Over a quarter million unaccompanied children arrived in Europe to seek asylum in the last ten years, according to European Commission data.
Arriving in a new country without the support of a family, how did this group of young people build a new life for themselves?
This is the story of one:
While Sam loves to tell the story of his personal odyssey, with himself portrayed as the clever hero, I learned that the end of his physical journey marked only the beginning of a much longer journey toward peace and belonging.
For years, Sam feared being deported at the end of each two or three year visa. To this day, Sam still has nightmares twice a week. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alongside 10 to 40 percent of resettled refugees.
“Do you ever have questions that you can’t find the answers to?” he asked. “I need to go back, I need to see everything again.”
When Sam received his permanent residence in the UK in 2016, I accompanied him with a camera as he retraced his path across the EU in 2017: We strolled through that Parisian park where he slept through Christmastime, and I cried behind the camera as he cried on camera at an unmarked grave site in Lesvos.
The more I listened to Sam’s stories, the more disillusioned I became at media portrayals of migration: Whose voice is heard and preserved in the news, and in history? And when those with lived experience of migration are interviewed for their tragic tales, you would never think that these sad, shadowy “migrants” could also be as funny as Sam.
And he is funny.
This story is seven years in the making: It seeks to preserve Sam’s story in his own voice, an intractably singular and personal account of the scars of war in Afghanistan and migration in 21st century Europe—to one boy, as he became a man.
My mouth is a fire escape.
The words coming out
Don’t care that they are naked.
There is something burning in here.
– Andrea Gibson, from “The Madness Vase”
In a mountainous town in Sar-e Pol province in Northern Afghanistan, a dramatic landscape of canyons and valleys carved by millennia of water, Sam’s childhood was spent tending to his family’s sheep and donkey, playing slingshots with his friends, and weekly trips to the market. Each spring, fields of poppies burst into vivid bloom.
“Red as far as the eye can see,” Sam sighs. To this day, it is one of his favourite colours. “It was so beautiful. But if I were there, I would have a gun by now. If I were alive.”
Terror from above
Growing up in a town without paved roads or regular electricity, Sam nevertheless learned to differentiate the steady hum of an airplane from the staccato whirring of a helicopter.
Airplanes were safe. Helicopters brought death.
Afghanistan is the most bombed country by American drones
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. pioneered the use of drone warfare.
Afghanistan has been by far the main target of fire, with 13,074 American airstrikes killing up to 10,076 people, including up to 909 civilians and 184 children, according to the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Tactical support for American drone strikes has relied on European allies, including intelligence on targets from the U.K. and Netherlands, and operational support for drone operations from the U.K., Germany, and Italy.
Many strikes have targeted public areas such as hospitals, schools, and homes, and fell on towns like Sam’s, leaving behind large civilian casualties.
November 4, 2015: U.S airstrike kills 30 civilians, including children and older men, and wounds 27, outside of Kunduz.
November 28, 2018: U.S. airstrike kills at least 30 civilians, including 16 children, in Helmand.
December 15, 2018: U.S. airstrike kills at least 20 civilians, including 12 children, in Kunar.
May 7, 2019: Coalition airstrikes kill at least 45 civilians in Farah, according to local officials.
September 18, 2019: U.S. airstrike kills 30 pine-nut farmers in Nangarhar.
January 8, 2020: U.S. airstrike kills or injures over 60 civilians in Herat.
August 9, 2021: U.S. airstrike on a family compound kills 10, including seven children and a driver.
Word spread in Sam’s town that the Taliban was coming as sectarian groups jostled for power in Afghanistan’s mountainous north.
The Taliban are especially known for violence against ethnic minorities, such as the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks of Sam's village.
All one thousand families in the village scattered to relatives’ homes and caves to seek shelter, while nine of the elders in the village stayed behind to negotiate with the militant group.
“They were the oldest, most respected men in our village,” explained Sam. “We called them ‘whitebeards.’”
Word came several days later of what had happened to their homes.
Violence is well-documented in Sam’s province of Sar-e Pol: In 2000, the Afghanistan Justice Project recorded five massacres of civilians in Gosfandi District by firing squad, 96 were confirmed killed. Mass arrests were made in Sam’s district of Sangcharak the same year, with 26 bodies found in a mass grave.
“Imagine if there were flowers for every person killed by violence in Afghanistan,” sighed Sam. “The whole country would be visible from space as a garden.”
With their homes demolished, and livestock burned in their stables, hundreds of families packed their belongings.
From the back of a pick-up truck loaded with dried grapes, Sam watched everything recede into the distance: The tree he dozed under when he took the sheep out to graze; the house of the old woman from whom he and his friends once hijacked a donkey from for a joyride (“That woman chased us with a stick! She was ready to beat the shit out of us!”).
He etched the mountain peaks into his memory to be reconstructed in dreams. And then, the passengers scattered into the wind. Today, some of his childhood neighbours are in other Afghan cities, many are in Iran, and every once in a while Sam hears about a childhood schoolmate who made it to Germany or Greece.
Sam sits years later on a worn ivory couch in London, tapping the end of a cigarette and watching ashes fall once more, this time into a small glass ashtray.
“I don’t know where my mother is buried. Somewhere in my village. To be honest… I don’t even remember her face anymore.” He exhales smoke.
“Sometimes I think, man, Afghanistan is home. I should have been born there, lived there, died there.” Sam’s eyes linger on a stain in the brown carpet.
Warm wind in the palm leaves, and I think of snow
In my distant province where things happened
That belong to another, inconceivable life.
The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And for me, now as then, it is too much.
There is too much world.
– Czeslaw Milosz, from “The Separate Notebooks”
After Sam’s village in Afghanistan was burned to the ground, hundreds fled to Iran, a neighbouring country with a shared language and religion.
Sam estimates that he was 11 years old when he arrived with his uncle’s family in the city of Qom, though he had never had a birth certificate nor official identification card.
“I never even had any documents in my own country,” said Sam.
Sam’s situation was common. Of the 3 million Afghans estimated by the UNHCR to reside in Iran, less than one in three (780,000) are officially recognized and given documents as refugees by the Iranian government.
Undocumented and underaged, Sam began working informally. Sam says he worked 15 hours a day, attended school four hours a day, and slept for two and a half hours a day.
The day began several hours before dawn, offloading fruit trucked in from the countryside before the vendors took to the streets in the morning.
“There were three or four trucks a day, each had 100 to 200 boxes, holding 10 tons a fruit. It took us from three in the morning until noon. I worked six days a week and made 120,000 rials, plus 1,000 a day in tips.” He adds, "You know when people call work 'backbreaking'? I really know what it means."
This came to less than 3 US dollars a day in pay, less than Iran’s legal minimum wage.
Nevertheless, Sam has fond memories of the hustle and bustle of a shisha shop where he worked in the afternoon from five until midnight, busing charcoal and chai for customers. When the police came in, the other workers hid Sam upstairs until the police were gone.
Right to public schooling
School! I even went to school back in Iran!” Sam’s eyes cloud over dreamily.
At noon, Sam would rush home to change clothes and then to school for lessons from one to five in the afternoon.
“What kind of school was it?”
“We couldn’t go to Iranian schools, so some older Afghan people in the neighborhood rented a house and turned it into a school. The tuition money wasn’t that much; I paid it myself.”
It wasn’t until 2015 that Iran passed a law allowing children to attend public schools regardless of documentation.
Globally, of 7.1 million refugees of school age, about half (3.7 million) of refugee children do not attend school.
Only 63 per cent of refugee children attend primary school, and 24 per cent attend secondary school, according to the UNHCR.
“School was my favorite part of the day. There were maybe 100 students, from age 7 to 18. We studied Quran, Farsi grammar, math, and the geography of Iran. I was always good at math!”
