The New Humanitarian | EU’s Joint Way Forward migration deal prioritises returns over durable solutions for Afghan refugees

Opinion: Focusing on returns is shortsighted. Instead, let’s help the countries that host the vast majority of Afghan refugees and migrants.
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Ellesmere College visit and talk

The talk was truly eye-opening for students, and some fantastic questions were asked by the students. He concluded his talk by explaining how he hopes to end the negative stigma associated with refugees and asylum seekers, and hopes to use his passion towards social change in order to inspire young people into having a more engaged participation in politics and policy-making. He also encouraged students to be kind and never to pass judgement as ultimately, you never know what somebody has been through.

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How many people do we grant asylum or protection to? – GOV.UK

In year ending June 2020, 53% of applications, at initial decision, resulted in grants of asylum, humanitarian protection or alternative forms of leave (such as discretionary leave or UASC leave), up from 44% in the previous year.
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Gulwali’s heartfelt story identifies the emotional trauma refugees go through trying to seek a safe place to live and shows us how they become oppressed on their journey.

Book review: The lightless sky, by Lyndsey

The novel ‘The Lightless Sky’ by author Gulwali Passarlay (2015) highlights many issues that we come across today within social work due to the ongoing refugee crisis. Gulwali’s heartfelt story identifies the emotional trauma refugees go through trying to seek a safe place to live and shows us how they become oppressed on their journey. Although I found the story upsetting to read, I think it gives us more of a detailed understanding of what is happening to refugees today (Passarlay, 2015).

Gulwali’s story began with stories from his childhood and different experiences he encountered as a child in Southern Afghanistan. It is clear to see the different way people in Afghanistan live compared to people in the UK. The children seem to be expected to grow up much earlier on and take on roles that would be duties for adults. This shows how factors such as cultural practices and beliefs can influence children’s upbringing (Dettlaff & Fong, 2016). One experience Gulwali recalls is watching a woman in the streets be stoned to death for being an adulteress. During this section he states, “I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t cry either” (Passarlay, 2015 p.27). If a child in Britain saw that happen in the middle of the streets, I think they would be very emotional and act differently to how Gulwali did. Therefore, I believe understanding cultural competence in social work practice today is so important, as it allows us to become more accustomed to different cultures way of life around the world and how they deal with their differences (Fong, 2004).

In 2006, at the age of twelve years old Gulwali and his brother Hazrat, aged thirteen fled their rural village to find a safe place to live in Europe. Their mother had arranged the journey for them and paid a smuggler to help them along the way. Some people would argue how a mother could allow her two sons to take the journey alone at such a young age. However, this decision was made after the death of their father and grandfather who lost their lives in a shoot-out with the US troops, who believed Gulwali’s family were hiding weapons for the Taliban (Passarlay, 2015). I think Gulwali’s mother felt her sons would have a better chance of survival fleeing the country, than they would if they had have stayed. This must have been such a terrifying ordeal for both young boys, losing people they love then leaving the rest of their family behind to try and find a safe place to survive. Gulwali (2015) says, “I was too traumatised to speak. My only comfort was my brother’s hand” (p.49). According to Bronstein and Montgomery (2011) children who are refugees have a higher prevalence of mental disorders than children who are not refugees. This shows how traumatic events that refugee children go through can lead to mental disorders that can persist for a long period of time. I believe that in order to pursue anti-oppressive practice and help these children receive the best support possible, we all have the responsibility of understanding the issues they have faced in life and the barriers and inequalities they have encountered (Horner, 2009).

Before the boys’ journey had barely begun, they were separated in Peshawar’s international airport. This made Gulwali very emotional, as he stated, “I was a terrified, lonely, sobbing mess” (Passarlay, 2015 p.50). From this moment Gulwali was on his journey with no family or people that he knew, just smugglers and other refugees. His journey took him across Iran and Turkey, then onto Bulgaria where he was forced off a moving train which resulted in him being arrested and deported back to Iran in prison. During this time, he made a few close friends who helped him along the way. As he mentioned “I was so grateful to Baryalai looking out for me the way he did – I couldn’t have made it otherwise” (Passarlay, 2015 p.101). This identifies how children seek attachments throughout life to survive and feel safe. As West et al (1987) proposed, “the presence of an attachment figure fosters security in the child” (Parkes, Hinde & Marris, 1991 p.66).

