In the worst refugee crisis since World War II, Afghans—including unaccompanied children—comprise the second-largest group of asylum-seekers after Syrians.

“Here he is, this is the youngest boy in our group”, yelled a group of Afghan teenage asylum seekers camped in Belgrade’s Bristol Park. A ten-year old boy dressed in faded jeans limped across the park before sitting down. “My name is Zmarak, I am here alone and I do not know if my parents are dead or alive in Afghanistan”, he softly said. Pointing to his leg, he explained he injured it while running away from Bulgarian police. He only made it to Belgrade after a friend carried him on his back for three days, walking across Bulgaria into Serbia.

2015 will go down in the annals of history as being the year of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that over 520,000 asylum seekers have reached Europe by sea this year. It has been a year defined by deaths in the Mediterranean, sadly including children, with close to 3,000 people dying or still missing. Images of asylum seekers gathering in the thousands at border crossings have dominated media footage, as have reports about European countries struggling to agree on how to respond to this mass arrival of people.

While Syrians make up over half of those seeking asylum, the second largest group are those from Afghanistan. This is not surprising when UNHCR reports there are 3.7 million Afghans of concern globally. Their applications for asylum in Europe continue to rise. UNHCR believes that around 80,000 Afghans applied for asylum in the first half of 2015. A three-fold increase, when the year before the number of asylum applications was 24,000.

There are a number of reasons why Afghans have been leaving their country in large numbers. The substantial withdrawal of international forces has been followed by a deterioration of the security situation in various parts of Afghanistan. Groups such as ethnic Hazaras, targeted with genocidal ferocity in the late 1990s, fear a substantial resumption of such massacres. Furthermore, with international attention focused on Iraq and Syria, the Taliban have seized the opportunity to move against targets in provinces such as Kunduz, which the Taliban had vowed in 2008 to turn into “the Kandahar of the North”. More and more people from the vicinity of Kunduz are appearing in refugee populations. An additional complication has been the appearance in eastern Afghanistan of Islamic State (IS) groups that ironically have chosen to strike at Taliban supporters.

Added to these push factors are two other influences of significance. One is that Pakistan and Afghanistan are increasingly inhospitable destinations for Afghan refugees to choose. The other is that the “success” of Australia’s Abbott government in “stopping the boats” has affected the routes of egress that are available for refugees. This has played directly into the hands of European people smugglers who have capitalized upon this business opportunity.

Unaccompanied and separated children (UASC), similar to Zmarak and his friends are amongst those fleeing Afghanistan. UNHCR reported that Afghans comprise the highest number of UASC seeking asylum in Europe in 2014 with Sweden and Germany being the main destinations for protection. No official data exist yet on Afghan UASC asylum applications in Europe for 2015. However, Eurostat statistics from 2014 reveal over 5,800 Afghan UASC made asylum claims in Europe. With Afghan asylum claims tripling this year, the number of unaccompanied Afghan children in Europe by the end of 2015 will be significant.

According to the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, the majority of Afghan unaccompanied minors are boys aged between 13 to 17 years. The issue of teenage boys fleeing Afghanistan is not something new and since the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s, teenage boys have sought protection abroad. The reason for this is straightforward, although often not properly understood. Amongst those who flee natural disaster, women and children tend to figure in large numbers. Recent research, however, has highlighted the way in which conflict formations create particular risks for young men of military age. It is no surprise that so many victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War were of this kind. All too often dismissed as “economic migrants”, young men of military age are targeted because they are seen as those who will carry forward the identity of the community under attack. Sometimes they even risk being forcibly conscripted into the front line so that their persecutors avoid incoming fire.

Sitting close to Zmarak is fifteen year old Ahmad. He says “look at my arm”, as he rolls up his shirtsleeve, revealing  a brutal scar. “The Taliban told me I should join them. I refused and for that they beat me.” Seventeen-year old Amir tells a similar story where the Taliban in the province of Kunduz tried to coerce him to join them and he refused. He has lost all movement in his middle finger after he was beaten. Several Afghan boys from the same area of Kunduz as Amir reiterated their fear of being persecuted by the Taliban. Their concerns proved to be legitimate. On 28 September 2015, only a week after one of the authors met them, the Taliban attacked Kunduz city. Media reports initially described it as a major win for the Taliban, certainly the group’s biggest success since the demise of its regime in 2001. After fifteen days of heavy fighting the Taliban were driven from the city, but not before Amnesty International had recorded harrowing accounts of “Mass murder, gang rapes and house-to-house searches by Taliban death squads”.

Barakat, a gaunt sixteen year old, talked about his father who worked as a police commander and his brother who had worked with the NATO Special Forces. He said the number of death threats made to his family by the Taliban escalated, and more frequently the message became that Barakat and his two brothers would “go missing soon”. This was the catalyst for the three of them heading to Europe. When they reached the border of Afghanistan and Iran, Junaid, the eldest brother turned back, becoming increasingly concerned about the remaining family in their village. Barakat and his other brother continued on before they were separated in Turkey. Barakat’s family has heard nothing of this brother since, and they fear that something tragic might have happened to him when leaving Turkey for Greece. On September 29, the day after the Taliban took Kunduz, one of the authors spoke with Junaid from Afghanistan. Gunshots echoed in the background, his voice shaky as he said he did not know if he and his family would be alive the following morning. He also stated that Barakat could never return as the situation was dire.

