“The Lost Boys of Londaan” by Eleanor Weber-Ballard

To mark the Refugee Week 2015  we are publishing a series of excellent articles by students taking an MA in International Journalism at City University. We are very grateful  to students for sharing their work and to Professor John Owen for inspiring and guiding them to take up the challenge of telling refugee and migrants’ stories at the highest professional standards. 

Eleanor Weber-Ballard is a journalist and media specialist operating within the international development and humanitarian aid sector. She spent almost four years in Afghanistan and a further one year in Yemen working as a director for public information. As well as Europe and the US, she has conducted consultancies and journalistic assignments in Nigeria, Kenya and India. She has a BA from King’s College London in English Literature (First Class Honours), an MA in European Studies from University College London (Distinction), and is soon to complete an MA in International Journalism at City University.

Twitter:  @eleanorzafra

The Lost Boys of Londaan

Each year hundreds of Afghan boys arrive alone in the UK to seek asylum. Escaping violence in their own nation, they have often undertaken long and dangerous journeys to reach safety. But the reality of life is harsh in a country which is not always welcoming.

Eleanor Weber-Ballard speaks to two young Afghan migrants about their experiences.

Ammanullah Mohammad[i] places a steaming plate of Kabuli rice onto the sheets of newspaper that he has spread, as an impromptu table, onto the thinly-carpeted floor. “Come and eat,” he calls to his friend, Habib Ali.

Habib does not reply. Instead, he toys with his mobile phone, staring listlessly at the screen as he ignores the repeated calls that plague the device. The tinny ringtone, which he has personalised to play a traditional Afghan tune, or qataghani, buzzes over and over. He owes money to a mutual acquaintance, Jaweed, whom he is trying to avoid because he cannot afford to pay it back.

“If he beats me up, I don’t care,” Habib says of Jaweed, who is known to keep a baseball bat in the boot of his car. “I’m strong – I’m an Afghan!”

“But if the police are called, or if I have to go to hospital, my life is over. If they find me, they’ll know I’m not legal and they will send me back to Kabul. It would be better for me to die here than go back to Afghanistan.”

Death or debt: this was not the future that Ammanullah and Habib had in mind when, at aged 15, they fled the violence in their home country to seek a better life in the West. Upon their arrival, exhausted, frightened, yet exhilarated to have finally arrived in Inglestan, they hoped to go to school, make some money to send home to their families, and forget about their experiences in a country which UNICEF has labelled “one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous places to be a child”.[ii]

But the reality has been very different. Here in Britain, unskilled, uneducated – and in Habib’s case, undocumented – the two teenagers live a shadowy, precarious existence. Today, they are forced to borrow or take on exploitative casual work in a struggle to make ends meet; their home is a damp bedsit in a bleak-looking, sprawling estate in Northolt, Greater London. What went wrong?

From east to west

Habib arrived in the UK in 2009. After his father was killed in a Taliban suicide attack, Habib’s uncle advised him to go abroad to find work so that he could support his mother and his two sisters. First, Habib travelled to Jalalabad City in Afghanistan’s notoriously volatile eastern Nangarhar province, before crossing the border into Pakistan, where he worked on the dusty streets of Peshawar selling mobile phone top-up cards.

Having paid $11,000 (approximately £7,000) to a people smuggler, Habib left Pakistan. He followed in the weary footsteps of thousands of other Afghans who, in abject desperation, have made – and in all too many cases, died upon – the treacherous 5,000 mile journey across Iran, into Turkey, and on through Europe. Eventually arriving in France, Habib spent two months at Calais’ infamous makeshift immigration camp known as “The Jungle” (which later that year, was evacuated by French police in a violent, surprise dawn raid) before trying to board a lorry bound for Britain.

On his first attempt, Habib scaled one of the towering perimeter fences that flank the roads leading to the ferry port, slicing his hands open on the razor wire as he pulled himself over and dropped to the ground on the other side. He crept under a truck and tried to cling to the chassis of a vehicle but, bloodied palms mixing with oil, he quickly lost his grip and fell onto the road. Fortunate not to have been crushed to death under the wheels of the vehicle, his right arm and torso still bear long, jagged scars from where his skin was ripped and burnt as it met the tarmac.

