Pressure Points of Abuse for Young Refugees

It is not the purpose of this toolkit to discuss the socio-political issues around migration and refugee status. However, we wish to draw your attention to the complexities of the lives of people forced into moving and the overlap of reasons. Academic and practice research demonstrates that there multiple points in the diverse experiences of refugees and migrants, where abuse can occur and have devastating effects upon the child or young person.

Pre-departure Abuse Issues

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well. your neighbours running faster than you, the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body, you only leave home when home won’t let you stay. No one would leave home unless home chased you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly. it’s not something you ever thought about doing, and so when you did – you carried the anthem under your breath, waiting until the airport toilet to tear up the passport and swallow, each mouthful of paper making it clear that you would not be going back. you have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. Who would choose to spend days and nights in the stomach of a truck unless the miles travelled meant something more than journey. no one would choose to crawl under fences, be beaten until your shadow leaves you, raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of the boat because you are darker, be sold, starved, shot at the border like a sick animal, be pitied, lose your name, lose your family, make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten, stripped and searched, find prison everywhere and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side with go home blacks, refugees dirty immigrants, asylum seekers sucking our country dry of milk, dark, with their hands out smell strange, savage – look what they’ve done to their own countries, what will they do to ours? The dirty looks in the street softer than a limb torn off, the indignity of everyday life more tender than fourteen men who look like your father, between your legs, insults easier to swallow than rubble, than your child’s body in pieces – for now, forget about pride your survival is more important. i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home tells you to leave what you could not behind, even if it was human. No one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now, i don’t know what i’ve become.


‘Home’, by Warsan Shire (British-Somali poet)

You can listen to the poem here

‘Home’, by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you would not be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one would put their children in a boat
unless the sea is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
wants to be beaten
wants to be pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one’s skin would be tough enough


go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe it’s because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hungry
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home unless home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Starting from the pre-departure stage of movement, it is important we start by considering why many displaced people leave their original places of residence and end up in settlement/refugee camps, trying to make their way across countries and so forth. Warsan Shire, the British-Somali poet, captures the horror of leaving and the state of desperation of the refugee, in her poem above. The reasons for displaced people leaving their usual site of residence, can be multiple but war or conflict, famine or poor food security, abuse and persecution are often cited and the aspiration of all displaced people is to seek a safe and better life away from these conditions (Vervliet, Vanobbergen, Broekaert and Derluyn 2015). However, the mix of reasons and the priority given to them in the accounts of displaced people can be complex. For instance, many people from Roma (Rom/Sinti etc.) backgrounds who many lay people, policy makers and politicians alike, will see as moving ‘just’ to find a better life, in fact have experienced serious discrimination even violence in their previous homes and societies (European Commission 2017). It is so normal in the course of their lives that this abuse may not even feature in their accounts of moving or certain forms of abuse will be left out, due to shame. Each refugee or migrant needs to be listened to, hear and understood as to their motivations and experiences and those supporting young people from these communities, have to recognise that much abuse and mistreatment will be hidden in the narratives they provide. It is crucial that abusive experiences from pre-departure are recognised by youth workers as potentially impacting on the future of the person and possibly require specialist support.

On Route and Travelling: Risks and Dilemmas

We saw in Toolkit 1, that many migrants and refugees will have made arduous and long journeys, across the Mediterranean, across deserts, mountain ranges and through dangerous territories. They will often have done this with little food, water or shelter and may have used the services of people smugglers. People smuggling rings use all kinds of means of transportation to move their human ‘cargo’, from metal containers, normally used for manufactured goods and produce, to refrigerated lorry compartments, the underside of trains or vehicles and even wooden boxes with the tops nailed down. As noted above, people smuggling and human trafficking are often used interchangeably in debates, but they describe very different phenomenon. Smugglers move their ‘cargo’ from a to b, usually letting the people moved go on their way, once in a certain territory. However, along the way, it is known that smugglers often abuse their charges (even though they have often paid a great deal to the smugglers), it is not unknown for smugglers to sexually assault, be physically violent towards, not feed or water or take any care of their charges (Human Rights Watch 2015). It is also the case that there is a strong risk of mortality as one is smuggled, because of the clandestine circumstances and risky transportation methods used. The official total of deaths of migrants and refugees trying to get into Europe, since 1993 (when the records began) is 34,361; however, this is likely to be an under-estimate (Spijkerboer 2018). Many migrants and refugees are put onto inadequate and unsafe boats on the coast of the African continent, particularly Libya, and are never seen again, these people may not make the ‘lists’ that are kept of those who have perished.

