As the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has come and gone, about 100 Afghan youth remain in United States government custody without their parents—the majority of whom are placed in shelters and other congregate care settings. These numbers reflect both the significant progress made in the release of hundreds of Afghan youths to sponsors during the last year, and the serious problems that still plague the system for unaccompanied minors.
Afghan children fled Afghanistan to seek safety and freedom, after being left behind their families and homes. Too many children experienced unimaginable traumas. Afghan children fled the Taliban’s brutal regime to seek safety and freedom. They have spent months living in highly structured settings that are not suited for complex trauma.
Over the past year we traveled across the nation to interview detained Afghan teenagers and hear their stories about the U.S. custody experience since the fall. One young man shared his harrowing journey from Kabul to Qatar to Michigan to New York; his fears that he and his Afghan “brothers” were being forgotten and that no one was working on their cases; his sadness that he could not speak to his family in Afghanistan more often; his frustration over not being able to go to a real school or be part of American life; and his feelings of complete isolation as he and the other Afghan youth often spent 23 hours a day in the same building, apparently due to rigid rules, staff shortages, and the cold New York winter.
This is a terrible story, yet it’s all too well-known. Federal immigration custody of children is a harsh environment for them. It often results in a system where they are not able to care for themselves and their families.
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As we have spoken with Afghan youth, we have consistently heard them describe regimented settings where children cannot leave the facility except for limited field trips, move around on their own or even visit other children’s rooms, hug one another, take a walk outside alone to get some fresh air, or possess a cell phone or other technology to be in touch with family and friends. One 17-year-old Afghan girl noted that “we feel like prisoners because they don’t let us take even one step outside our trajectory. We, girls, are quiet and try to obey the rules, but we need some room to breathe.”
Most children live with constant anxiety about the safety of their families in Afghanistan but face strict limits on how often they can speak with their families—often just two 10-minute phone calls per week. One 16-year-old Afghan boy said he participated in a hunger strike to secure more phone time, explaining “We were really struggling mentally with how little we were able to talk to our families. It really helps our mental health to be able to speak to our families and make sure that they are okay.”
Children’s hopes of continuing their education in the U.S. have also been frustrated. The classes offered are not for children who have been away from home for a year. Transferrable school credits are not available for children who have stayed longer. They often feel the curriculum is repetitive and boring. One 13-year-old Afghan boy expressed his deep desire to learn English and said, “I also want to be exposed to the outside world to learn about how to live outside this place. I came to the United States in hopes of making my life better, but I feel like I have wasted so much time here, and it is time for me to go to real school.”
It is not surprising that many Afghan children suffer from deteriorating mental well-being due to their prolonged stay in government custody. Numerous children were transferred to more severe psychiatric facilities because they could not receive the mental health care that was needed in their shelter environment. Children’s frustration and trauma can also manifest in what staff considers aggressive or defiant behavior, often leading to punitive action rather than solutions that address the root cause of distress. One 17-year-old Afghan boy told us, “I am worried they will keep me here until I go crazy and then they will send me to a mental institution.”
Afghan children and other youth in government custody who don’t have family in the U.S. desperately need placements in home-like settings through the ORR Long-Term Foster Care and the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) programs. As another Afghan girl who hopes to become a women’s rights lawyer expressed, “I just want to live with real people with real lives and go to school.” Yet neither foster care program has sufficient available placements to accommodate the number of eligible children, leaving children to remain on opaque waitlists for months on end, with no updates on if or when they will be placed. Contrary to popular belief, children who have suffered the greatest trauma and are most likely to be placed in Long-Term or URM foster care are less likely to get one.
It is possible and necessary to do more for children arriving without families. It serves nobody’s interest for children to deteriorate in shelters for months at government expense when they could be living with families, attending school, and building new futures in the community. Federal government should immediately invest heavily in Long-Term Foster care, URM placements, therapeutic family foster care and long-term foster. Failure to act now will result in children being kept in government custody while they can live in community with their family.
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