“They shoved 15 people into a Peugeot car. I was a skinny child and they put me under the seat. They also shoved four or five in the rear trunk. They said that there was an 80 to 90 percent chance of death. The driver drove very fast so the patrol car would not catch up with him.”
Chaman Ali is an Afghan teenager who, as a child, was smuggled into Iran to work so he could send money to his family. After an arduous and excruciating journey, he reached Tehran and began work. He became a child laborer, working at the ironworks factory in Varamin near Tehran. But he also became a victim of forced labor. His employers refused to pay his wages and, in the end, he returned to Afghanistan with only horrible memories.
I met Chaman Ali at a hostel in Kabul. It was in the winter of 2015-2016 that the dismal economy of Afghanistan forced him to seek work in Iran to help his destitute family. He traveled from Bamian in central Afghanistan to the southwestern province of Nimruz on the border with Iran, found a human trafficker and agreed to pay him 1.7 million tomans, worth over $290 at the time, to get him into Iran. The Nimruz border, however, was closed, and Iranian border patrols were everywhere. The other option was to go through Pakistan and the trafficker got the people who paid him, including Chaman Ali, to the border of Pakistan after a few hours of driving. The area is under the control of the Taliban and traffickers exploit it as a source of income by charging people a fee they call salahi before allowing them to cross the border.
Chaman Ali was lucky. He and his fellow travelers had to spend just one night in Pakistan. Under the cover of night, the traffickers got them to Iran through Moshkel Mountain on the border between Pakistan and Iran. He was a child at the time and cannot remember the places he crossed before reaching Tehran. He only remembers the thirst, hunger, insults and humiliation that traffickers inflicted on him and his fellow travelers.
He also remembers the friends of his who were taken hostage.“They put four of my friends into a Peugeot and told them they would take them through a ‘better route,’” Chaman Ali remembers. “But the traffickers were accomplices with the thieves. My friends called and said that they would reach Tehran two days after us. But when we reached Tehran they called and said traffickers had demanded three million tomans [US$504] from each of them. They asked whether our friends and acquaintances in Tehran could send them the money and gave us a cash card number. Our friends told them to surrender themselves to the police so that they would be returned to Afghanistan and they could find a new trafficker in Nimruz.”
Fear and Humiliation
Chaman Ali reached Tehran after a week and was taken to a dormitory owned by the traffickers. In the end, the illegal journey cost him more than two million tomans (US$340). Many Afghan children who are smuggled into Iran take longer to reach Tehran and, as IranWire has reported, many of them almost die of thirst and hunger along the way.
Iran does not end up being what these children have been led to expect. They are given difficult jobs at workshops and factories and are constantly insulted, sweared at and humiliated. They live in constant fear that the police will identify them and return them to Afghanistan. Chaman Ali says that it is not only Iranian employers who exploit Afghan workers and refuse to pay them their wages. Afghan employers based in Iran also exploit them, and it happened to him — his employer failed to pay his wages, as meager as they were.
When Chaman Ali reached Tehran he started working, first to pay back the trafficking expenses that he had borrowed from his friends and then to send money to his family. He and five of his friends worked at a Varamin ironworks factory for close to a year. “We had to do a very difficult and heavy job,” he says. “We were paid 12,000 [$2] for each ton of iron. My monthly wage was 1.6 million tomans [$270] but they treated us badly. We shared the same religion with them but they treated us like enemies. The employers were in cahoots with the police. We could not do anything. They threatened us and when we complained even a little bit, the police came to the doors of the factory. Then we stopped working and hid. Sometimes we escaped by going to the roof and jumping off it. ‘Dirty Afghan’ was what they always called us.”
After working in the factory for 11 months, he and his friends got another job and left. But their employer refused to pay their wages. “The unpaid wages for each one of us amounted to more than 1.5 million tomans [$250]," Chaman Ali told me. "When we left the factory our [former] employer said that he would write us a check but each month he would postpone it for another month. After a few months he finally wrote us a check. We gave the check to the money changer to cash it but, unfortunately, the police nabbed us and returned us to Afghanistan. And when the employer heard that we were in Afghanistan he stopped payment on the check. We called the money changer from Afghanistan and he told us that he could not cash the check.”
The teenager’s story is just one example of how Afghan child laborers suffer in Iran. It is an unhappy story, often made worse when these Afghan workers return to their home country empty-handed, with nothing but painful memories.
Traffickers Exploit Desperate Afghans Trying to Get to Iran, 27 November 2019
Afghan Workers in Iran are Abused and Exploited – But Relatively Safe, 26 November 2019
One Afghan Child’s Story of Crossing the Border, 9 May 2019
Smuggled Afghan Children Working as Street Peddlers, February 20, 2019
The Story of an Afghan Boy Trying to get to Iran, December 14, 2018
Iran’s Teenage Afghan Fighters, August 25, 2018
Who are the Main Victims of Human Trafficking in Iran?, July 23, 2018
Human Trafficking and Iranian Law, July 21, 2018
Why Is Iran the Chosen Pathway for Human Traffickers?, July 16, 2018
Child Trafficking by the Truckload, July 7, 2018