The journey also holds more risks to the young person; they are physically tough, requiring often stamina and strength. This is why refugees are often adult males, because they are seen by their families to have a much greater chance of escaping and then surviving the hard journey to safety (Strindberg 2015). Indeed, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR), note that at the point of leaving their homes, the gender ratio is nearly 50/50. However, more women and children stay in the refugee camps either within their countries (as internally displaced people) or over national borders, whereas more men will take the risk to travel further, because they are seen a physically strong enough to endure the journey and hardships along the way. In this sense, gendered notions of risk and the need for safety shape and frame who moves, where they move and how far they go.

Abuse Issues in the New Country or Place of ‘Safety’

The notion of a place of safety is a problematic one when it comes to working with child or youth refugees. The processes of displacement that they have experienced, often leave them very vulnerable, even where they should be safe. Moreover, there is increasing awareness that when we talk about the idea of safety we have to ask, ‘safe for whom?’ It is not the case that safety can be taken for granted, once a young refugee is away from what would seem to be immediate danger. In particular, global research on life in refugee camps have shown them to be dangerous places, especially for unaccompanied children and youth. The Norwegian Refugee Council (2016) for instance, argues that separation from parents and forced early marriage is not unheard of for children. Rohingya Muslim children and youth, living in cramped refugee camps on the Bangladeshi border, having run from genocide in Myanmar, are said to be at risk from child marriage, disease, falling into exploitation as child labourers, human trafficking and malnutrition (Relief Web 2017). Some families also sell their children into fishing, with the view that it will give them a trade and the family will benefit from a small amount of money. In reality, this is actually bonded labour, where the child will be taken away, by unknown adults to be exploited in the fishing industry to ‘pay off’ the debt of the money given to the family. Unsurprisingly, these children can be abused in many ways once away from the family and when at sea, have no means of escape (especially as many cannot swim).

Once in a new country other risks, which may have already been experienced in the past, can emerge again. For instance, domestic violence has been found to be commonplace in relationships between migrants and refugees (Lee-Treweek and Heyes 2018). The dynamics of this violence are unclear because although domestic abuse may be visible in the country of origin, it seems that movement and displacement puts extra strain on relationships, which can lead to higher levels of abuse. This is not to excuse the abuse or the abuser, because someone is under strain, it does not allow them to be violence to others; however, it may explain higher rates of domestic abuse. In situations of displacement, the victim/target of abuse, may find it more difficult to get help or leave, due to language barriers, lack of knowledge about services, fear of authorities, reliance upon the abuser (especially if that person is offering an opportunity for residency or citizenship through marriage, for instance) and also cultural beliefs might mean the victim will not report. These are complex issues but youth workers need to understand the difficulties for migrants and refugees around domestic violence, the problems they might have in telling others and reporting to authorities.

Case Studies of Abuse – What would you do?

These case studies were collected from practitioners working with child and youth refugees and provide an opportunity to explore, alone or in groups with colleagues, the issues that emerge from the accounts.

Asraf’s Story: I had to Do it to Escape

Asraf was born in Afghanistan and lived there until he was 12. Afghanistan is a country with a history of conflict and the poor life outcomes that come with war and conflict situations. The situation is so dangerous that children and young people often cannot go to school and even going to work is a dangerous endeavour. After being injured during a bomb attack, which killed his parents and suffering with the continual fear and anxiety living with severe risk and threat creates, Asraf decided to escape to Europe. He linked up with a group of men from his community who were going to leave but he barely knew them. He took with him the clothes on his back, a small pack of food and a small backpack with a change of clothes and some money from relatives. Crossing mountains on foot, Asraf fell and injured his bad leg further but carried on walking. Passing through Iran, the local Police stopped the group and demanded money and once, when he went to urinate, one of the policeman followed him and tried to force Asraf to perform a sex act. The policeman said to Asraf, “you are worth less than a dog in our country. If you do this I will help you in your journey”. Asraf managed to escape back to the group but did not tell anyone what had happened. He felt ashamed and blamed himself, he also became afraid that this might happen again and became wary of other people.

