When someone thinks about immigrants and refugees the first image that comes to mind is of adults crossing borders with little to nothing on them. The story line most of the time is about young adult men and families. But we cannot dismiss that unaccompanied minors are also part of it. Children who had to flee their countries of origin from fear of prosecution, war, unsafe environments or poverty and for different reasons they ended up to be separated from their families. In a very young age, they have to deal with the suffering that comes from the loss of home and the loss of their own family. These hard circumstances they have to endure, have a great impact on them as individuals and they affect their identity as they grow up moving between borders. They don’t experience the normality of a childhood as every child has the right to, according to the United Nations Rights of the Child commands 1. Over the years, the number of unaccompanied minors and separated children has only increased in western European countries from 70.000 asylum seekers aged less than 18 years old in 2012 to 220.000 in 2023, with Germany. France and Sweden are the top three countries that accept most of them2 . But still media and scholarly discussion about them is very little or limited to statistics reports 3.
In this essay the focus is on the life story of one of these unaccompanied minors, J.B. 4, and his personal experience of crossing borders, without his family and with no legal papers to prove who he is, what is his name, or simply put, his existence in the world. The main questions that will be the guide thought this essay is (1) how an unaccompanied minor grows up though these unconventional circumstances and (2) how does it affect or/and shape their identity as an individual and a member of society. And also (3) which of the available terms – “immigrant”, “refugee” and “stateless person” 5 – is more appropriate to describe J.B.’s experience along with hundreds of thousands other dislocated people.
After twelve hours of interviewing him, it became clear how therapeutic this process was for him but also how necessary it is for his voice to be heard. The relative lack of testimonies like this leaves a big gap in our understanding of what an unaccompanied minor goes through. So, the purpose of this essay is not only to answer the aforementioned questions but also to give this testimony a place in the overall narrative about the contemporary refugee phenomenon.
J.B., born in 1998, was only nine years old when he got separated from his family. Until the moment his mum explained to him that they had to leave he had lived in the same village, near Helmand, Afghanistan. Every day was the same. Life was simple. One day, as he describes it, “the bad people” came to talk to his father and they left together. His father owned some fields and buildings that these people wanted to take, but he rejected their advances. The night they left the rest of the family got worried. The next few days his mother made arrangements for them to leave for Iran and met with the people who would help them cross the borders. There the unexpected happened. Even if he was then only nine years old and his brother only eight years old, they were considered as “men” and they weren’t allowed to be in the same car with their mother and sister. After some talking, his brother was allowed to join them because his sister would need help with her baby, but he was not. “In that moment I didn’t know it was going to be a goodbye, I thought I would see them soon”, he says; but he soon understood it when, after crossing the borders to Iran, he was left in Teheran all alone and with no knowledge of where was his family.
After wandering around for a long time, “scared, sad and alone”, an Afghan man approached him and asked him who he was and what was wrong. He took him to his house, fed him and tried to look for his family to no avail. That man had come to Iran with hopes to eventually travel to Europe, but he never got the courage to do it. He offered J.B. a job and let him stay with him. “I didn’t trust him at first, but after a few weeks he was like a big brother to me. He showed me the world map and I saw for the first time how many countries were out there. I didn’t know anything other than Afghanistan’s map”, he remembers. The man would also teach him some English and he would talk to him about how going to Europe would be a way for him to have a better life. They stayed together for three years until he saved enough money. The man arranged for him to cross the borders in a group with others.
He would either stay there and be careful not to get in trouble, working and staying home, or he would risk everything for something better. One night eventually he had to leave. “Saying goodbye to the man was not easy. It reminded me of the last time I saw my family”. He would never see that man again. He was the youngest in the group with no papers with him. He followed orders and tried to keep up. “I was lonely and scared”, he recalls. There were moments where he was so tired, he couldn’t keep going, but the traffickers would punch or threaten him to keep going otherwise he would be left alone in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t know where he was or how long it took for them to get to Turkey. “I didn’t even understand that we were crossing borders. I didn’t know if I was going to make it”, he says.
The Turkish police arrested the whole group and put them to jail. He says “that wouldn’t be the first time I would be put in jail. I think I was in jail at least fourteen times”. After an earthquake they were released and given a paper that allowed them to stay in the country for a month. They all decided to continue their journey, first by bus and then on foot. He didn’t know where they were going. He was often too tired to keep going or felt very scared. “I was all alone. Yes, the people were good to me but they were not my friends and I knew that”. In that moment he didn’t think about it a lot. He just wanted to make it. Today he remembers “I was always scared of what would happen next”. Still, he had no contact with his family at that point.