One day at school, a man from the police came and grabbed the wrist of another student.
“We didn’t see him for two or three months after that.”
“When he came back, he was a different person. He didn’t want to talk to anybody, just sat in a corner by himself. But we kept bothering him, and so eventually he told us.”
“The police tied him inside a grain sack with two cats and pushed him down the stairs. They tied heavy objects to his balls and made him do squats. They beat him with electric batons. They accused him of killing someone but let him out eventually because they couldn’t beat a confession out of him, and they had no real evidence.”
Several of Sam’s classmates had disappeared from school and returned with marks of torture. Another friend was taken by the police for over two months. “The day before they let him out, they handcuffed him to the bars of the cell and gave him one hundred lashes.”
“From his neck to his ankles, we couldn’t find an inch of flesh that wasn’t, you know, all swelled up, pink and white. My friend had a little more humour than the other guy. He just joked that he wouldn’t be able to sleep on his back for a while.”
Sam’s own close calls with the police also put him on edge. “The police got me once in Qom. Since I was so young, they put me in the back of their car without tying my hands.”
When the police car slowed down to go up a hill onto a highway, Sam knew this was his last chance. “I opened the door and jumped out, doing a roll like—what is it called—kung fu!—to take away the speed. And then I ran.”
Although difficult to confirm, viral videos often circulate on social media of Iranian police or military personnel beating and berating Afghan refugees or standing by as they are assaulted by crowds.
Such videos have sparked protests in Afghanistan against what is perceived to be rampant abuse at the hands of the Iranian public and the government.
An unattributed video (shown in this background) captured an event in which 57 Afghans trying to cross into Iran who were detained, questioned, beaten, and finally forced at gunpoint into a river by Iranian security forces in May 2020.
One survivor claimed that the guards were laughing as they jumped off the banks into the fast-flowing waters. Forty five drowned.
In a 124-page report on the treatment of Afghans in Iran titled “Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights,” Human Rights Watch raised concerns in 2015 about “physical abuse, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labour, and forced separation of families.”
Sam’s voice rises in pitch. “The second you open your mouth and your accent comes off your tongue, they know they can walk all over you. If an Afghan is being beat up by an Iranian in the street, other Iranians will come and kick, too.”
“We Afghans are like dogs in Iran,” said Sam.
“I wanted so much more from life”
Unable to receive a formal education, get a legal job, or own property under his own name, and living in fear of popular and police violence toward Afghans, Sam began to feel that he had limited prospects in Iran.
“I still wanted so much more from life, you know? I had to keep going.”
Saving a few hundred dollars over a year, he paid a smuggler to take him to Turkey. It was a journey that began with hundreds of other Afghans walking several days through the desert in western Iran.
“When I told my friends I was leaving to go to Europe, they laughed at me. First I had to cross through Turkey, and it’s not that easy.”
We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered.
– Tom Stoppard
Sam and a group of Afghans walked for two days through the desert toward the Iran-Turkey border.
The smugglers, and those who could afford to pay extra, sat on horses while Sam and others walked on foot.
Shortly after crossing, they were arrested by the Turkish police and taken to a detention centre.
Robbed by Turkish police
According to Turkish asylum law, authorities must turn over asylum seekers to immigration authorities within 48 hours.
However, the practice of Turkish border guards robbing, beating, and then violently pushing back asylum seekers is well documented.
Researchers from Human Rights Watch interviewed victims and witnesses involved in seven incidents at a Turkish border crossing to Syria. Between March and April 2016, Turkish border guards shot dead three asylum seekers (one man, one woman, and one 15-year-old boy) and one smuggler; beat to death one smuggler; shot and injured eight asylum seekers, including three children, aged 3, 5, and 9. They also severely assaulted six asylum seekers.
Lawyer and Van Bar Association member Mahmu Kacan sent graphic images to European media outlet InfoMigrants in February 2020 showing the blackened frostbitten fingers and toes of migrants in Van robbed by soldiers, deported, and left in the snow without their shoes, gloves, bags, and food. One photo shows a hospitalized Afghan child with bandaged hands. The previous winter, 26 frozen bodies were found on the border. After the snow melted in March, 12 more bodies were found.
Deported in a land mined desert
After three days in the detention facility, the police left the group at the border and pointed to the nearest Iranian town through the desert.
They police warned them not to stray from the path, as the area was known for undetonated land mines. It is estimated that 80,000 land mines remain on the Iran-Turkey border.
“I decided that wherever those two brothers went, I would go with them,” said Sam.
Of the 150 or so people, only ten decided to disregard the police's warnings and turn back and try again toward Turkey.
“Go home!” the brothers said to Sam. “We don’t know what’s going to happen ahead.”
Sam replied, “No! You don’t have to protect me! I’m coming! You won’t have to carry my bag, I’ll take care of myself.”
Running from bullets
The group of ten continued back toward Turkey.
“In our group, four or five of the people were cousins. One of them couldn’t walk properly, so we always had to wait for him. Waiting was dangerous, and we all knew it. After a while, his cousin started kicking him and swearing at him.”
On the first night, as the group walked on the side of the hill in darkness, they began to hear voices in the valley. “If they were the police, we would stand up and turn ourselves in. It’s always better to be caught by the police than somebody else.”
“But it was dark, so we couldn’t tell: Police or not? The voices came closer and closer. We saw that they were on horses. Finally, we were close enough to see that they had no police uniform. So we ran.”
“They started shooting at us. We ran for the top of the hill, hoping to get over the top so they couldn’t hit us. One bullet hit the dirt less than a metre from my feet. I ditched my backpack with all my food so I could run faster.”
The man with the limp was the first to be caught. “At first, not even his cousins stopped for him. Later, one of them ran back for him.”
“I hid behind a bush and looked backward. Three of our guys were on their knees and their hands were behind their heads. The guns were pointed against their skulls.”
“When I saw that, I started running again. I have no clue what happened to them—maybe they survived, maybe they didn’t. Either way, I’m sure they went through a lot of pain.”
Kidnappings by armed groups
“Who were they?” I asked Sam.
Sam’s face darkens. “Gangs. They slice your fingers, your ears, your nose, until they get money from your family.”
Sam received news that some other young men from his village returned to Iran after being held for ransom at the border. "One man had a metal rod stuck through his thigh. Another was in the hospital—he was only conscious for a few minutes at the time and could barely speak."
Although media reports are few, such stories about groups of criminals who kidnap migrants for ransom money along the Iran-Turkey border appear again and again in migrant testimonies.
The regional outlet Mesopotamia News Agency described the process in June 2022 after obtaining videos of torture:
“After the brutal torture, human smugglers send images to the families of refugees and request a ransom of 10 thousand dollars. The footage also shows how human smugglers cut off the ear of one of the refugees whose hands are tied behind his back with a knife. After images are sent to families, a ransom is paid to human smugglers and refugees are released.”
Similar videos often appear on social media but are difficult to verify, and the scale of such practices are unknown.
On the second night of walking, they saw Lake Van. The 3000-square-kilometre saline lake is Turkey’s largest.
“It was silver in the moonlight, surrounded by a ring of mountaintops,” sighed Sam. “There was a wooden house with a boat next to the water, and hundreds of white birds.”
“I thought: Such a beautiful place exists in the world, but under what conditions am I supposed to see this?”
Increasingly desperate measures
In 2016, after Turkey signed a deal with the EU to stop migrants from arriving in Europe, Turkish authorities increased their efforts, leading migrants to take ever more desperate measures to reach the city of Van.
In July 2020, 60 migrants drowned in Lake Van after a boat capsized. In another accident, in December 2019, seven drowned while 64 were rescued.
The Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM) has denounced Turkey’s measures, claiming they have effectively made the crossing more dangerous for migrants.
“We’ve seen their conditions, they are very tired and exploited by smugglers,” Metin Çorabatir, President of IGAM, told The Guardian in 2021. “They are injured on long walks, hungry, without water. They are being made to risk their lives unnecessarily.”
When Sam and the two brothers saw white flecks of sheep grazing on the slopes, they knew the mountain's most dangerous stretch was behind them.
Following directions from a herder, Sam and the brothers followed a road lined with tall trees and aqueducts to town.
The brothers went to a cyber cafe and called a smuggler, who sent them in a larger group of Afghans with fake papers on a coach to Istanbul.
The smuggler had paired Sam with an Afghan couple, instructing him to pose as one of their children.
When the police came through the bus checking papers, the two brothers were taken off and arrested, and Sam was alone among strangers once more.
“I was in Istanbul for around ten days, but I didn’t see any of the famous sights. It was like sitting in prison.”
To the Turkish coast
The smuggler told them that he was arranging with a bus driver to take them to the coastal city of Izmir, where they would take an inflatable raft across a stretch of the Aegean Sea to Greece.
Sitting in the room all day, they were restless—they practised pumping the inflatable raft again and again.
When it was finally Sam's turn to leave, the journey from Istanbul to Izmir took an unexpected turn.
Calm before the storm
"Izmir," Sam recalls warmly. "What a beautiful city."
After being kept locked up in the smuggler's overcrowded flat for over a week, he enjoyed a preternaturally calm afternoon strolling about the seaside city, watching the fountains and bustling streets.
He savored his first taste of spicy food, knowing that it might also be his last.
That night, he would risk his life.
To the sea
Late in the afternoon, Sam and his travel companion took another coach to a smaller town. From there, a smuggler picked them up by car and took them to the seaside. By then, it was completely dark.
“On the way to the sea, the whole way I was thinking about the stories I had heard from people in the flat in Istanbul,” recalled Sam. “They said that people were stranded in the sea twelve hours, fourteen hours, that the Greek and Turkish police robbed them and beat them...”
“I had only ever seen the sea on TV before, and I loved it. It was so blue and peaceful. But that night, seeing the sea for the first time, it was black and loud. What could happen to me? I hate to say that I was scared, but that time I was really, really scared.”
It is a cool night with a slight breeze when we arrive in the port of Lesvos, a Greek island less than 7 kilometres from continental Turkey. This is where an estimated tens of thousands of crossings have occurred in the last decade, including Sam’s own.
Ten years later, Sam is back at this glittering black harbour. The sidewalks are full of holidaymakers in flip-flops, parents pushing baby strollers, and chattering children.
To this day, the sight of dark waters fills Sam with dread. “It’s like seeing an old friend,” he muttered, gazing out over the port of Lesvos.
The inflatable raft
The night of his original crossing, Sam and five others squeezed onto an inflatable raft designed for a maximum capacity of two people, and they rowed out into the darkness. Overcrowded boats are a common practice by smugglers to increase their profits.
“Afghanistan is a land-locked country,” joked Sam, “I’d never been in a boat before and none of us knew how to row properly.” For half an hour, the group of six rowed in circles. Each time a coast guard’s searchlight swept over the water, they lay flat, hoping the waves would hide them.
“I can’t swim!”
Water began to rise through the bottom of the boat.
As the boat grew limp, one man began to shriek, “I can’t swim!”
“Shut your mouth,” hissed the other men, afraid the man would draw attention with his cries.
Two by two, the men took the arms of the migrant who couldn’t swim and pulled him toward the shore. “They were probably just glad that I could swim, since I was just a kid.” Sam smiled wanly. “I’m so glad they didn’t leave him there.”
When Sam and the five others pulled themselves onto shore, they collapsed onto the beach. They had lost all their possessions, save for their bills of money wrapped in plastic, which they carried in their mouths.
The rocks cut the bottom of his foot, but he states that he didn’t mind the pain.
“When we put our feet on the ground, I felt like I was born again.”
In the afternoon, we visited the “lifejacket mountain”—the island’s dumping ground for abandoned lifejackets and inflatable boats.
Amid the detritus, Sam found the shoe of a young girl. He winced before picking it up, carrying it with him as he walked through the mounds of discarded plastic.
The NGO Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor estimates that over 1,800 migrants disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea in 2021–more than five people per day. At least 64 were children.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that 23,000 people have drowned crossing the Mediterranean since 2014, often in poorly equipped water vessels, like rickety boats or rubber dinghies like Sam’s.
Some of their bodies wash up on the shores of Greek islands. What happens to their bodies?
The sun beat down relentlessly and our faces were dripping with sweat when we arrived in the town of Kato Tritos, a village of 518 residents.
We showed an elderly man the translation for “graveyard” on our phones. He looked up at us sharply, then pointed us down a path through the olive trees.
We gradually made out mounds of dirt and weeds. Some had names, others were written “Unknown woman, Age 30, No. 134,” or “Unknown female infant, 3 months old, No. 31.”
Some were simply marked with blank white slates. Still, others were marked with only a rough stone.
The last rites
This graveyard is the work of 32-year-old Egyptian Moustafa Dawa, a student of Greek literature who worked as an Arabic translator on Lesvos.
While translating for a Syrian man looking for a family member in 2015 in the hospital of Mytilene town, Dawa was astonished to see bodies stacked on top of each other in a refrigerated shipping container. The Mytilene Hospital morgue was already full.
The coroner, Theodoros Nousias, who took DNA samples and performed autopsies on the bodies, has said that at one time there were up to 85 bodies in the container, exceeding its designated capacity of 50.
Dawa and the families of migrants lobbied the town hall and reached deputy mayor George Katzanos, who convinced the municipality to designate a small plot of land for a makeshift cemetery near the small town of Kato Tritos.
Doha Al-Amir, a woman in Iraq who had been trying to find her younger daughter’s body, reached out to Dawa in 2015.
When Al-Amir sent photos to Dawa, Dawa remembered burying the young girl’s body with a similar scar on the arm.
There is reportedly currently no process to facilitate families in identifying the bodies. Doha appealed to organisations, including the United Nations, International Red Cross, and the Greek Refugee Council, to access DNA samples taken before burial.
Karolen Eid, a student from Princeton University researching the graves, reported in 2018 that Al-Amir did not receive help.
The questions remain: What happens after these bodies wash ashore? Where will they be laid to rest? Who will come for them? How can Lesvos officials help families identify the bodies of their loved ones?
“The border is an open wound where the third world grates against the first and bleeds.”
– Gloria Anzaldúa
The train pulls into the Greek port of Patras, where 4 million tons of cargo and 1.3 million passengers transit between Greece and the Italian cities along the Adriatic coast of Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, Trieste, and Venice.
We return to the ferry terminal, where Sam spent weeks sleeping rough in a nearby abandoned factory by day and attempting to cross to Italy by night.
Tourists stand in the ticket queue. A woman smokes a cigarette, a young girl pets a dog. Just behind the building, those without documentation bid for their passage to Italy, often at a high physical cost.
A dangerous game
In Patras, Sam first learned how to smuggle onto the back of one of the hundreds of lorries that pass through the port each day, transporting goods to Italy and onward to Western Europe.
The port is guarded by the Special Forces of the Hellenic Coast Guard (KEA), known colloquially by Sam and other migrants as “commandos.”
NGOs alarmed by "irregular injuries"
Sam passed through Patras in 2007. A case was referred to the Greek Ombudsman one year later regarding an Afghan minor stabbed by a port officer with a knife.
Another case included two Afghan minors, Ghulam and Jafar, who were thrown into the sea by port officers.