For those children who manage to escape Afghanistan’s ongoing war, their troubles are far from over when they begin the perilous journey to Europe. Most Afghans exit their homeland via Iran. While Iran has a history of offering refuge to millions of Afghan refugees, the current situation on the Afghan-Iranian border is concerning. Boys gave accounts of Iranian border authorities shooting Afghans when it was believed they had entered the country without authorization. When remembering his friend who was shot, one young boy sadly said “he was finished”. Those asylum seekers who do make it through Iran arrive in Turkey. Here, they cross the Mediterranean to Greece. If they survive the boat journey, the next stage is entering either Macedonia or Bulgaria, then crossing into Serbia before heading north to Hungary, Austria, and, for many, Germany as a final destination.

Irregular travel places children in precarious situations, a risk of which many are aware before departing their homeland. However, for most they would rather “die trying” than stay in Afghanistan. During Zmarak’s transit through Bulgaria, local police harassed him. The police, who unleashed their dogs on the group, also beat his friends. Their money and mobile phones were stolen. The group were imprisoned for ten days. Zmarak, visibly upset, said “I’m crying in the prison, they gave me no food”. Another boy recalled, “It was very dirty, no toilets, we had to urinate in a bottle.” On October 15, an Afghan asylum seeker was shot dead while trying to enter Bulgaria.

For most asylum seekers, Serbia has served as a transit point and often a place of brief respite before continuing their journey. From January to September 2015, Serbia saw over 100,000 people register their intention to apply for asylum in Europe. According to the UNHCR, over 20,000 Afghans were amongst these registrations. Serbia has struggled to deal with the surge in numbers, particularly over the last few months. During August alone, registrations rose to 38,000 people, which included 5,616 Afghans.

Zmarak and his friends have been living rough, relying on the charity of Serbians while forming their own support networks amongst other asylum seeker children. “We look after Zmarak. When people [volunteers] bring food to the park, we get it for him as he cannot walk properly”, said one of his friends. In the past few months, Serbia’s parks, train and bus stations have become ad hoc refugee camps. This has included Bristol Park, a place renowned for prostitution that locals refer to as pica park, meaning ‘pussy park’ in English. Jalal, who had also travelled with Zmarak, explained that around fifteen friends live in his “room” as he pointed to a small grassy patch with a few wicker mats and blankets scattered under the minimal shelter of a tree.

Asylum seekers have praised the warmth of Serbian hospitality and constantly said, “Serbs are good people”. Given the wars of the 1990s, its ordinary people are still rebuilding their own lives while the country lacks the infrastructure to support asylum seekers. The average monthly salary is around 300 euros; nonetheless, Serbs have been determined to do what they can for asylum seekers. This is evident a few streets from Bristol Park, where a steady flow of asylum seekers make their way to Miksaliste, an emergency distribution aid center set up by several local NGOs in August 2015. Here, asylum seekers find clothing and shoes donated by locals. Palettes of water bottles and personal hygiene products dominate the yard’s perimeter. Volunteer Serbians serve hot soup and beverages for asylum seekers to drink while they charge their mobile phones on power sockets provided.

Nenad Popovic, a coordinator at Miksaliste has been extremely busy since the center opened. It is midday Saturday and his phone had already rung fifteen times that morning. The day before, he and his colleagues took over 7,000 euros’ worth of aid to the border of Serbia and Croatia, where thousands of asylum seekers were crossing into Hungary. He believes Serbians are proactive in supporting asylum seekers simply because of “humanity”. “They are in this situation but we could be in this situation in any given time. If we were in this situation we would want someone to ease our pain and suffering.” He continued, “Most people who were against it, once they meet them [asylum seekers] the barriers fell down and they are receptive.… [It’s] just a case of meeting them and seeing that they are good people and to help them out.”

North of Belgrade, through endless cornfields and rolling hills, is the quaint city of Subotica. It is a four-hour train ride from the capital and is known for its candy colored art nouveau buildings that populate the city center. For asylum seekers, this is one of the last stops in Serbia before crossing the border into Hungary. While thousands of asylum seekers in recent months transited this small city, by mid-September asylum seekers had almost disappeared.

On 15 September, the Hungarian government declared a state of emergency and passed laws through the parliament to prevent asylum seekers from entering. It erected a four-meter razor wire fence that runs 175 kilometers along the Serbian-Hungarian border. With the news that no one could enter into Hungary (via the town of Röszke) from the Serbian side of the border, asylum seeker protests broke out. Some tried to push through the fence gate and Hungarian police released tear gas and water cannons on them, with some sustaining injuries, including a four month-old baby exposed to tear gas. Over 150 asylum seekers were arrested when they crossed into Hungary for entering “illegally” and are now facing court cases. Memories of the generosity that other countries showed to Hungarian refugees after Soviet tanks crushed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution seem to have faded in some circles in Budapest.

