Bilal Mohammadi sits protectively close to his younger brother Abdul in a large crowded hall filled with loud chatter from hundreds of Afghans surrounding them.
Most of the surrounding crowd at the refugee reception centre at Zero Point on the western borders of Afghanistan in Herat Province, comprises of Afghan men, women and child refugees, who just like the Mohammadi brothers, are being deported from Iran where they fled to escape increasing violence and poverty in their native Afghanistan.
“Our parents sent us to Iran to work. One of our uncle’s lives in Delijan and promised us work. I left first, and then arranged for my younger brother to follow,” says Bilal, 13, clutching a small bag of the only belongings they were able to grab when they were arrested.
Twelve-year-old Abdul also carries a large plastic bag, containing a blue synthetic mink blanket.
“It was 2am when the police broke into our room to arrest us. It was very cold so they let us bring the blanket along,” he says, the trauma of the detention process clearly audible in his soft voice.
The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates there are close to two million undocumented Afghan migrants in Iran.
The World Bank recorded a slump in Afghan economy in 2018, with the economic growth at an estimated 1.8 per cent. This in turn has also resulted in the record high unemployment, peaking at 30 per cent in 2018, International Labour Organisation figures found.
Over the past two years, the Iranian government has deported hundred thousands of Afghans who chose their western neighbour as an escape from growing insurgency, and in search of employment.
For many Afghan refugees, Iran is also seen as a viable route towards Europe.
In 2018, the IOM reported a massive spike in returns at nearly 770,000 returnees, compared with 466,303 returns in 2017. While this year the number is significantly lower, 250,000 people have been returned so far in 2019. IOM officials say the spike is die to Iran's own economic stress, sparked by the stranglehold of US sanctions, as well as changing political relations between Iran and Afghanistan.
In just one week during The National’s reporting in December, 5,487 Afghans were deported through the Islam Qala border crossing, on the western borders of Afghanistan in Herat province.
The Mohammadi brothers, who hail from Herat, a province close to Afghanistan’s western border with Iran, are among the 1760 unaccompanied minors who were sent back this year.
They narrate their ordeal to The National as they attempt to navigate their way through the Zero Point reception centre, located in a small area on the borders of Iran and Afghanistan, where the refugees are dropped off by Iranian authorities.
Bilal says his parents had “no option” but to send their young sons to Iran, paying smugglers AFN 10,000 (Dh467) for each boy to take them across the border.
“I entered from Nimruz province and my brother was smuggled from here in Islam Qala,” Bilal says, adding that their parents pooled their savings to make the trip.
“It was a difficult journey; we travelled in old cars and were made to walk for miles,” he recalls.
All arrivals at the Zero Point centre are provided with a hot meal, and helped to fill out forms to access support to reunite them with their families by humanitarian workers from organisations like War Child and UNICEF.
While in Iran, Bilal worked as a labourer in a stone quarry near Delijan city, while Abdul found work as a kitchen helper in a restaurant. They were in Iran for less than two months before they were caught and sent back.
Neither of them were paid for the work they did; part a surprisingly common scheme by unscrupulous employers to gain free labour.
“Employers make them work for the promise of payment at a later date, and when it is time to pay, they simply alert the police,” one of the aid workers, who wished to only be identified as Mr Rahimi, told The National.
“Sometimes, the police who detain these children also extort them for what little they have. Torture and abuse is not uncommon at these detention centres,” he adds, recalling the case of another 16-year-old boy who arrived at Zero Point a few weeks prior with gunshot wounds to his leg.
While the Mohammadi brothers were not physically harmed, they were handcuffed and imprisoned for ten days, they say.
When probed about their time in detention, both looked away quietly. “We were held for ten days. Today is the 11th day and our family still doesn’t know where we are. I have to find a way to reach my parents to let them know we are okay,” the Bilal says.
Then why, despite the risks and abuse, do so many Afghans send children and youth to Iran?
"In many families affected by the war, the young boys are the only breadwinners,” Shibara Siddique, case manager from the Afghan Human Rights Commission’s office at Zero Point, explained.
“For them, sending young boys not only saves them from the worsening security situation here but also enables them to earn a living to support the rest of the clan,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t be surprised if these boys tried to return to Iran once again.
Indeed, some of the other young deportees The National interviewed on that day, between the ages of 18 and 24 years, had spent most of their childhood making multiple attempts to Iran.
“My village is under Taliban control, who can kill me just for being from the Shia minority. There is no work there for me and I have five mouths to feed. What do you expect me to do?” a 24-year-old deportee who only identified as Ali, said.
Bilal and Abdul are pseudonyms to protect their safety.