Samina, an eight-year-old Afghan girl, hasn’t been to school since she was forced to return home with her family from Pakistan.
She spends each day at a dusty, dirty brick kiln near the eastern city of Jalalabad, making bricks with her father to help repay the money the family borrowed to pay the truck driver who brought them across the border.
“I am eight years old. I make bricks with my father and younger brothers,” said Samina, when handed the phone by her father.
“We sleep here in this brick factory site at night and we work here during the day.”
Samina’s is one of thousands of Afghan families streaming back to their home country at unprecedented rates.
The flow of returnees from neighboring Iran and Pakistan this year, estimated by the U.N. to number more than half a million, is straining the capacity of the government and aid agencies to provide help as winter approaches.
Even as violence uproots more Afghans around the country, the returnees keep coming, many of them citing harassment by Pakistani authorities as relations between the two countries have deteriorated.
“The police hounded us in Pakistan, making life almost impossible. They would arrest Afghans on the streets or on work sites,” Samina’s father, Lalzaman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Lalzaman, his wife and five children are living at the brick factory in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
An undocumented refugee, Lalzaman spent 25 years in Pakistan after fleeing violence in his home country. He was working at a factory there and was happy with life, until the harassment of Pakistani police forced him to return home, he said.
“Our house here was destroyed in the years of war,” said Lalzaman, 50. “There is nothing left in our village to go back to.”
Aid officials in Pakistan encouraged Lalzaman to return to Afghanistan, saying he would receive an “incentive package” including cash, kitchen utensils and food.
But so far he says he has received nothing. He and his family are working as bonded laborers to pay back the 28,000 Pakistani rupees ($270) the brick factory paid the truck driver.
‘NO ONE GAVE US A PENNY’
“When we were in Pakistan, we were told that the (aid) money will be given to us in Torkham border crossing,” he said.
“When at Torkham, they said the money would be given once we were across the border. And when we got to the Afghan side, we were told that the money would be given to us once we reach Jalalabad. But no one gave us a penny.”
Ghulam Haidar Faqirzai, head of Nangarhar provincial department of refugees and repatriations, said returnee families would receive an allowance of 3,350 afghanis ($50) per person.
“The undocumented returnees who arrived in the past did not receive any help, because (my office) only just received 100 million afghanis ($1.5 million) from the ministry of refugees and repatriations in Kabul yesterday,” Faqirzai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Tuesday.
Because his family was not registered, they didn’t qualify for cash or other aid from U.N. agencies, Lalzaman said.
He accepted an offer from Akbar Khan, the secretary of a brick making firm, to pay his travel debts in return for labor.
“These poor families had nothing. If we didn’t provide them with money to pay for truck rent, they would have to sell their clothes to pay for it, and even then they couldn’t afford it,” Khan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. He denied he was exploiting the young workers.
“They are happy here, because they have a roof over their heads, a job that keeps them busy and pays well,” Khan said.
Lalzaman’s family, like 20 others living at the factory, work from dawn till dusk for a wage of 650 Pakistani rupees ($6). So far they have not repaid any of the debt.
“My eldest daughter (Samina) is a great help. She does everything from bringing water, to filling the mold and making the brick. The other children also assist us,” Lalzaman said.
Child labor is forbidden under Afghan law and under international treaties signed by Kabul. But Human Rights Watch estimates that at least a quarter of Afghan children between the ages of 5 and 14 work for a living or to help their families.
They weave carpets at home, work in brick kilns as bonded labor, as tinsmiths and welders, in mines and in agriculture.
“I would love to go to school and play with other girls,” said Samina. “But if I go to school who is going to work with my father?”