Alarmed by irregular injuries, The Greek Red Cross lodged two complaints to the public prosecutor against the KEA. One case alleged the torture of an Afghan adult, who was beaten in the head, thrown into the sea, and forced to stand in an uncomfortable position under the treat of being attacked by a police dog.
“Systematic failure to protect unaccompanied children”
Medical professionals from Médecins du Monde in Patras also recorded blows from batons to the genitals and severe head injuries as among the injuries treated.
The European Committee on the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) interviewed a detainee at Patras Gounari Street Police who was punched in the eye and nose by police.
A fact-finding mission by the Greek Council for Refugees in 2012 resulted in a comprehensive report on police violence in the port of Patras that found that most reported acts of violence were perpetrated by the KEA, as well as port police and private security personnel.
A report from Human Rights Watch in 2008 concluded that there was a “systematic failure to protect unaccompanied children” in Patras.
Testimonies of violence
The European advocacy group PRO-ASYL partnered with the Greek Council for Refugees to collect testimonies from 31 migrants in Patras in 2012:
“I was walking alone along the train rails in the dark. The police appeared ... they started beating me up.”
“They threw tear gas in some of the rooms forcing people to come out."
“I came healthy from Afghanistan, and now I am afraid that I will leave this country limping.”
"Every time I go to the port, I don’t know whether I’ll still have my arms and legs when I come back.”
“Death by hazardous transit”
The Missing Migrants Project of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) compiles an ongoing online database of media-reported migrant deaths.
“Death by hazardous transportation” takes the largest number, with 462 deaths linked to vehicle accidents.
However, they note that given the little attention given in the media, their statistics “are likely an undercount of the real number.”
There is still no national or international authority that publishes data on migrant deaths.
101 ways to die in the back of a lorry
April 2006: An unidentified man was dragged for a mile along the A14 in the UK after failing to cut himself loose from underneath a truck.
November 2006: A 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan clung to the bottom of a lorry for fifteen miles before falling and being crushed under the wheels on a highway in the UK.
August 2015: A truck was discovered by Austrian police on the side of the highway seeping liquid to find that 71 people had suffocated inside.
December 2017: A man was found crushed to death underneath a cargo box weighing several tons that had shifted inside a lorry in France.
August 2019: Six people were killed and ten were injured when a jeep crashed into a ditch in Greece.
May 2019: A driver found two dead people inside the tank of a tanker truck in Serbia. They died because of heatstroke and suffocation.
November 2019: Over 40 men and six minors were discovered by police on the back of a refrigerated truck in Greece. Many of them were treated with immediate medical assistance for breathing problems.
Traveling as a tourist
"I never felt proud of myself, the way I came," said Sam.
"A human shouldn’t travel like that. I used to get embarrassed. I tell it because people need to know… But to be honest, it makes me embarrassed. Why did I have to do that? Why couldn’t I just buy a ticket, sit like a human being on the seat, and get off wherever I get off?
"I wish it was only me," he sighed. "I would give up my life that it doesn’t happen to other humans. It’s a big number, and the whole world knows about it, and they’re okay with it."
Excessive sorrow laughs.
Excessive joy weeps.
– William Blake
Rome to Paris
Sam spent only one day in Italy.
After debarking the lorry on the side of a highway, he and his two companions walked to a nearby train station, boarded a train to Rome, and then transferred to Paris.
Jardin Villemin looks like most parks: a playground for children, a flower garden, wood benches, a gazebo with peeling green paint, and a basketball court.
Ten years later, the playground has been renovated, and a few young Afghans mill about.
It was here that Sam stayed for 40 days in winter 2007, sharing information and resources, playing cards, drinking from the fountains, and sleeping alongside other newly arrived Afghan teenagers. Night temperatures that December averaged 2 degrees Celsius.
Reuters reports that on the night when police with dogs cleared the “makeshift Afghan refugee camp” of Jardin Villemin in 2009, 50 people were sleeping there.
Every night, around 350 children seeking asylum sleep on the streets of Paris, according to Médecins Sans Frontières in 2020.
According to Human Rights Watch, the homeless crisis among asylum-seeking youth is exacerbated by “arbitrary procedures and inordinate delays” in determining whether they are under 18, the first step to entering the child protection system.
Appeals can take six months to a year, during which young people find themselves on the streets.
Nevertheless, Sam looks back fondly on the antics he and his friends took to find a warm place to sleep at night: under playground slides, in phone boxes, and wherever they could shelter from the rain and wind.
It was in the park that Sam met Mohammed.
“He was only two years older than me, but he tried to be a big brother to me. After my hand broke, he looked after me and carried my bag. When I ran out of money in Calais, he paid for me.”
One night in Paris, Mohammad made an even stranger sacrifice for Sam.
Social organisations aid in providing housing in face of police deterrence
Police have forcefully dismantled encampments set up or serviced by non-profit organisations.
Police used tear gas and batons to clear 2,000 people from Stade de France and removed 500 blue tents run by aid groups Medecins Sans Frontieres and Utopia 56 near Place de la Republique in November 2020.
These actions were condemned by Human Rights Watch, which reported that “asylum seekers and migrants survive in undignified conditions, and are victims of almost daily harassment as police dismantle their makeshift shelters and brutally disperse them without offering alternative accommodation.”
“I was pepper sprayed twice in France,” Sam recalled. “The first time was on the bus to the ‘Zinedine Zidane’ camp.”
On the bus, the driver and charity worker took the two seats in the front. The front seats and the passenger compartment in the back were divided by a plexiglass screen.
One evening, when the bus door opened, some people whose names were not called tried to push their way onto the bus.
The charity worker’s hand slid the divider open, sprayed the pepper spray into the air, and slid the divider shut again to enforce the order.
Sam heard a soft hissing sound from the back, then his eyes swelled shut, and his skin was burning.
“After that,” said Sam, “I didn’t like going there anymore.”
One of Sam’s most poignant memories of Paris is of an awning over a tennis court.
In our revisit to the neighbourhood, we searched for the place where he jumped from a ledge while running from the Parisian police.
Sam broke his hand while falling three to four metres, sustaining pains for months after. He believes he fractured it, and an NGO worker even gave him a sling, but he never received formal medical attention.
“Everybody I met from France onward knew me just as Broken Hand,” he laughed. “They’d say, ‘Yo, Broken Hand, what’s up?’”
Sam and several others once snuck onto the bottom of a lorry heading north, hoping it would take them to Calais or London.
Then, the lorry made an unexpected right turn and headed east toward Belgium.
“When we realised, my friend was so mad. An older guy tried to jump out from under the lorry while it was moving—it wasn’t going too fast, but fast enough to fuck up his arm.”
After the truck driver saw a man roll out from under the lorry, he pulled over. “It almost gave him a heart attack,” Sam chuckled.
Another time, Sam and Mohammad spent a week on a dangerous bid to get to London. We returned to the sidewalk where they worked on their nearly disastrous project.
Sam spent 40 days in the “Calais Jungle” during the winter – a time when temperatures fall below zero, encrusting tents and sleeping bags in frost.
Over the years, tens of thousands of migrants have arrived in Calais, the port city on the northern coast of France, in hopes of boarding a lorry to cross the English Channel to the UK.
When Sam arrived for the first time in 2007, the informal refugee encampments were known as “the Jungle,” where people slept in flimsy tents and shelters in the trees and shrubs, and built fires to keep warm.
Rise and fall of the “Calais Jungle”
At its height in 2016, the Jungle housed between 6,000 and 10,000 people, including over 1,000 children under 18, and over 800 unaccompanied children.
The camp had a boxing club, bookstore, and circus troupe run by local and international volunteers, offering a glimpse of what the camp could be with international support.