The second time, Habib was successful. With a group of others, whose various nationalities read like a litany of the world’s recent conflicts, he wrapped himself up in layers of jumpers, coats and his pattu, a traditional Afghan woollen shawl, clambered into a refrigerated truck, and cowered and shivered among crates of fruit as the lorry made its way through the Channel Tunnel to Dover.

“When I arrived in Kent I didn’t speak English. The immigration officers gave me a piece of paper with writing in so many different languages. I found my language on there and pointed at it, and that’s how they knew that I was from Afghanistan,” Habib says. “I was amazed when I saw so many languages. It made me realise there were other people like me. And I thought that this must be such a good country, if it is helping all these different people.”

Ammanullah, who claimed asylum in the UK after ripping up his Afghan passport and flushing it down the toilet onboard a transit flight to London, agrees. He left Afghanistan due to the Taliban’s systematic oppression, and earlier massacre, of his ethnic group, the Hazara. Identifiable by their distinctive Mongol features – which it is said they owe to their distant ancestor Genghis Khan – they have been persecuted due to their Shi’a Islam beliefs in what is a Sunni-majority country.

“At immigration, I was scared by all their questions and they made me wait all alone, with no food or water, for 12 hours,” he says. “But, they were good people: I will always remember their kindness towards me.”

Right to remain

Although Habib claimed asylum upon his arrival in the UK, the government refused his request for refugee status on the grounds that his story could not be proved.

But under both international and domestic law the UK government is prohibited from returning children to their countries of origin if, like Afghanistan, they do not have adequate reception facilities. Habib was therefore granted Discretionary Leave to Remain (DLR), permitting him a guaranteed yet transient period of residence of up to three years, dependent on the security conditions back in Afghanistan.

Habib’s experience is not unusual. Home Office figures show that in 2009, 1,525 unaccompanied asylum seeking children” (UASC) from Afghanistan came to the UK, representing 51% of all UASC arrivals in Britain that year.[iii] While arrivals have fallen in the six years since 2009, Afghanistan remains the country of origin for the second largest proportion of UASCs: in 2013, 139 out of the 1,174 UASCs to have arrived in Britain were Afghan. In 2013, a total of 388 children aged 17 and under, across all nationalities, were granted DLR and allowed to stay in the UK.[iv]

“I was so happy when I knew I could stay here,” says Habib. “During my journey, I was always so cold, so tired, so dirty, so scared. I was so worried about what would happen to me. When I settled in the UK I felt that at last things would be ok.”

An education

Habib was placed by social services into a flat with three other boys around his age and started school in Uxbridge. At first, he was plagued by insomnia and flashbacks, most probably indicators of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which along with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions is a common experience for asylum seekers.

“Trauma, the vulnerability that comes from being separated from their parents, and the expectation of making money to send back home to family members, all have an impact on a child’s ability to focus, concentrate and think about their long-term plans for the future,” says Kate Duffy, a mentoring coordinator at Paiwand, an Afghan community association which each year provides educational support, extra-curricular activities and life-skills training to 500 Afghan boys in London. “In stressful asylum cases, children wonder what the point of committing to an education is in a country that they don’t know if they’ll be able to stay in.”

Ammanullah also had trouble settling in, re-living the memory of being beaten over the head with the barrel of a Talib’s gun for trying to rescue his younger brother who, considered “good looking”, had been raped.

“War has affected people’s lives – they have been denied access to school,” says Dr. Nooralhaq Nasimi, director of south London’s Afghanistan and Central Asian Association. “Many of these Afghan children can’t even write the alphabet in their own language let alone in English. It’s difficult for them when they’re put in a class full of British children who have been in the British education system throughout their lives.”

But it was racism that was hardest for Ammanullah to endure: one day, he got into a fight after being taunted by his classmates. “My teacher tried to help me but the principal expelled me from the college. I tried to go back but he wouldn’t let me,” he says. “After that I tried to apply to other colleges but they wouldn’t let me in either.”

Removal or return

While Ammanullah found himself excluded from the education system altogether, Habib started to adjust to life in the UK: “Slowly, slowly, I made friends and I learned some English. Everything was new and different but I found out what shops to go to and what bus to catch, and I understood how people in Britain live.”

