[ October 27th 2001 ]

Young refugees are forced to scavenge for a few pennies to help them survive. Covered with flies, Abdul picks his way barefoot through a stinking pile of rubbish on a street corner. He has been working since dawn and his hands and clothes are black with dirt. His left foot is bleeding from a splinter of glass.

A fortnight ago, the seven-year-old's family fled the US bombing of Afghanistan. Within days, he had joined the underclass of Afghan refugee children sent out to rummage through the rubbish tips of Quetta for food and scraps.

The boys, some only four, are on every street corner. They provide the city with an efficient rubbish separation service, depositing bottles, plastic containers and scrap metal at recycling depots, but earn less than 15p a day to take to their families in the refugee settlements on the outskirts of Quetta.

The street gangs are accepted in the city. Most come from families who are not officially registered as refugees and are not eligible to go to state schools.

"This is very much an invisible problem in Quetta, no-one is interested," said Zaman Khan, a volunteer social worker who runs the only facility in the city aimed at caring for the street rubbish workers. "These boys are neglected and vulnerable and forced to do this.

"The boys are illiterate and do not understand basic hygiene. We require them to wash their hands and faces when they come here, and for many of them it is the only time they will wash. A lot become involved in drugs, and we educate them about the dangers of heroin and other narcotics, but mostly we provide them with somewhere where they can escape."

The centre provides a basic education to the boys and has 188 children registered who all work in the rubbish tips around Quetta. In the past two weeks, another 15 boys have been added to the register, all from families who have arrived in Quetta after fleeing the bombs.

The centre opened a year ago and relies solely on foreign aid.

It was visited by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who played Lara Croft, a month before the 11 September attacks. She pledged to raise money to train the children in skills like carpet-weaving so they no longer have to pick rubbish.

Abdul has not yet been reached by the Oxfam Centre. He has been picking rubbish for the past few days and was shown how the system worked by older boys. Asked how long he thinks he will have to carry on this work, he shrugs: "It is a way to make money . I will do it as long as I have to."

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