However, the Calais government has changed direction, instead choosing to build walls, demolish camps, and increase routine and violent police raids in order to drive migrants away from Calais.
“The Great Wall of Calais”
This stretch of shrubby land on a former landfill site along France’s northern coast has since become one of the most contested flash points for European migration.
As the number of migrants grew, the mayor of Calais threatened to close the shipping port to Britain unless the British government contributed to increased security budgets in 2014.
Construction began on a “Great Wall of Calais,” costing Britain and France a combined 2.3 million EUR in September 2016, stretching four metres high and running for a kilometre along the Calais port.
As Sam returned to the Jungle a decade after his original journey, he was surprised to find the original camp bisected by the newly constructed “Great Wall.”
Sam remarks at the conspicuously quiet and emptiness of the Jungle upon his return.
No surprise — the original Jungle had all gone up in flames in 2016.
In October of that year, the French Interior Minister announced that the sprawling encampments would be demolished.
Over 1000 police were brought into Calais to enforce the final eviction. Videos show migrants pulling their possessions away to sleep in the bushes.
Policy chaos and broken promises, fifty children missing
The French government aimed to redistribute residents to refugee reception centres across France, yet still many others stayed, roughing it through the winter.
France promised to build more lasting shelters, especially for women and children, and to facilitate the transfer of a group of child asylum seekers to Britain. However, when Britain only took a fraction of the promised number, many children were left with no clear path to asylum.
After the demolition, Refugee Youth Service reported that one-third of the 179 children they had been tracking had gone missing.
Two years later, the warehouse used as a women's shelter was burned to the ground in a battle between Afghan and Kurdish smugglers.
Life continues in the shadows for 300 children
Human Rights Watch wrote in a 2021 report that around 2,000 migrants remain, including 300 unaccompanied children.
There are still insufficient shelters for unaccompanied children, routine mass evictions, degrading treatment by police, and insufficient access to food and water.
Human Rights Watch concludes that little has improved in the last five years.
Over half of children “never feel safe”
A census by the civil society group Refugee Rights Data Project (later known as Refugee Rights Europe) surveyed 870 of the 5,500 asylum seekers in Calais in 2016, publishing their findings in a report titled "The Long Wait: Filling the data gaps relating to refugees and displaced people in the Calais camp."
Of the child respondents, 61 per cent reported that they “never feel safe.”
Additionally, 90 per cent of children said they experienced police violence, compared to 74 per cent of adults, implying that children are more vulnerable to abuse by state authorities.
Forced evictions, tear gas, pepper spray
The civil society organisation Refugee Info Bus finds that migrants report experiencing forced evictions three to five times a week.
Personal belongings, tents, and medication are sometimes confiscated without presenting a “réquisition” document to validate such police operations. In one incident, the police took a single shoe from each member of a group of young men.
Human Rights Observers, which monitors police evictions in northern France, reported 973 evictions in Calais in 2020, amounting to nearly three raids a day. In December, 526 tents were seized and 41 arrests were made.
Deliberately kept from gaining rights
According to French law, those who remain on a piece of land for 48 hours are subject to limited rights against forceful eviction.
As a result, the police operate on a 48-hour cycle for evictions, driving migrants to continuously find new places to sleep and keeping them from gaining protection under the law.
Raids often occur in the early morning. Police often use pepper spray and tear gas on sleeping people, including children, as well as on food and water supplies, rendering them no longer fit for consumption.
Sleepless in Calais
“The use of tear gas and intimidation tactics, as well as what would appear to amount to intentional sleep deprivation, appears to be part of a conscious tactic by the French state to create a hostile environment for refugees and asylum seekers in northern France,” summarised a 2018 report by Refugee Rights Europe.
As a result, the organisation l’Auberge des Migrants found in a 2017 survey that asylum seekers slept an average of 3.5 hours per night, and 76 per cent of respondents had had their blankets taken away.
“Disproportionate, even unjustified use of force”
A 2017 government-commissioned report confirmed “abusive use of tear gas” and “disproportionate, even unjustified, use of force” by police in northern France.
Utopia 56 collected testimonies from migrants saying a police officer urinated on a man and police left people barefoot on a highway ramp after taking their shoes.
One man had “bloodied burn marks on his legs” after being “restrained by police officers while one of their colleagues burned him with a lighter.”
Other reported cases of police violence include a tent with a refugee inside dragged by a tractor and an Eritrean shot in the face by a rubber bullet, which required him to be hospitalised for two months.
Over 60 deaths were recorded among people seeking asylum in Calais by L’Auberge des Migrants between 2015 and 2018.
Recorded causes of death recorded include suffocation on the back of a lorry, being beaten to death by people smugglers, being killed in a fight between migrants, suspected heart attack, and suspected murder by right-wing extremists.
A HEALTH CRISIS
“Far below the standards of a refugee camp”
A 2015 environmental health report of Calais conducted by the University of Birmingham concluded that conditions in the migrant camps “are significantly contributing to [migrants’] ill-health and injury.”
In particular, “shortcomings in shelter, food and water safety, personal hygiene, sanitation and security are likely to have detrimental long-term health consequences for the camp’s residents over their life course,” implying potentially long-lasting effects on migrants’ health.
The researchers concluded that standards fell short of refugee camp standards recommended by the UNHCR.
Insufficient access to plumbing and clean water
The Jungle’s one toilet per 75 residents was far below UNHCR’s standards of a minimum of one toilet per 20 people in a refugee camp.
Researchers found that tap water samples had levels of E. coli and Coliform bacteria that exceeded safety standards and suggested faecal contamination.
Nevertheless, with the camp’s demolition , nowadays migrants sleeping rough in Calais have no plumbing at all.
The situation is back to what Sam observed in 2008, before the construction of a formal camp: Migrants turn to shower in pipes of water discharged from a nearby factory.
Some migrants can be stuck in Calais for longer than a year and grow increasingly demoralised.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham recounted that two interviewees reported feeling suicidal, and another had visible scars from self-harm. They also found evidence of alcohol misuse.
According to The Long Wait by Refugee Rights Data Project in 2016, 72 percent of people had resided in the camp for three to six months, and over 100 people had lived there for a year or more.
Sam was lucky. It took him 40 days. He recounts how the “book of my life turned the page” one morning on the nondescript corner of a motorway.
Dover is famous for its chalky white cliffs crowned by a medieval stone castle, and meandering hiking paths along the sea.
It is also one of the U.K.'s main ports of connection to continental Europe, where 3 million passengers and 13 million tons of freight pass each year.
Sam remembers little of the English Channel—only the loud darkness in the belly of a lorry. This time, we board a passenger ferry, with restaurants, coffee, and even a gift shop. The crossing feels different.
English Channel drownings
In recent years, inspection and control of lorries has tightened. When we revisit in 2022, we find parking lots along the highway plastered with "amber alert" warnings for lorry drivers.
Many people have turned to sea crossings in desperation. In November 2021, 27 drowned after the sinking of an inflatable dinghy, the deadliest event in the English Channel since the IOM began collecting data in 2014.
"On this journey, you meet a lot of people," Sam said. "Every place, people treat me—treat us—differently. I used to not look people in the eyes. Everywhere I went, I didn't want anybody to notice me."
"But there are angels out there too. Not just bad people. There are angels out there too, yeah."
The Palestinian next door
The first night Sam spent in Britain, he spent in jail. He didn’t sleep a wink but waited for the officers to return in the morning and deliver him to his future.
The second night Sam spent in Britain, authorities put him in a hostel with no heat despite the winter.
As a cold shower washed away a month of sleeping rough in the Calais Jungle, he whispered a prayer thanking god for cleanliness.
