As a journalist, Caroline Brothers covered global migration since 2007, working for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among others. But as she spoke with asylum-seekers—especially children facing down the dangers of international migration without any adults—she decided she needed another set of tools to bring their stories into her readers’ consciousness. “I wrote the novel,” Brothers says, “because I felt strongly that we needed to take another look at this most human of subjects, in a quiet space that would let us think, with politics left at the door.”
That novel, Hinterland (2011), focuses on two brothers fleeing the droughts and unrest in Afghanistan and their two-year journey throughout Europe, seeking asylum in London.
In 2017, Scottish theatre company Vox Motus premiered Flight, their adaptation of Brothers’book, at the Edinburgh International Festival and then toured it to Ireland, Australia, the UK, and the United States.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, children are vastly over-represented in the world’s refuge population: Children are less than a third of the world’s population but almost half of the world’s refugees. (Refugees are defined as people fleeing armed conflict or persecution, and are distinct from migrants; children comprise 10% of the world’s migrant population.) In 2020, there were 1.1 million Afghan refugees under the age of 18 actively seeking asylum, second only to Syria as the source country for child refugees.
Here are three of Brothers’ articles on unaccompanied minors on the move:
“Out of Afghanistan: incredible stories of the boys who walked to Europe,” The Guardian, January 2012
Behind the security bars of a spartan, white-tiled room, 25 youths are arranging bedrolls on the floor. The workers on the Salvation Army nightshift, who watch over these lone foreign teenagers in a shelter in a gritty corner of Paris, are distributing sheets and sleeping bags; there are a couple of boys from Mali and a contingent of Bangladeshis; the rest have travelled overland, by every conceivable method, from Afghanistan.
The youngest are 13 years old, pint-sized cousins from Kabul who arrived that morning after a journey of five months. They take off their trainers and place them at the end of their bedrolls. One of them, Morteza, gingerly peels off his socks. The undersides of his toes are completely white.
I ask what happened to his feet. "Water," he says. Where was he walking in water? Mohammed, the boy on the next bedroll who knows more English, translates. "In the mountains," he says. Which mountains, I ask, thinking about the range that forms the border between Turkey and Iran. "Croatia, Slovenia, Italy,'' Morteza says. Mohammed intervenes. "Not water,'' he clarifies. "Snow."
Suddenly I understand. Morteza's feet are not waterlogged or blistered. He has limped across Europe with frostbite.
"Afghan Youths Seek a New Life in Europe," The New York Times, August 2009
On the edges of a Salvation Army soup line in Paris, a soft-spoken Afghan boy told the story recently of how he ended up in Europe, alone.
The boy, who said he was 15 but looked younger, recounted how his family left Afghanistan after his mother lost her leg in an explosion in 2004. They spent three years in Iran, where he went to school for the first time, learning English and discovering the Internet. After his father suffered a back injury that made working difficult, the boy, who declined to give his name, headed west.
He spent two months working 11-hour days in a clothing sweatshop in Istanbul, he said. He was then smuggled into Greece, where he was forced to work on a potato and onion farm near Agros for nine months, finally escaping in the back of a truck. He reached Paris by train after nearly a year on the road.
“I want to go to school,” he said in English. “I would like it if I could be…it sounds like a lot to ask…an engineer of computing.”
“Desperation Gathers and Makes a Nightly Dash for Britain,” The New York Times, April 2008
It is midnight, and eight hooded figures slip around the side of a freight truck at a gas station on the outskirts of this northern French port. They wait in the orange half-light while one tries the locked truck door. It doesn’t give, and seconds later the figures vanish among the dozens of semitrailers at this, the last truck stop before England.
Most weeknights, smugglers lead clandestine migrants across the maze of highways that encircle Calais to parking lots like this, where drivers sleep before catching a ferry to Dover, 21 miles away. The migrants, who have paid the smugglers $500 to $1,000 to get them across the English Channel, will try again.
Truckers like Juan Antonio Santiago of Spain, sipping coffee at a gas station at 1 a.m. one night early this month, face hefty fines or even jail if stowaways are found in their vehicles, or clinging to a ledge under the truck. “It’s a fear we all have,” he said. “But the greatest risk is taken by the migrants, because of the danger of falling off.”
Still, thousands of migrants, mostly Afghans, Kurds and Eritreans, flock to Calais and other northern French ports each year, where they huddle in makeshift camps and try to dodge the police as they wait for the chance to make the dangerous crossing.