Gulwali managed to escape the prison in Iran and continue his journey again. Finally, back in Turkey he boarded a boat to Greece, this is where he nearly lost his life due to the boat being so overcrowded. Luckily, he was rescued by a coast guard and taken to an immigration centre in Athens. From here he went onto Italy were he finally found a safe place to stay, however with the determination to find his brother and reach Britain he fled to carry on his journey. He went onto Rome, then Paris and Calais. After a month in Calais Gulwali finally reached his destination, Britain (Passarlay, 2015).        

Throughout his journey Gulwali has moments where he thinks about his family back in Afghanistan and worries how they are, due to not having any contact with them. I think for a child of his age to be going through such a terrifying ordeal and having the added pressure of worrying about his family on top, must have really put a strain on his emotional wellbeing (Passarlay, 2015). Christiansen and Foighel (1990) carried out clinical work with unaccompanied refugee children in Denmark and found that many of them were “preoccupied with worry for the family’s wellbeing” (Kohli, 2007 p.36). This shows how the psychological effects of unaccompanied children can become complex due to leaving family members behind. However, some people may argue that Christiansen and Foighel’s (1990) study is outdated and not all unaccompanied refugee children will have complex psychological effects, as some children “demonstrate resilience in conducting their day to day lives” when their journey is complete (Kohli, 2007 p.38). To ensure unaccompanied refugee children receive the best possible care and support, it is our duty as social workers to have knowledge and understanding of the Working Together to Safeguard Children policy (2018) as this “acknowledges that children entering the UK are potentially the most vulnerable and in greatest need” (Kelly & Bokhari, 2012 p.24).

Once in Britain, Gulwali was arrested and interviewed. He recalled this experience, stating “they interrogated me for hours” (Passarlay, 2015 p.318). Research was carried out by Stanley (2001) looking at the experiences of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in England. These results identified “a pattern of chaotic, disturbing and inconsistent treatment of the young people interviewed” (Hayes & Humphries, 2004 p.45). This shows how some authorities misuse their power which affects the performance of official duties. In addition to this, stated in ‘The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (UNCRC) (1989) under article twelve, “the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law” (Unicef, 2019). I believe in this instance the UNCRC was not taken into consideration for Gulwali.

As social workers we have professional power to guide and support people, following policies and procedures. As outlined in the BASW (2014) Code of Ethics for social work, it is fundamental that we also have “respect for human rights and a commitment to promote social justice” (BASW, 2014 p.4). However, in Gulwali’s case this did not happen as the social workers he encountered “were aggressive and abrupt” (Passarlay, 2015 p.322) and did not believe that he was thirteen years old, so they sent him to live with adult asylum seekers. I found this frustrating and upsetting to read as “unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children in England have the same legal entitlements as citizen children” (Hayes & Humphries, 2004 p.45) including the right to health care and education.  However, it took Gulwali nearly two years to persuade the authorities that he was a child and finally at the age of fifteen he received his entitlements and started school. Some people may argue that this delay was down to the age assessment test that consists of asking a series of questions to try and determine the refugees age (Laird 2008).  

Gulwali went on to learn English, graduate from university and carry the Olympic torch in 2012. I believe this shows his determination and how our experiences in life can make us who we are today. Luckily for Gulwali his ending was a much happier one compared to many of the refugees who do not complete their journey to freedom. I feel this story has enlightened my understanding as to why the thousands of people risk their lives every day to flee their country and seek a safe place to live. It has also made me realise a lot more needs to be put into place to ensure the system is better attuned to meet the needs of unaccompanied child refugees. Overall, Gulwali’s experience has encouraged me to continue fighting for the rights of others by promoting social justice in my future practice.


BASW. (2014). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from

Bronstein, I., & Montgomery, P. (2011). Psychological distress in refugee children: a systematic review. DOI: 10.1007/s10567-010-0081-0

Dettlaff, A., & Fong, R. (2016). Immigrant and refugee children and families: Culturally responsive practice. New York: Columbia University Press

Fong, R. (2004). Culturally competent practice with immigrant and refugee children and families. New York: Guilford Press

Hayes, D., & Humphries, B. (2004). Social Work, Immigration and Asylum. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Horner, N. (2009). What is Social Work? Contexts and perspectives. Exeter: Learning matters Ltd.  

