The Journey of an Unaccompanied Child Refugee

With thousands of unaccompanied child refugees forced to make the perilous journey to the UK every year, Tom Schwartz finds out how they get here and who helps them once they arrive.

Tom Schwartz speaks to Adam and Natalie to share their story.

It was a bright summer morning when Adam* left his home. The warm African sun beat down on his neck as he surveyed the Sudanese landscape for the last time, unsure if he would ever return. He said goodbye to his friends and family, and boarded the waiting pickup-truck – his transport for the next couple of weeks – and left, not sure where he was going. Not sure if he would even make it anywhere alive.

Travelling without his parents, Adam was just 15 when he fled Sudan.

And yet, speaking to him, you would think he was no different from any other teenager. Now 18, he joked in broken English  about how he knew the exact date he came to the UK.

“I came on the 27th of June” he laughed. I ask him what time, he just smiles and shakes his head. “I do not know the time, but it rained.”


“It was scary coming over, but when you see scary things all the time it’s not so bad.”


He tells me, in the same manner you or I might tell someone how to get to the shops, how he and other Sudanese boys made their way through Libya on the back of a beaten-up flatbed truck.

Too young to purchase a beer, too young to drive a car, Adam then crossed the Mediterranean Sea to get to Italy – the same sea which took over 1,000 of his fellow refugees back in 2015.

He then travelled via train from the Italian coast up to France. He explained to me what he did when he got there:

“I stayed in the jungle in France. In the Calais jungle. I stayed in a tent. All 13 days, I just try and get lucky.”

I ask him what he means by getting ‘lucky’, to which he grins and replies:

“Get lucky on train.”

I asked him whether the journey was scary, and for the first time he stops smiling.

“Yeah it is. It’s a horrible journey. It was scary coming over, but when you see scary things all the time, it’s not so bad.”

He continued: “I got on a lorry in a train to UK.”

“The police caught us in Dover, and kept us for five hours.”

I asked him whether this too was scary, to which he just laughed and replied “No.”


Possible route taken by Adam.

In 2015/16, Kent saw an increase of UASC – Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children. Like Adam, the first port-of-call for most refugees in the UK is Dover, Kent, and up until the summer of 2016 the county had a legal responsibility to look after all of those who arrived there.

At its peak, the council were responsible for over a thousand unaccompanied child refugees.

Adam explains how he was moved to an immigration centre in Ashford, where he was held for three months.

“Three months and 19 days, actually.” he joked.

“It was big. Massive place.”

He was then moved to Canterbury, where he now lives in a terraced house with three other boys. He says he has little supervision.

But when I ask him whether he enjoys it there, he beams and nods with satisfaction, replying:

“Yeah. Yeah.”

Children who apply for asylum in the UK are screened by an immigration officer to determine where they come from and whether they are under the age of 18 – two very difficult things to prove for the thousands that arrive with no formal documentation.

Some are then put into foster care, while others are simply given a roof over their heads.

Natalie* is a 21-year-old and falls into the former category. Her hobbies are those of anyone her age; shopping, movies, socialising.

Unlike most people, however, she left her home country when she was just 15. Travelling without her parents, she explained how she left because of family problems. She doesn’t go into any more detail. She came over with friends, but says that someone had to pay for her to come here.

When asked about the journey to the UK, she says she doesn’t remember. Whether the memory has been erased, or she feels too uncomfortable to relive it, I dare not ask.


KCC were responsible for 1,210 UASC in 2016.

Natalie was placed into foster care upon arrival. I asked her whether she got on with her foster parents, to which she hesitantly replied yes. I asked if she was still in contact with them, she laughed and said no.

The 21-year-old is studying healthcare in college to get into university. With free education taken for granted in the UK, it was heart-warming to see the pleasure in Natalie’s eyes when talking about learning.

“I want to go to university to do Social Psychology – I’m training to support young children. It’s quite fun. I like it here.”

She explains that she’s only worked at a local refugee charity for 4 weeks, and will be leaving after 12. Natalie is planning to get a job as a support worker.

When I ask about her plans on finding a job, with an optimistic smile she says: “I am going to apply to any I can.”


The Calais Jungle, where most refugees stay whilst trying to get into the UK. Image by malachybrowne.

The county offers little help to those that arrive in Kent. Instead, most refugees rely on charity organisations who help them with education and getting jobs. One such charity is the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN). Set up in 2003, the charity was originally established to help the Romany gypsies who came over in thousands. KRAN now specialises in helping young unaccompanied asylum-seekers.

Their CEO, Razia, tells me that Kent was responsible for over 1000 child refugees in 2015.

“There are still many just starting to leave the care system”, she explains.

KRAN mostly works with young adults aged from 15 to 18, but also offers some support work to those who are over 18.

I ask her where most refugees come from, to which she replies:

“They come from all over. Afghanistan, Eritrea, Vietnam, Sudan and the Middle East including Kurdistan, Syria, and Kuwait.”

The charity KRAN aims to give the refugees life skills to help them settle in the UK.

“We have 10 regular learners here at the moment. We teach them, we run programs like English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) as part of our learning for life course. But we also offer them pathways to other areas such as work, drama, sports and give them advocacy and support.

“We also help those who are ‘ARE’ – Appeals Right Exhausted.”

The thousands of child-refugees who arrived in Kent are slowly being dispersed to other counties, meaning that many will yet again be split up from their friends. They still face a daily struggle, with the government putting up hurdles at every given point. Some will be given British citizenship; others will get deported back to the African sun, forcing them to decide make the terrifying journey over here again.

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

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