He remembers that they walked for many hours and made it to river Evros at the Greek-Turkish border. They got into the boat, and they had to make it to other side very fast because the stream could take them away. “I didn’t know how to swim and I was very scared to do it. My mother always said the water is dangerous. But what other choice did I have?”. They barely made it on the opposite side. It was dark. The people in charge were nowhere to be found. He was wet and cold. They walked until a police car stopped them and took them to a camp full of immigrants and refugees. There he met another Afghan and learned that he was in Greece. The man told him they had to go to Athens, and then to the port-city of Patras. Once there, they slept in squares and abandoned buildings with other “immigrants who were travelling too like me”. Some bakeries would give them bread. Once he remembers a guy giving him oranges. He only knew he had to go further into Europe. He and the guy stayed together and tried to find a way to leave along with the others. He got beaten, he got robbed and ended up in jail one too many times. Although he was underage, he shares “I was in the same cell with actual criminals of all kinds, and heard them saying their stories to me”. Finally, after perhaps three months, J.B. and some others managed to sneak into a truck and finally into a ferry to Italy. His Afghan friend did not make it. For J.B. that was another unexpected goodbye of someone he cared about. “I was sad. Once again, I lost someone”.
Once in Italy, he was told he had to jump out of the truck. He was very scared but he had no other choice. He didn’t know where he was or what to do next. He was still crying for leaving behind the guy that helped him in Greece. The people he was with didn’t want to take him along and they left him in a forest. He cried for a long time until some of the others came back and told him they would help him, but he shouldn’t make a sound. They got into a car. “I didn’t know where I was, or where we were heading. I was just so sad from what had happened”. After maybe days they left him at a train station. “I was all alone again, not knowing what to do”. Someone saw him, called the police and they picked him up. He couldn’t understand the language people were speaking. Until the moment he got to a care home for boys like him he didn’t know what was going on. There, he met another Afghan boy who told him, he was in Sweden. “I’ve never heard of Sweden before. I didn’t even know where it was in the map. I was only 13 years old then, I believe it was 2012.”
At first, he stayed there until a foster family was ready to host him. They took him and another boy in and they stayed together for a while. Soon after they would start going to school and life would start getting a sense of normality back. For a long time, he was tortured by nightmares. “I would see people leaving me or that I was left all alone somewhere I didn’t know”. The welfare organization in charge of his care and his finances helped him find his family and get him the right papers. He was given a permanent resident permit and a “special passport”, as he describes it, which he could use to travel. Finally, they reunited in Iran during Christmas after his sixteenth birthday. “We cried nonstop for a week. There was a lot of emotion. In the moment I couldn’t even process what was going on.”
Seeing his family after all this time and everything that had happened was heartbreaking and full of joy at the same time. They still didn’t have news about his father. He did try to bring them to Sweden but he could only bring his first-degree family, that meant that his sister’s son could not come. Growing up in Sweden, he recounts, “I started to understand how different my first culture is from the Swedish one”. Determined to learn the language, the social rules and the way of living, he progressed very fast at school and managed to get into university. He called often with his family and he tried his best to save money to visit them again. Around 2016-2017 the institutional framework changed, and he could no longer leave the country. He had to apply for a citizenship, and that could take at least three years, so he visited them once more before his passport expired. Luckily, he managed to get his citizenship and he had the opportunity to visit his family again. “It was in the spring of 2022 and that was also the time when we had news of my father again and I saw him again. Now he lives with the rest of my family in Iran.”
Coming of Age Stateless
According to international law, J.B. became a refugee because he was “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. He was too young to know and understand, which is shown also when he refers to “bad people” in the beginning instead of talking about the breakdown of state authority in Afghanistan, but it is obvious that his life was in danger. Simultaneously he became stateless since he was also “someone who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”. These two terms; “refugee” and “stateless person”, have always been interconnected, as refugees can also be considered stateless persons the moment, they are dislocated6.
The psychological weight on his shoulders was too much for such a young person. Throughout his journey, he had no identification papers to prove who he was. In the eyes of authorities, he was a refugee. Unfortunately, while moving from one country to the other, it is evident his age and his nationality was not taken into account. He needed to grow up and be more mature sooner than other kids his age. The fact he was put into jail, alongside criminals, was a sign of how criminalized are refugees; including at such a young age. Even when the authorities in Turkey and in Greece saw how young he was or tried to help him at times, there was no institutional framework that could protect him and he was left alone again and again. The solidarity he received from the two Afghan men he met was undoubtedly vital to his survival but also to his growth as a person. They were not only his protectors, but also became “family” to him. The danger of losing his life or falling victim to trafficking was always present.
Arriving in Sweden and getting a permanent resident permit, was the first time ever he had identification papers, probably given to him as the status of asylum seeker implements. His status changed, when the global situation changed in 2016 with the ongoing refugee crisis; he was deprived of a passport and given the only option of getting citizenship. He was told it could take years or not happen after all. Until the process of obtaining citizenship was finalized, he was unable to leave the country. “I felt trapped”. But even after he got his citizenship, and he could go anywhere in the world now, he felt like “nothing in the world”, similar to when he was a refugee stateless child.