The third night Sam spent in Britain, they dropped him and an older Palestinian man at an empty house and left them to pick out their rooms. The other man was well-built with a full beard.
Sam tells me that he couldn’t sleep, because all night, his new flatmate cried across a paper-thin wall.
The man wailed so pitifully that Sam was too embarrassed to leave the room. They didn’t speak the same language, but the prayers blasting from his radio crooned familiar melodies from the Quran.
This man, old enough to be Sam’s father, prayed and wept in a voice split raw. Sam, a young boy, stared at the ceiling and kicked at the bedsheets, waiting for morning.
The next day, the front door slammed. The Palestinian man didn’t come back for a day, two days, three days.
On the fourth morning, Sam cracked open his door to find the room empty except for the small radio by the window. He cradled it in his hands, as if it could grant the gone man’s wishes.
Thousands of nights later, as we are walking the streets of the old neighbourhood, on an evening so peaceful it could be a dream, he remembers the cold bed and the Palestinian man who cried all night.
Sam’s heart seizes; wounds are raw again for the thousandth time. They have never fully closed. He places his hand over his chest and asks me where is god.
Sam calls me one morning and tells me that he has found fifty of his own hairs on his pillow. He has no clue what happened in his sleep. “My mind is a warzone,” he says.
He calls me another morning and tells me that he woke up in the middle of the night, his pillow drenched in sweat.
He doesn’t say anything else, except: “In my dreams, I’m always running.”
Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.
- Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
A mental health crisis among unaccompanied children
“After getting here, everything went wrong,” said Sam. “The only thing that didn’t go wrong is just me getting here.”
Despite arriving in a country without war, the traumatic experiences of unaccompanied children do not simply dissipate upon arrival on “safe” soil.
Especially under the chronic instability and insecurity, they continue to experience for years, their mental health often continues to deteriorate.
Sam recalls that many of his friends in London have cut themselves, scars running up and down their arms. One friend, who sustained a leg injury, had reached such depths of despair that he lay in the streets hoping to be run over.
When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs.
– Warsan Shire, from "Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)"
Oxford Professor of Adolescent Psychiatry Dr. Mina Fazel studies the mental health needs and effective interventions for refugee children. She has found that children who have arrived in the UK alone, able to surpass the gauntlet of militarised borders and overcome difficulty and hardship along the way, often score unusually high on scales of resilience compared to other children: "They're an incredibly resilient group."
I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing.
– Warsan Shire, from "Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)"
"Post-migration environment is critical"
However, the stress of post-migration life is made worse by prolonged uncertainty about legal status to remain, as well as to pursue education and employment. At the same time, it is made more bearable through connection, social support, and belonging.
Fazel stresses that the “post-migration environment” is crucial in supporting the mental health of unaccompanied children, including addressing “post-migration stresses” such as legal barriers, housing, and education—or else children become increasingly susceptible to mood disorders, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home.
– Warsan Shire, from "Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)"
Fears of deportation
For years, Sam lived in fear that he would eventually be deported to Afghanistan.
Protected in the UK under special conventions as a child, one of the first legal hurdles would be a prosecution hearing upon turning 18 to determine whether he would receive refugee status in the UK. If denied refugee status, he would be held in an immigration detention centre and deported.
In 2021, the UK Home Office reported that 50 per cent of asylum seekers from Afghanistan were granted refugee status in an initial decision, and the other half were at risk of immigration detention. If their appeal is denied, as in 41 per cent of all cases, the applicant is slated for “removal.”
“Freedom not guaranteed"
One night, Sam and I watched 12 Years A Slave, a biographical Hollywood film by Steve McQueen about a free black violinist in New York who is sold into slavery in the American south in 1841.
Sam summarised the movie, “A black person was free, but his freedom was still not guaranteed. He could still go back to being a slave. He got on the horse and arrived at the place like a white person, he ate and drank like a white person. But, there was still fear in his heart forever. He was still black.” Sam’s voice falls to a raspy whisper, “I feel like that.”
“Lose some, I don't mind. I don’t want to lose the only thing I have: The freedom that I can stay and move around, this is really a freedom.”
For eight years, Sam lived in constant fear that his freedom was running out.
“I completely understand why he did what he did”
This was the fate of several of Sam’s classmates, including one young man known in Sam’s class as “Sharukh Khan,” an aspiring young actor who named himself after a Bollywood star.
When “Sharukh Khan” was denied refugee status, he was given the option of either voluntary removal or detention and deportation.
He chose a third option.
"They shouldn't come to die"
“Sharukh Khan” was one year older than Sam. His ruling and death had a chilling effect on the younger students in their class, who feared that the same outcome might await them.
All young, all without consistent adult guidance, and all confused in face of a complicated asylum system, sometimes not understanding the language, the fears of young people can easily compound on each other.
One group of friends, four young asylum seekers who arrived alone to London from Eritrea, took their own lives in a string of suicides in 2017 and 2018 after over a year of uncertainty facing an asylum system that felt difficult to understand, arbitrary, and unfair.
Employees at the shelter where one of the young men, Filmon Yemane, aged 18 when we took his life, had reported his state of crisis to NHS staff in the 24 hours before his act. However, no action was taken.
The second young man to take his life, Alexander Tekle, was wrongly age-assessed as an adult before his birth certificate arrived from Eritrea. In the time he was sent to live in an adult accommodation unit, he told friends he experienced difficulties. He was at times homeless, and drank heavily to cope with severe stress.
Liz Chegg, a former youth worker who met Alexander in Calais, recalled to The Guardian in 2018, “He was lovely. I remember him getting in the car and singing along to the radio. He came across like a genuine, funny, sociable boy."
Alexander's father, Tecle Sium Tesfamichel, now living as a refugee in Sudan, stated in the same report, “Alexander is not coming back. But I want to know this doesn’t happen to children and young people again. These children, who have to leave home through no fault of their own, are traumatised on their journey through the desert and the sea. It is the job of the authorities to look after and guide these children, who come to the UK alone. They shouldn’t come to die.”
The tragedy in a man’s life is what dies inside of him while he lives.
– Henry David Thoreau
Two suicide attempts per day in UK immigrant detention centres
Dr. Fazel states that immigration detention—especially of children—is among the most psychologically detrimental practices of the asylum system.
According to government documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, there were two suicide attempts per day at UK immigrant detention centres between April and June 2018.
Medical studies have shown that detention is associated with PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and developmental delays in children.
Oxford psychiatrist Mina Fazel emphasised, “Putting children into immigration detention facilities, imprisoning them basically, for no clear reason, no clear length of time, with no clear process about outcome, is unlikely to, in any way, shape, or form to enhance the capacities of these individuals.”
In 2018, Home Office documents stated that medical professionals had made 10,000 reports to Home Office officials about detainees believed to have been tortured outside the UK. Home Office policies say victims of torture should usually not be detained.
In conjunction with public outcry and policy advocacy, the number of detained children decreased in the UK immigration system, from 1,119 in 2009, to just 23 in 2020, a step toward a more humane immigration system.
Failed by the UK mental health services
When Sam was diagnosed with PTSD, he was referred to a mental health professional in the UK’s National Health Service.
The experience was so negative that he vehemently claims that he will never return to seek professional help. He began to tell the mental health professional his story, and was shocked by what he saw when he looked up.
“90 per cent of vulnerable children that need services don’t access them”
The UK-based Mental Health Foundation cites research that refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population.
Over 60 per cent will experience severe mental distress.
Rates of PTSD range from 10 to 40 per cent among settled refugees, and major depression ranges from 5 to 15 per cent. The rates are presumed higher among those who aren’t yet settled.
At the same time, refugees are also less likely to receive support than the general population. Sam is in the minority who have received a referral from a physician to access formal mental health services.