But one night, immigration officers arrived unannounced at the flat and violently apprehended one of Habib’s friends, Ajmal. Ajmal’s DLR (which only ever lasts three years, or until the holder is 17.5 years old, whichever is the shorter period) had expired. Having turned 18, Ajmal had become “aged out” of the criteria under which he was permitted to stay in the UK, as a child, in the first place.

After an application to extend his DLR was refused and his right to appeal subsequently exhausted, the social support and provision that Habib had been entitled to as child was withdrawn. With his presence in the UK suddenly deemed unlawful under the government’s immigration policy, Ajmal’s choices were stark. He felt unable to voluntarily repatriate to Afghanistan via a UK Border Agency (UKBA) support package, considering it unfathomable to return willingly to the very country from which he had fled. Immigration officers therefore took him to a detention centre ready to be “forcibly removed.”

“How can they do this? Why do they let you stay here and make a life and then one day suddenly treat you like a criminal?” asks Habib. “Even if you have become 18, you are still the same person who experienced very bad things in Afghanistan and who came to London for help. Being here is like a gift for us, but when you give someone a gift, you give it to them forever. It’s not a game where you can take it back.”

Habib called Ajmal regularly while he was in detention. “Sometimes he would be angry and shouting and sometimes he would be crying,” Habib says. “He wouldn’t eat because he was so scared to go back to Afghanistan. He had no family left there, no friends, no house and no job. All that is left in Afghanistan is fighting and Taliban.”

“After some time he called us and said they were putting him onto a flight to Kabul. I got one message from him after he landed. After that I didn’t hear from him again.”

Going underground

Ajmal’s experience played on Habib’s mind as his own DLR passed all too quickly. “I couldn’t sleep at night, I couldn’t do anything. My chest hurt and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. All I could think about was how I would manage if they decided to send me back too. In the UK I felt like a different Habib. I didn’t know how to go back to being the old Habib from Afghanistan.”

As the prospect of being sent back became all-consuming, Habib slowly disengaged from the structures supporting him. Irritable and unable to concentrate at school, he began to miss classes and, like Ammanullah, eventually dropped out altogether. Trying to dodge her concerns and well-meaning questions, he also skipped his appointments with his social worker.

“I felt like I was falling. I felt like a crazy man. I didn’t know what to do. Then one day I decided, and I started to hide myself.” Habib says that initially, he did not make a conscious decision to disappear. But the more he felt himself submerge into his isolated and insular existence, the harder it became for him to escape it.

That was two years ago. Since he absconded, Habib has moved constantly to avoid detection from the authorities, sleeping on friends’ sofas, floors or in their cars; shifting from one squalid room to another, complete with their dripping showers and filthy toilets; and occasionally, when he has nowhere else to go, sleeping rough in local parks.

He has worked in a dizzyingly array of informal jobs: at a minicab office in Hounslow; in the stock rooms of Afghan-owned shops in Shepherd’s Bush; unloading crates onto market stalls in Southall, the heart of London’s Indian and Pakistani community; and in the kitchens of Afghan-run restaurants and kebab shops in Greenford, Hayes and Hanwell.

“Now I work at a pizza take-away,” he says. “I get paid whatever the owner feels like. He doesn’t give me enough money, but what can I do? I need whatever I can get. I can’t complain as then he might report me because I don’t have documents.”

An immigrant’s impasse

Habib’s suffocating, twilight world is occasionally lightened when he and Ammanullah go to Edgware Road, where they drink tea and smoke shisha[v] until the early hours of the morning with Iraqi, Syrian, and Kurdish refugees and asylum seekers. But most of the time, if he is not working, he sleeps all day, or just sits in his room surrounded by his few possessions: a curling, out-of-date wall calendar from a local halal butchers; a vase of kitsch plastic flowers; a stuffed toy tiger; and a few faded photos of his family mounted in cheap, shiny frames. He has stopped phoning his family back in Afghanistan for fear that the UKBA will intercept his calls and locate him.

“I am lost. I have nowhere to go. I can’t go forward, and I can’t go back. I am worse than an animal in a cage,” Habib says. When depression overtakes him, he self-harms: using a knife, he has carved the letters “AFG” into his arm, as if to remind himself of a self-identity that is otherwise rapidly disappearing. Several months ago, he held his palm over the gas hob, deliberately melting his flesh. More than once, Ammanullah has had to pull Habib away from the window when he has attempted to jump out.