Although his travelling companions walked faster than him and it was difficult with his damaged leg, Asraf managed to keep up. They had already told him that if he could not do so then they would leave him behind because they could not look after a child. Travelling across many countries, often paying for help with transit, they arrived in Turkey, where they were arrested and taken to a refugee camp. In the camp Asra was separated from his travelling companions. He had to look after himself but one man offered to help him and travel onward with him, in return for sex. Asraf was at first disgusted but he had already learned from the situation with the policeman, that being used for sex was one way of gaining help and he had no alternatives. He travelled with this man across the Turkish border and across Europe, his ‘protector’ paying for smugglers to help them. On one leg of the journey they were packed into a dark sealed crate with 20 other people and Asraf thought he would die. It was smugglers who facilitated Asraf entering the UK, but this was not without great cost to Asraf, who was now not only being sexually abused by his ‘protector’ but was being offered out to smugglers to use sexually and to other men – anyone who would pay. At this point Asraf was confused about who was his friend and who he could trust. It felt that the only way to be ‘safe’ was to allow others to abuse him but that left him feeling empty and sad; the only hope he had was to get to safety in a place he believed could give him that – the UK.

When Asraf reached the UK he was arrested after being found in a lorry. Asraf was pleased as the Police split him up from the man he was with and gave him food and clothes. Asraf was placed in a shared house with other young refugees. During this time, NGOs began to help him. In particular, a worker from the Children’s Society linked up with him and asked him what had happened. To his relief, Asraf found that the worker did not judge him and began to build a plan to support him to go to a youth group.


Activity: Helping Asraf

  1. Identify the forms of abuse that Asraf experienced.
  2. Imagine you were the worker who visited Asraf, hearing his experience, how might you begin to support Asraf and his wellbeing?



Asraf has experienced multiple forms of abuse but also traumatic experiences from conflict and war. We know his parents were killed and that he lived in an environment of fear and uncertainty in Afrghanistan, including not being able to access education due to safety concerns. These factors will have negatively impacted on him. Moreover, on his journey, Asraf experienced fear of abandonment and sexual abuse from adults. He had to make a terrible choice to engage in ‘survival sex’ (sex that a person has to/is forced to take part in to survive) so that he would be safe on his journey, this led to him being sexually abused by multiple men and pimped out by one adult male, for rape and sexual assault. Asraf is a child and so cannot give sexual consent, he will have been left confused and distressed by this experience, which he may exhibit now or later and that may well negatively impact his psychological health. We should also remember that sexual abuse can lead to physical injuries or disease transmission, such as gonorrhoea or HIV/AIDs. Below is one plan showing how we might plan to start the process of helping Asraf:

  1. Believe him, recognise his experience, reassure him he safe,
  2. Build a trusting relationship with Asraf through respect. Listening and responding appropriately,
  3. Support Asraf in seeking medical support, encouraging him to go for a check-up in regards to his sexual health but also for his injured leg.
  4. Speak with Asraf about whether he required counselling or psychological services. Asraf has experienced rape, fear for his life on his journey and will have many feelings still from loss of his parents. He may not be ready for psychological support at this point though and this should be respected,
  5. Help Asraf understand the way welfare and support services work in the UK and to make choices around how to use them,
  6. Although Asraf speaks some English we need to ensure that he has access to a translator, where appropriate, and if Araf feels he wants one,
  7. Introduce him to services that might support his social welfare and development, such a youth clubs, refugee support groups
  8. Liaise with educational services, local councils and others to seek opportunities for education for Asraf,
  9. Ensure that any processes of seeking refugee status that Asraf is going through are monitored and, where necessary, provide help with this process.
  10. If at any point you think that Asraf is a danger or risk, either to himself or others, report this immiediately to police, health services, social services or other relevant agencies.

The last point is very important, whilst we must safeguard this child from further abuse, recognising that he will be vulnerable from his experiences, as others have taken over Asraf’s life, even his body, in the past, it is crucial that we support him to have his own sense of control and agency. Facilitating Asraf in making choices for himself, is therefore very important in any process of helping him and boosting his wellbeing.

Mpenda’s Story: “These are my Friends”

Mpenda came to the UK as a baby with his family from the Democratic Republic of Congo and is now 15. He does not remember the journey or he process of getting asylum but he knows from his Mum that it was hard. Mpenda lives with his Mum, her new partner and four siblings in East Ham, part of East London. His knowledge of his background is unclear but he knows that some of his family were killed in Goma Bukavu, in the eastern part of the DRC, in the ongoing civil war and others killed before that in other areas during what he has heard termed ‘genocide’. Mpenda also knows that the DRC has a complex history, which he does not understand but in which he knows fighting has been going on since mid-1990.