Kelly, E., & Bokhari, F. (2012). Safeguarding children from abroad. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Kohli, R. (2007). Social Work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Laird, S. (2008). Anti-Oppressive Social Work: A guide for developing cultural competence. London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Parkes, C., Hinde, J., & Marris, P. (1991). Attachment across the life cycle. London: Routledge

Passarlay, G. (2015). The lightless sky. London: Atlantic Books

Taylor, J., Bond, E., & Woods, M. (2013). Early childhood studies: A multidisciplinary and holistic introduction. London: Hodder Education

Unicef. (2019). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from

The Lightless Sky has been a thought provoking and challenging book to read, as I feel that I will take many of the lessons that I have learnt from it with me on my journey through social work practice.

Gulwali Passarlay’s novel is an earnest and honest recount of his personal journey from Afghanistan to the UK. It details his childhood and family life in Nangarhar, which was then interrupted by war. He explains the breakdown of his family, his blunt realization that he is to begin a long and arduous journey to Europe – alone, and the deterioration of his health both mental and physical. It is a novel that provokes feelings of sadness, empathy, shock, but also empowerment, a young boy’s journey to build a better life.

Throughout reading the book I often made links to my own childhood experiences, asking myself questions such as ‘would I have been able to make such a journey at such a young age?’ Thinking about the very prevalent theme of age, I was overwhelmed with shock at how a twelve year old child was able to manage money, meet new people and form mature friendships, and stay true to his internal rules and morals. It made me question whether at that age I would be able to make such life changing decisions, and navigate my way across the world using limited language skills and with little money. I feel overwhelmingly lucky that I was born in a country where human rights laws are very strong, and to a family that did not feel the pressure to move me away from my family home for my own safety and protection. There is a sense that Gulwali lost his childhood because of the war, and he needed to mature at an early age in order to survive.

I feel that Gulwali had such a strong personality and showed great determination. The journey that he took would have been commendable at any age, and it made me wonder whether many adults within our society would be able to do such a thing and show as much strength as he did. I also felt very strong feelings of empathy towards Gulwali, his mother and all of the displaced migrants that he came into contact with on his journey.

In effect, Gulwali lost all of his family, and didn’t even have the means to contact them by telephone. Being cut off from his grandparents made me feel especially saddened, as he expressed such care and love towards them in the first chapter, and I feel that much of the warmth in his own personality had been learnt through them. When he was in Afghanistan and his father was killed, he was understandably grieving with his family, yet when he was thrust on his journey to Europe he had to grieve for every other member of his family. This too included his brother, whom his mother had hoped would be by his side for the entire journey. I believe that the decision to send her children on such an arduous journey, never knowing if she would see or speak to them again, or whether they would live, must have been incredibly tough.

The breakdown of the family unit is one of many themes highlighted in the novel that are relevant to social work practice. According to the British Refugee Council (2019) there has been an increase in the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK. This will impact on social work practice because many social workers, during their professional lives, will encounter unaccompanied minors who will require their care and support. In order to work with these children we must try to understand their journeys and where they have come from, and The Lightless Sky provides a glimpse of that.

The novel highlights the theme of differing cultures very well, with Gulwali’s changing understanding of how others live. He struggled to accept how people would dress or present themselves, how women were accepted and treated within more western cultures and the general customs and ideals of people within Europe. For example in chapter twenty four he recalls meeting Sabina and Alexandria in Italy, and makes note that Alexandria was the first woman that he had ever shook hands with (Passarlay). His recollection of the role of the women in his life at the beginning of the novel compared to the role of women in the UK towards the end differs greatly. Gulwali explains that the women in Afghanistan ‘rarely left the house’ as it would bring shame upon the family if their women were seen in public. Comparatively, when Gulwali is placed with his foster parents in the UK, he explained that he struggled to understand why Sean, as the male of the house, was doing the majority of the cooking. He believed that this was the role of the woman within the family unit, but began to understand that his shock of this was due to cultural differences, and that if he were to live in the UK he would need to try to understand these differences.

What I found to be the most upsetting was Gulwali’s mental health problems that he describes throughout the book in harrowing detail. This made me wonder how many refugees and asylum seekers have trouble with their mental health whilst on their journey, and whether there is any help available to them.

