With increasing concerns about child trafficking in post-conflict Afghanistan, local human rights bodies and the United Nations have started a countrywide awareness-raising campaign in a bid to sensitise government officials, local police, religious leaders and parents about the existence and consequences of the problem.
Reports by international organisations and local think-tanks suggest that Afghanistan remains an important source country for human trafficking, and it appears that a large number of the victims of this phenomenon are children.
According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), human trafficking - particularly child kidnapping and abduction - were identified as one of the most serious rights violations in recent months in Afghanistan, despite improvements in the situation of children in the war-weary country.
"Taking the number of kidnapped or abducted children in the last five months into consideration, AIHRC thought that this issue should be taken more seriously and launched a public awareness raising campaign to sensitise the public and the authorities," Nader Naderi, a commissioner of AIHRC, told IRIN.
AIHRC said that although exact figures were hard to come by, in the last five months of 2003 over 300 complaints had been received from the families of children who had disappeared. "The commission is aware that many children are flown to Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, for labour purposes," the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said on Sunday, quoting AIHRC.
A recent report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 'Trafficking in Persons', released earlier this month, stated that there were many forms of human trafficking practised in Afghanistan including the exploitation of prostitutes, forced labour, slavery and practices similar to slavery, servitude and the removal of body organs.
Trafficking in Afghanistan can be attributed to many factors, including a longstanding conflict, lack of internal security, poverty and poor socio-economic opportunities.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) told IRIN that most of the children in Afghanistan were trafficked for the purposes of labour, mostly to neighbouring countries. "From the information we have, children have been abducted from their communities mostly for the purposes of child labour in neighbouring countries," said Edward Carwardine, a UNICEF spokesman. However, Carwardine said child trafficking in Afghanistan was not on a higher scale than other countries in the region, "but it remains a concern".
UNICEF said under "child well-being committees" the agency had launched a programme in the northern provinces where most of the child trafficking cases had been seen so far. The programme aims to identify the specific needs of children and to assist communities to develop projects and services for children. "A child who is valued by its community, and which has access to positive and constructive opportunities such as education, training and employment is less likely to become a target for child traffickers," he noted.
AIHRC said the awareness campaign would educate the families to be careful not to hand over their children to a smuggler and also called on the government to provide the poorest families with job opportunities. "Poverty is the great challenge in this campaign as often families give their children to smugglers even if they know the consequences," Naderi noted.
According to a member of the Afghan Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the Afghan government was also concerned with the issue of child trafficking and that a newly established multi-ministerial commission had been set up to look at the issue more seriously.
"Besides the drug mafia, child trafficking is proving now to be another difficult issue for the fledging state institutions to address," the 45 year-old civil servant, who declined to be named, told IRIN.