Millions of Afghan children are not in school: Aid group says

KABUL: Nearly a third of all children in war-torn Afghanistan are unable to attend school, leaving them at increased risk of child labor, recruitment by armed groups, early marriage and other forms of exploitation, an aid group said Thursday.

Save the Children said more than 400,000 Afghan children are expected to drop out of school this year due to growing instability and the forcible return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan, adding to the 3.7 million already out of school.

More than 600,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan in 2016 and around one million more are expected in 2017 after the tightening of regulations by authorities there.

Save the Children said that over half of all returnee children do not attend school, often working on the streets because their parents cannot find jobs. Afghanistan has been mired in a growing economic crisis as the Taliban have expanded their reach. Economic aid has meanwhile dwindled alongside the Western military drawdown in recent years.

"My father sells ice-cream and my brother sells plastic bags, so we only earn a little bit of money to eat," Jahangeer, an 11-year-old who returned with his family six months ago, told The Associated Press. "What I can do? I can't go to school."

The boy, who like many Afghans has just one name, pushes an ice-cream cart alongside his father in Kabul. As the current school year begins, he says he wishes he could attend classes.

"Today should be a happy day in Afghanistan, as children go back to class for the first time after a long winter," said Ana Locsin, the country director for Save the Children.

"Instead it is a day cloaked in tragedy for the millions who can't access education and are struggling to survive."