of counterfeiters.
Picking his way through a teeming vegetable market in Kabul one morning, Hamid reached a travel agency tucked in a dingy alleyway. Sidling up to a salesman hunched behind a computer, he discreetly enquired about the possibility of getting a Turkish visa. “For single men $6,000, for family $4,000 each,” the salesman replied—a near insurmountable fee for most Afghans.
The price discrepancy, he explained, is because young bachelors often arouse suspicion of Islamist links. “How can I be sure the visa won’t be bogus?” Hamid asked. “You will get a 100 percent genuine visa,” the salesman snapped. “See for yourself at the border controls.”