Fazel, the Oxford psychiatrist, estimated that up to 90 per cent of vulnerable children in the UK that need services don’t access them.
New British law criminalises refugee crossings
In April 2022, the UK Parliament passed the Nationality and Borders Bill, which four leading barristers called "the biggest legal assault on international refugee law ever seen in the UK" in a 95-page joint legal opinion.
The law, in full effect since summer, undermines the right to seek asylum by creating a two-tier system for refugees, differentiated by how they entered the country, rather than the dangers they have fled.
The law makes it so that refugees who enter the country through "unofficial" channels, like Sam did, will have a lesser status with fewer rights. Instead, they will have "temporary protection" with limited rights to reunite with families or access welfare support.
This largely closes off the UK asylum system, as asylum seekers are unable to apply for protection outside of the UK, and can only lodge an asylum application on British soil.
The Act has been vocally criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for withdrawing from responsibilities mandated under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Full asylum ban proposed in UK
On the day this story went to press, October 4, 2022, the UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman unveiled plans for a blanket ban on asylum claims for those arriving in the UK by irregular travel.
The plan is currently being discussed in the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham this week. It goes even beyond the Nationality and Borders Bill of Braverman's predecessor, whom she replaced in office this September—signaling a shift toward even tougher treatment of asylum seekers under the current government.
When the first flight to deport those with rejected asylum claims to Rwanda was blocked by a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights this summer, Braverman's team responded that she will ensure Britain's policy will not be "derailed by abuse of modern slavery laws, the Human Rights Act or the European Court of Human Rights."
Braverman wrote on Twitter on September 30, "The message is clear: You are not welcome here."
The tides of politics swept Sam from his home, and the tides of politics left him in fear of whether he could stay. The tides of politics almost literally drowned him in the Aegean Sea.
The lives of those who flee war remain half-submerged in hope and terror. Under the current political climate in the UK, those who arrive as Sam did today do not enjoy the same right to claim asylum as outlined in international law.
Yet, nine years after Sam arrived on British soil, he finally received an envelope in the mail that marked an end to years of legal anxiety.
There is no end
For Sam, becoming a British citizen is bittersweet. No piece of paper can erase the wounds endured.
On a balmy London summer night, we head down to the banks of the Thames River with floating candles left over from our trip to Lesvos.
Sam stands knee-deep in the water. Candlewicks burn and wax tears fall. Swans call out in the darkness.
There is no end to the journey, only constant becoming.
I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it breaks open and never closes again to the rest of the world.
– Mary Oliver
Resources: Where do we go from here?
Many organisations work to provide psychosocial and practical support to young refugees.
Here are ways you can support their work and get involved.
Be a friend, in person or by phone, with organisations that encourage friendships in local communities:
Trampoline House (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Weekend Trampoline House is a volunteer-run community center that Fridays and Sundays offers counseling, activities, and community to asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers, and refugees with residence permits in the Apostle Church’s parish house in Copenhagen. Weekend Trampoline House is a gathering place for displaced people, Danish nationals, and international residents, who work for a more humane refugee policy in Denmark together.
Bellevue di Monaco (Munich, Germany)
The Bellevue di Monaco is a residential and cultural center for refugees and interested residents of Munich in the heart of the city. Diverse cultural programs such as theatre, small concerts, readings, panel discussions, as well as more intensive advisory services, language courses and training have now found an optimal setting here.
Restore (Birmingham, Solihull, Smethwick)
Befriending is at the core of Restore’s work. Befriending is a service provided by trained volunteers to offer support and encouragement to refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced loss and trauma and are attempting to rebuild their lives in Birmingham. We hope that those we work with will be able to say: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So we start with welcoming strangers and aim to help their integration into wider society.
HostNation (London, Manchester, Newcastle, Gateshead, UK)
If you are an asylum seeker or refugee over 18 and you live in London, Manchester, Newcastle or Gateshead then HostNation is here for you. Do you want a local friend to chat to and find out more about life here in the UK? It’s a great way to practice your English and explore new places. It can be lots of fun. 84% of our refugee friends say they felt better, more positive and happier after knowing their friend for three months.
B.friend (Bristol, UK)
The b.friend project provides asylum seekers and refugees in Bristol with one-to-one support. We match a volunteer with an asylum seeker or refugee for a period of up to one year, and equip them with the tools and support they need to meet regularly for companionship and support. Befriending is listening, drinking tea, laughing, being compassionate, hearing difficult stories, showing empathy, visiting a museum or art gallery, being committed, going for a walk together, learning from another culture… and it can have a profound impact on both the volunteer and the person they meet with!
Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network (Leeds, UK)
The role of befriender is to walk alongside a refugee or asylum seeker, to enable them to find their feet and gradually build up networks of support and friendships by meeting up weekly for a few hours. A befriending match can last anything from 6 weeks to 1 year.
Refugee Roots (UK, Remote)
Refugee Roots is a Christian charity that helps asylum seekers and refugees build relationships and navigate the complexities of building a new life in the UK. A range of empowerment initiatives include befriending, accompanying asylum seekers to appointments, information, advice and guidance, as well as supportive groups and activities, such as free English conversation classes. We offer a Telephone Befriending service as well as in-person befriending.
Support initiatives that provide mental health and psychosocial support, and legal and emergency aid to refugees:
Refugee Rights Turkey (Istanbul, Turkey)
‘Refugee Rights Turkey’ is an independent NGO based in Istanbul, which provides specialised legal information & assistance services to asylum seekers and persons in immigration detention in Turkey; delivers trainings, reference resources and other expertise support services to lawyers on refugee law, Turkish migration & asylum procedures; undertakes advocacy for improvements in Turkey’s migration & asylum legislation and policies, in line with international standards; and engages public opinion to promote solidarity & positive attitudes towards refugees and other vulnerable migrants.
Lighthouse Relief (Athens, Greece)
Lighthouse Relief is focused on providing psychosocial support to vulnerable groups in Greece, and on providing support to refugees and asylum seekers experiencing homelessness in Athens through our Streetwork Project. Our mission is to provide dignified immediate and long-term relief to those experiencing displacement. We use a sustainable, participatory approach, that is driven by those we serve.
Za’atar (Athens, Greece)
Za’atar is a refugee charity based in Athens that focuses on providing support to single women, mothers with children and members of the LGBT community. The organisation has established a safe and supportive community for arrivals in Athens. Current projects include the ‘Buddy Project’, which provides emotional and psychological support for unaccompanied minors, and the creation of the Orange House, which provides a place for individuals to relax, socialise and receive advice and information.
Praksis (Athens, Greece)
Praksis fights poverty and exclusion; it reaches out to the poor, homeless, uninsured, migrants any form (refugees, asylum-seekers, unaccompanied minors, victims of trafficking and forced prostitution). It provides counselling, education and support for people at risk of social exclusion.
Open Polyclinics by Medecins du Monde (Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Patras, Chania and Kavala)
Providing primary health care as well as social and psychological support to people belonging to vulnerable social groups, such as the homeless, those in need, the uninsured, immigrants, refugees without administrative documents and to any other person with limited or zero access to the National Health System.
Amna (Greece and North Macedonia)
Our work began in a tent on the border of Greece and North Macedonia and is now growing globally. We deliver services that mitigate the impact of trauma and toxic stress. We focus on areas where we can make the most difference. Our play-based early childhood programme, Baytna supports whole family healing and our youth programme Dinami offers a safe space for young people. We also offer therapeutic support to men and women. Now to scale our work, we’re partnering with community organisations around the world to offer trauma and identity informed psychosocial care to people affected by conflict and forced displacement.