Being asked if he feels Swedish or Afghan, he can’t give a simple answer. His identity is split in many pieces, as it was formed between countries and influenced by one of the hardest experiences a child could ever live. More specifically he says:
When asked if he would ever move to Iran to be close to his family, he says no. Life in Afghanistan or Iran has no future for him and he knows it. On one side, there is the current situation in Afghanistan, with the Taliban in control of the country. On the other, he would be just an Afghan in Iran, a theocratic oppressive state, that at the moment a Women’s Revolution is taking place. He admits he believes that his family would be better off living in Afghanistan than in Iran. At least Afghanistan is their home and they would die as humans, but in Iran they could die and no one would notice or care. He can’t ignore how different his life is now than the one his family is living. But when asked if he would leave his life in Sweden he replied without hesitation:
That shows a contradiction between him saying how he doesn’t feel Swedish and simultaneously calling Sweden his “home”. It is important to note here that it was in Sweden where he had the opportunity to finally set roots and build a life, a life that he didn’t have the chance to build elsewhere, just because he was born Afghan.
Going through an experience like this at such a young age, with no family, cannot be denied how traumatic it is. Considering the dangers, that a child faces in these circumstances, and the information taken from his testimony, it is evident he had to mature very early and make big life decisions, deprived of a normal childhood. With feelings of fear, loneliness and loss always present along his journey, his identity was split between borders. His sense of belonging was shaped around creating a safe and secure place filled with familiarity and comfort in Sweden. But his mindset never really left the “nothing” he describes before. The way he perceives himself as a person but also the world around him is a product of this experience. What is “first culture” or what is “home” for him transform through time and space and don’t fit in dictionary definitions. Most importantly, his understanding how “random luck” was the key factor of what he lived through has given him a sense of how small one is in the world, which reflects the tragedy of being a stateless refugee, especially in the case of unaccompanied minors. However, the use of the terms “stateless” and “refugee” must be taken into account that using them leaves out the exception of the particularity of the individual. These categorizations can be fluid and sometimes not enough to grasp the severity or reflect the gravity of this phenomenon, especially in the case of unaccompanied minors. Hopefully, this testimony will give us the opportunity to “hear” the voice one of the thousand numbers from the statistics that are usually used to describe the contemporary refugee phenomenon.
Children in migration – asylum applicants (2022) Statistics Explained. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statisticsexplained/index.php?title=Children_in_migration_-_asylum_applicants#Development_from_2012_to_2022 (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
Convention on the rights of the child (1989) OHCHR. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-rights-child (Accessed: 07 July 2023).
Lundberg, A., & Dahlquist, L. (2012). Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum in Sweden: Living Conditions from a Child-centred Perspective. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 31(2), 54–75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45054931
Namondo, S, (2020) Who is a migrant, a refugee, a stateless person and an asylum seeker?, The Organization for World Peace. Available at: https://theowp.org/who-is-a-migrant-a-refugee-a-stateless-person-and-an-asylum-seeker/ (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
Stateless person definition (2020) UNHCR. Available at: https://emergency.unhcr.org/protection/legal-framework/stateless-person-definition (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
Towards a Comprehensive European Migration Policy: 20 years of EU Action (2015) European Commission – European Commission. Available at:
https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/MEMO_15_4544 (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
- Convention on the rights of the child (1989) OHCHR. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-rights-child (Accessed: 07 July 2023)
- Lundberg, A., & Dahlquist, L. (2012). “Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum in Sweden: Living Condtions from a Child-centred Perspective”, Refugee Survey Quarterly, 31(2), 54–75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45054931 Children in migration – asylum applicants (2022) Statistics Explained. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Children_in_migration_-_asylum_applicants#Development_from_2012_to_2022 (Accessed: 19 June 2023)
- Children in migration – asylum applicants (2022) Statistics Explained. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statisticsexplained/index.php?title=Children_in_migration_-_asylum_applicants#Development_from_2012_to_2022 (Accessed: 19 June 2023)
- My interviewee does not wish to disclose his identity; therefore, I am using fake initials.
- Namondo, S, (2020) Who is a migrant, a refugee, a stateless person and an asylum seeker?, The Organization for World Peace. Available at: https://theowp.org/who-is-a-migrant-a-refugee-a-stateless-person-and-an-asylum-seeker/ (Accessed: 19 June 2023)
- Stateless person definition (2020) UNHCR. Available at: https://emergency.unhcr.org/protection/legal-framework/stateless-person-definition (Accessed: 19 June 2023)