Soberingly, Habib’s life of suspended animation is far from unique: between 2010 and 2012, 4,240 UASC claimed asylum in the UK, yet over the same period, only 13.8% of these former unaccompanied children departed or were removed.[vi] This astounding “gap in the figures suggests that the majority of former unaccompanied children remain in the UK as young adults with an undetermined or unlawful status”.[vii]

Taking responsibility

Who is to blame? As far back as 2008, Right Honourable Iain Duncan Smith MP said that the then government was “using forced destitution as a means of encouraging people to leave voluntarily”, a “failed policy driven by the clearly falsified thesis that we can encourage people to leave by being nasty”.[viii]

And in 2013, as Kamena Dorling of the Coram Children’s Legal Centre notes in a recent Al Jazeera article, the Education Select Committee asserted that “it would be outrageous if destitution were to be used as a weapon against children because of their immigration status”.[ix]

Yet today, half way through 2015, the government’s immigration policy still appears to create a deliberately unreceptive environment for migrants. Ironically, the very system that aims to discourage asylum seekers from overstaying or absconding may leave them with little choice but to do precisely that.

But this is not just an issue of government policy. It’s also about the messages propagated in the media. Three years ago, the Leveson report into press standards stated that due to the media’s “significant influence over community relations and the way in which parts of society perceive other parts”, it is “important that stories on immigration and asylum are accurate and are not calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment”.[x]

However, the report found that in the tabloids particularly, “there are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to immigrants and asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice […], rather than an aberration.” Both implicitly and overtly, migrants are associated in the press with criminality, terrorism, making bogus claims for protection, and exploiting the benefits system.

Despite Leveson and the British conviction that it has always offered sanctuary to foreigners, public concerns about immigration are still being fuelled by the increasingly provocative views of right-wing media and political groups. “There is certainly an unhelpful racist and xenophobic discourse, even around unaccompanied minors,” says Duffy, back at Paiwand. “It is vicious and very worrying. It represents migrants as liars, as being violent and disrespectful of British values, instead of highlighting the misery and suffering of people who have sought refuge in this country.”

And Habib is not immune to the public’s hostility and suspicion: “People want us to go from here. They think we are dirty and want things for free,” he says.

“I know that it’s wrong to run away,” Habib concludes. “I know it’s bad. But what choice did I have? Wouldn’t you do the same if you were me?”

[i] The names of all asylum seekers referenced in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

[ii] IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis/UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  (2013). Worsening Violence Against Children in Afghanistan.

[Online]. Available at: http://www.irinnews.org/printreport.aspx?reportid=98262. [Accessed 14th December, 2014].

[iii] UK Government Home Office statistics, quoted in Jones, S. (2010). Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees Population Guide: Afghans in the UK.

[Online]. Available at: http://www.icar.org.uk/Afghans%20in%20the%20UK.pdf. [Accessed 11th December, 2014].

[iv]UK Government Home Office statistics, quoted in Refugee Council. (2014). Asylum Statistics: February 2014. [Online]. Available at:

http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/assets/0003/1356/Asylum_Statistics_Feb_2014.pdf. [Accessed 10th December, 2014], p.8 and p.9.

[v] A type of flavoured tobacco popular in the Middle East and South Asia.

[vi] Matthews, A. (2014). “What’s Going to Happen Tomorrow? Unaccompanied Children Refused Asylum. [Online]. Available at: http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_794. [Accessed 16th December, 2014], p. 9.

[vii] Ibid., p.9.

[viii]  Dorling, K. (2014). Homeless and Stateless in the UK. [Online]. Available at:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/12/homeless-stateless-uk-2014121084956811200.html. [Accessed 16th December, 2014].

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Electronic Immigration Network. (2012). Leveson report finds sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to immigrants and asylum seekers is concerning. [Online]. Available at:  http://www.ein.org.uk/news/leveson-report-finds-sensational-or-unbalanced-reporting-relation-immigrants-and-asylum-seekers. [Accessed 18th December, 2014].


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Forum.  For re-publishing and other inquires please contact  Eleanor Weber-Ballard via  Twitter @eleanorzafra


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