Trampoline House (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Weekend Trampoline House is a volunteer-run community centre that Fridays and Sundays offers counselling, activities, and community to asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers, and refugees with residence permits in the Apostle Church’s parish house in Copenhagen. Weekend Trampoline House is a gathering place for displaced people, Danish nationals, and international residents, who work for a more humane refugee policy in Denmark together.
Bellevue di Monaco (Munich, Germany)
The Bellevue di Monaco is a residential and cultural centre for refugees and interested residents of Munich in the heart of the city. Diverse cultural programs such as theatre, small concerts, readings, panel discussions, as well as more intensive advisory services, language courses and training have now found an optimal setting here.
Le Comede (Paris, France)
Le Comede helps refugees with medical care and treatment, socio-legal matters, mental health support, and administrative support in French, English, Arabic, Pashto and Dari. Medical care: 01 45 21 38 93, Socio-legal matters: 01 45 21 63 12, Mental health: 01 45 21 39 31.
L’Auberge des Migrants (Calais, France)
Since 2008, L’Auberge Des Migrants has been working with refugees and displaced people in Calais and Northern France, providing food and material assistance, support and advocacy. Our objective is to provide emergency material aid, but also to fight to promote the dignity of people in exile.
Refugee Info Bus (Calais, France)
Refugee Info Bus Supports displaced people on the UK-French border in Calais, providing multilingual and accessible info about services, as well as phone charging and repair, WiFi, basic mobile phones and batteries.
SALAM (Calais and Dunkirk, France)
Main activities: Preparation and distribution of meals: a breakfast is served in Calais every morning in the camps; meals are served every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the camp near Dunkirk. Assistance with emergency health care and hygiene; Accommodation support; Aid with applications for asylum seekers; Communication to the general public about the situation of refugees along our coast Action against all forms of racism and discrimination; Action to help populations of countries in difficulties; Provision of legal assistance to SALAM members.
Mental Health Foundation (Wales, Scotland)
A programme in Wales will recruit and train refugee and asylum seekers to become peer leaders and lead groups, stimulating conversations that use the English language and other languages to increase their emotional literacy, empathy and understanding.
Helen Bamber Foundation (London, UK)
The Helen Bamber Foundation is a human rights charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers who are the survivors of extreme human cruelty. They offer free trauma-focussed therapy to people aged 18+, who live in a London borough, and do not have legal status yet in the UK. Both self-referrals and professional referrals are accepted through https://www.helenbamber.org/refer and the number of sessions will depend on the individual. Telephone: 0203 058 2020 / Email: [email protected]
Refugee Therapy Centre (London, UK)
The Refugee Therapy Centre provides a specialist therapeutic service for refugees and asylum seekers. They are based in North London and offer: Individual Therapy, Child and Adolescent Therapy (using Intercultural Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy), Mentoring, Family Therapy and Couples Therapy. Individuals can self-refer. Telephone: 07828049099 / Email: [email protected]/
The Children’s Society provides services across the UK to give young refugees and migrants opportunities to recover from adverse experiences they may have had, meet people and start enjoying life in a new country. For young people waiting to know if they can stay in the UK, the children’s society can provide support through their interviews and interrogations, providing interpreters where needed. Support through the asylum process and support with social care, housing, finance, and benefits. A befriending scheme for more vulnerable and isolated young people
Free creative therapies such as art and music therapy (currently remote) for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people under the age of 18. Support gateway: provides adoptive families and people with a special guardianship order (SGOs) with fast and easy access to a range of therapeutic assessments and interventions e.g. art and music therapy, mentalisation-based therapy, systemic family therapy, and trauma-focused CBT. Advice for migrant children through their Migrant Children’s Project (email: [email protected]) Telephone: 020 7520 0300
The Baobab Centre is a non-residential therapeutic company that enables child and adolescent asylum seekers who have experienced organised violence, violation, exploitation, threats, rejection, loss and bereavement in their home communities and on their journeys into exile to thrive in the UK. They offer: Free individual and Group Psychotherapy, Group activities e.g. music workshops, half-term, Easter, Summer projects (currently remote), Support through the Asylum Determination Processes e.g. prepare specialist psychological and developmental reports for asylum hearings. Email: [email protected] / Telephone: 0798 380 2133
IKWRO provides direct services for women and girls, including advocacy, training and counselling in many languages such as Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Dari, Pashto and English. They are based in Newham, London, and offer: A youth advocacy service providing advice on issues including “Honour” Based Violence, Forced Marriage, Child Marriage, Female Genital Mutilation, Domestic Violence, housing or immigration advice, expert letters and statements for court proceedings, a free and trauma-informed counselling service in Farsi, Kurdish, Arabic and English for girls aged 14+ who have experienced any form of gender based violence. Email: [email protected] / Telephone: 07458305158 or 020 7920 6460
Refugee Council UK (UK)
Most mental health practitioners aren’t trained to help traumatised children from different cultural backgrounds. In 2015 we developed My View, a specialist mental health service for refugee children and young people who arrive in the UK on their own. Many of the children referred to our service are offered therapeutic support, either in one-to-one or group settings. We help young people work towards managing symptoms such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts and anxiety. Contact: [email protected] or 020 7346 1134
This story relied on the following organisations working on data collection, reporting, and information transparency on migration and human rights:
Established in late 2001 as an independent research and advocacy organisation whose objective is to document serious war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all of the parties during the conflict in Afghanistan
Human Rights Watch’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Division defends the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, displaced people, and migrants worldwide. We investigate rights violations arising from government attempts to divert, expel, or contain these people and defend the right to seek asylum.
IGAM was founded in 2013 by a group of academics, researchers, journalists and humanitarian workers, as an independent and non-profit association to fill the void of there not being any independent research centre in Turkey dealing with asylum and migration.
A non-profit advocacy organization that promotes the rule of law, democracy and human rights with a special focus on Turkey, including use of torture
The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor is a youth-led independent, nonprofit organisation that advocates for the human rights of all persons across Europe and the MENA region, particularly those who live under occupation, in the throes of war or political unrest and/ or have been displaced due to persecution or armed conflict.
InfoMigrants is a news and information site for migrants to counter misinformation at every point of their journey: in their country of origin, along the route, or in the places where they hope to start a new life. InfoMigrants is available in five languages: French, Arabic, English, Dari and Pashto.
In June and July 2018, Princeton University global journalism students travelled to Athens and the island of Lesbos, notebooks and cameras in hand, to serve as eyewitnesses at a pivotal moment in world affairs.
The Council of Europe’s CPT organises visits to places of detention, in order to assess how persons deprived of their liberty are treated. These places include prisons, juvenile detention centres, police stations, holding centres for immigration detainees, psychiatric hospitals, social care homes, etc.
PRO ASYL was founded in 1986 by members of refugee councils, churches, trade unions, welfare and human rights organisations. They wanted to counteract the rightwing, racist incitement to ill feeling against asylum seekers and to campaign for the protection of victims of persecution. These concerns are just as urgent today.
Missing Migrants Project records since 2014 people who die in the process of migration towards an international destination, regardless of their legal status. As collecting information is challenging, all figures remain undercounts. The locations in most cases are approximate. Each number represents a person, as well as the family and community that they leave behind.
Formerly known as Refugee Rights Data Project, is a non-profit project that aims to fill the data gaps relating to refugees and displaced people in Europe
HRO aims is to document to denounce the State violence perpetrated against displaced people at the French-UK border
Story as told by Sam Z
Text and videos by Tina Xu
Design by Tina Xu
Illustrations by Lorena Barrios
Music courtesy of Sergey Cheremisinov
Web development by Piotr Kliks
Coordination multimedia: Lola García-Ajofrín, Piotr Kliks and Tina Xu.
Translation by Grzegorz Kurek