At one of Subotica’s hotels, the receptionist comments that locals thought that all the asylum seekers had left after the protests: “We thought they had all gone but yesterday there were around fifty of them at the bus station and we aren’t really sure what they were doing since the border has shut.”

Outside Subotica’s bus station six Afghan teenagers sat on a blanket playing cards while another two boys squeezed inside a small decrepit tent punctured with holes. Most of them had fled Kunduz. The bus station had served as temporary campsite for almost a week while they tried to figure out their next move. Their time in Subotica had been tumultuous. Cold nights meant little sleep. They had one blanket between the eight of them. Local gangs targeted the group during the night. One boy had slash marks in his jumper from where he narrowly missed being knifed in the stomach. Fights between different ethnic groups (of asylum seekers) had not been uncommon either as tensions grew with the stress of an unclear future for all.

With no one to take care of these boys while in flight, there is little choice other than to grow up quickly. Their demeanors had an edge of maturity that one assumes had only come about through managing to survive the passage through numerous countries, which for the most part involved living “on the streets”. While these boys left their childhoods behind when seeking protection, there was still an underlying childlike innocence within them. They had the same concerns, interests, and dreams as most teenagers. One boy complained about acne on his face. Another spoke of his goal to attend school in Germany so he could be an engineer. They all confirmed that Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo was their favorite football player.

By early September, the closing of border crossings meant asylum seekers needed to contemplate their planned journeys. For these boys camped at the bus stop their arrival was a week too late. They spoke about the recently-erected fence, which they referred to as sim-e khaardar bland, meaning in Dari “the high fence”. “Some of our friends were injured after sim-e khaardar bland was built and the border shut”, said one boy. He continued, “Now, we are not really sure what to do. We will wait here and maybe it will open again.”

While places such as Miksaliste represent Serbia’s warmth and hospitality towards those in need, sim-e khaardar symbolises Hungary’s harsh, cold message that asylum seekers, including children, are not welcome. The fence is visible at Röszke and Kelebia, two border crossings between Serbia and Hungary. Border police will not let anyone get too close to photograph it unless they have prior authorization from Serbian government.

Once Röszke had reopened on September 19 the news spread quickly. The day after, the number of boys at the bus stop had halved. During the night, some had decided to walk over twenty kilometers to the crossing. The remaining boys were confused what to do as they had run out of money and were suspicious about how Hungarian authorities might respond to them. Locals passing by stopped and suggested that the boys go to Kanjiza, an aid point where there were tents and food. However, these boys thought staying near the bus station was the better option so they could move “quickly” if a new plan for making into a more welcoming part of Europe eventuated. Not staying in one place for long while on the path to asylum was a characteristic of how many UASCs responded during flight. For example, at Krnjaca asylum seeker camp, a mere 15 minutes’ drive from Belgrade’s city center, a coordinator said that most teenagers did not want to stay at this camp because they think it “slows them down”. For those that did stay there it was not for long, with smugglers sending taxis to pick up unaccompanied children and take them to their next destination.

The week the fighting began in Kunduz, and not long after one of the authors spoke with Junaid, Barakat called from Germany. With Hungary not being an option, he had crossed through the Serbian-Croatian border and then passed through Slovenia and Austria. He had registered with German authorities and applied for asylum, a process which in most Western countries is long-winded and difficult for adults, let alone children, to navigate. He was happy to have made it to Germany but still he was worried for his family. Some family members had fled to Kabul while others had stayed behind. Kunduz residents were running out of food and water while dead bodies lined the streets. While Barakat made it to safety, many have not. As the fighting in Afghanistan continues and Taliban gain more power, it is utterly predictable that more Afghans will flee. Sadly, many of them will be unaccompanied children, like Zmarak and Barakat, whose own childhoods will be put on hold while they search for refuge and turn to us all with the hope that humanity will dictate how we respond to them.

The slide of Kunduz into mayhem and anarchy serves as a reminder of the extreme fluidity of the situation in Afghanistan, and of the danger of assuming that any part, of that country, including Kabul, is sufficiently stable that asylum seekers can be returned to it. Too often, decision-makers dealing with asylum applications from Afghans in Western countries have missed this point, rejecting claims—including those made by children—on the nonsensical notion that one can live safely in the capital city. When people’s lives are at risk, it is especially important to be cautious about assuming that the future will necessarily be brighter than the present. It is tempting to think that decision makers with access to “country information”, and to cables from diplomats operating from embassies in Kabul surrounded by sandbags and concrete barriers may have a good grasp of what the situation in Afghanistan is like on the ground. Sadly, it is often children like Zmarak or Barakat who prove to have the better grasp of what reality has to offer.