Passarlay noted that he often had ‘bad dreams’, for example when he explained that his “sleep was filled with terrible dreams and flashbacks. I used to dream I was drowning, or wandering lost in the mountains” (Passarlay, 2015). Sleep terrors are one of the many symptoms that refugees and asylum seekers suffer with, alongside depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and conduct disorders (Fazel & Stein, 2002). They explain that there are three stages of traumatic experiences, which include the experiences within their native countries, their journey and then their period of finding respite in another country. Gulwali explains his psychological upset within all of these periods, describing in detail his struggles with being uprooted from his home in Afghanistan and apart from his family.

Gulwali notes on numerous occasions that his main concern was being apart from his brother, Hazrat. He set off on his journey alongside his brother, leaving the rest of his family in Afghanistan, but was quickly separated from him. Throughout reading the book I felt as though his journey to Europe was not just in search of refuge but also in search of his brother. This was shown when he was put in touch with someone that travelled to Europe alongside his Hazrat. Gulwali met with this man and upon hearing that Hazrat was in UK decided that he would travel to UK to find him (Passarlay, 2015). To Gulwali, the only way to ‘finish the journey’ and find peace was to be alongside his brother.

At the start of the book, Gulwali also describes his upset in his home country during the US war with Afghanistan. The trauma that he encountered will have made him more vulnerable to mental health problems such as increased levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Steel et al. (2009) explains that people seeking asylum are likely to encounter problems with their mental health because of pre-migration and post-migration experiences. This means that because they are opened up to traumatic events in their home countries – such as war or poor human rights – and traumatic experiences on their journey to their country of asylum, they are more likely to suffer with mental health problems. This is reinforced by research that shows that asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population and more than 61% will experience serious mental distress (Eaton, Ward, Womack & Taylor, 2011).

Due to there being higher rates of mental health problems within refugees and asylum seekers, compared to the general population, it would be beneficial to them if there were dedicated and easily accessible support systems and care. However, data shows that they are less likely to receive support than the general population (Aspinall & Watters, 2010). I understand that this may not necessarily mean that the support is not available, as Gulwali explains, it could be for cultural reasons. When he is offered the help of a psychiatrist he states that “once I would have been horrified to sit and talk to a woman whose head was uncovered. But I had changed. Some things really weren’t that important to me anymore. And the nightmares were so bad that I knew I needed help” (Passarlay, 2015). Cultural differences need to be taken into account when providing care and support to people who are seeking asylum.

In conclusion, The Lightless Sky has been a thought provoking and challenging book to read, as I feel that I will take many of the lessons that I have learnt from it with me on my journey through social work practice. As a social worker it is important to listen to the experiences that a person has lived through and survived, and take note of the impact that trauma can have upon an individual. We must try to understand that people seeking asylum want a better life for themselves, and when we begin to break down barriers and build a relationship, we are able to see the person as a whole.


Aspinall, P., & Watters, C. (2010). Refugees and Asylum Seekers: A review from an equality and human rights perspective. Equality and Human Rights Commision Research report 52, University of Kent.

British Refugee Council. (2019). Refugee Council Information: Quarterly Asylum Statistics. Retrieved from

Eaton, V., Ward, C., Womack, J. & Taylor, A. (2011). Mental Health and Wellbeing in Leeds: An Assessment of Need in the Adult Population. NHS Leeds.

Fazel, M. & Stein, A. (2002). The Mental Health of Refugee Children. Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Passarlay, G. (2015). The Lightless Sky. London: Atlantic Books

Steel, Z., Chey, T., Silove, D., Marnane, C., Bryant, R. & Van Ommeren, M. (2009). Association of torture and other potentially traumatic events with mental health outcomes among populations exposed to mass conflict and displacement: A systemic review and meta-analysis. JAMA, 302, 537-549.

Refugee Stories With Gulwali Passarlay – Three Musketeers Podcast | Podcast on Spotify

Listen to this episode from Three Musketeers Podcast on Spotify. Hear the Amazing Story of Gulwali Passarlay, author of The Lightless Sky, shares his story of escape from the Taliban in Afghanistan, to finding safety in the UK as a twelve-year-old child refugee. Exploring the stories of refugees and talking about the current situation of today in UK and World Wide
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