Although Mpenda does not remember the country, he feels confused about how he should feel about his ‘country land’ because all he remembers is growing up in the UK. But that experience has not always been good. Housed in East Ham, part of East London, Mpenda has struggled with instances of racism against his family for as long as he can remember. Whilst these are less common now, in the past dog excrement was spread on the families front wall regularly a few years ago, Mpenda was bullied at school, beaten up and told to ‘go home’, on a weekly basis. He began to truant from school and hang out with older boys from a range of second generation migrant and refugee communities. He liked the friendship and sense of belonging in a group. This group began to commit crimes together and because of threats from other groups all carry knives ‘for protection’. Mpenda personally knows three young people who have been stabbed, one to death, in his local area. He says that he carries a knife to stop this happening to him but Mpenda’s mother is terrified he will be killed anyway. She struggles to help her son, because of the strong hold that being in groups of young men seems to hold over him. She has also been in trouble with the school about his attendance and when he does go he is often suspended, meaning she is having problems keeping her job due to time off and suffers from anxiety and depression.

Recently Mpenda has been asked by a group of young men in their twenties to work with them. They sent him out to Essex to deliver some drugs into an area that Mpenda does not know. He was given money for the tube train and told a postcode. The men said that unless Mpenda does this he cannot join their group and that he will need to do a series of ‘initiation’ tasks to prove himself to them. Mpenda is proud to have been asked to do this and regards these men as his friends, this but his mother has contacted you, petrified and confused about what is happening.

Activity: Helping Mpenda

  1. Identify the forms of abuse that Mpenda experienced.
  2. Imagine you were the worker who visited Mpenda and his family and heard about his experiences, how might you begin to support Mpenda and his wellbeing?


Mpenda, came to the UK as a refugee with his family as a baby. Although given refugee status and being allowed to stay in the UK, it is clear that support to help Mpenda’s family has not been effective and he experiences confusion over his role, place and sense of belonging in the UK. This has left Mpenda vulnerable to manipulation and gang-membership. Mpenda has experienced multiple forms of abuse, including vicarious trauma from hearing about the killing of relative in DRC, acts of racism whilst in the UK, bullying at school and most probably in the community too and then he has been drawn into relationships with groups of young men, some of which appear to be exploitative. It may well be that other forms of abuse have been experienced by Mpenda during this process, but at this stage, we do not know. Certainly, it sounds, from the information we have, as if Mpenda is increasingly being involved in ‘county lines’, where children and youth are manipulated and abused to carry out criminal activity, usually by older youths. This is a very serious situation and there is a need to move fast to support him and his family. For instance, Mpenda is carrying a knife, which in itself is a crime in the UK, puts him at greater risk of being harmed by others carrying knives and indicates the kinds of youth networks he is moving within. Below is one plan showing how we might plan to start the process of helping Mpenda,

It is imperative that we make contact with Mpenda and his family and speak to them about their feelings about what is happening. As Mpenda’s mother is also relatively vulnerable, it is important we speak to her too, even though the prime focus is helping Mpenda.

Listening and believing Mpenda is the first step to helping and supporting him,

It is important that Mpenda understands that no one will judge him or blame him in this process,

The most important thing is to get Mpenda out of risk as soon as possible. It will be necessary to ask him if he carries a knife, as his mother reports, and to explain that this is illegal and the risks of carrying a weapon, which carries a potential four year prison sentence in the UK, explain that if he insists on carrying one, you may have to report this to the Police,

Signpost Mpenda’s Mum to support, such as No Knives, Better Lives, an NGO that helps young people, families and communities effected by knife crime. Also direct Mpenda to their resources on the Internet,

Connect up with the Police to discuss Mpenda’s exploitation through criminal activity and ‘county lines’. Recognise within this that Mpenda is a minor and county lines involves the grooming of minors for criminal activity. The real criminals here are the older youths exploiting Mpenda. In London you could get support from specially trained Police officers in the Metropollitan Police.

Speak to the local authority social services, to put in place support for Mpenda and his family,

Speak to Mpenda’s school to discuss his education and the issues he faces. The school may have other information about Mpenda and therefore, you may be able to act as a bridge to bring different sets of information about what is happening together and ensure that all agencies are communicated with on these issues,

Link up with NGO’s in the area that offer alternatives activities for local youth and discuss with Mpenda, what he would like to do. These groups might also give him a chance to speak to others who have experienced county lines or criminal exploitation and help him to see that this is wrong. It will also help him to develop alternative friendship networks, which may help to drawn him away from his current peer and older youth gangs,

Examine the issue of counselling or psychological help for Mpenda, if he feels it might help him to talk with others,

Support Mpenda in his choices, insofar as these are safe for him and others,

Where you believe Mpenda to be in immediate risk, act to safeguard him by telling the police and social services right away. If Mpenda is in danger or is a danger to others, you must take action immediately.