Afghan refugee unable to tell family he's alive after phone was confiscated by UK authorities

Afghan refugee unable to tell family he's alive after phone was confiscated by UK authorities
An Afghan migrant told The New Arab he was unable to tell his family that he is still alive following the tragedy in the Channel last week as UK authorities confiscated his phone.
5 min read
11 December, 2021
The young Afghan is one of many migrants who have made the dangerous across the English Channel in a small boat [Getty]

An Afghan refugee who recently arrived in the UK by small boat across the English Channel has told The New Arab of his anguish after his phone was taken away by UK authorities, preventing him from informing his family that he is still alive.

The 26-year-old refugee, previously a government worker and model in Afghanistan, said he left his country over concerns that his brother’s work with the French government could put his life at risk. 

After travelling through Europe, he made the perilous journey across the Channel three weeks ago in a small boat filled with over 50 people. Less than a fortnight later, at least 27 people attempting the same journey from France to Britain were found dead in the unforgiving waters.

The young refugee made it to British soil, but he said the authorities very quickly confiscated his phone and any money he had on him. Without his phone, he has not been able to contact his mother and father back in Afghanistan to say that he is alive. 

"I can't call my family and tell them I'm safe," he told The New Arab. "My mother has heart problems, and I think about this a lot because she doesn't know whether I am dead or alive."

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Speaking at an event for the Afghan diaspora in west London, The New Arab asked the young man - who is kept anonymous to protect his identity - about his journey across the Channel. 

He said the journey was cold and dangerous and took 12 hours. "Women and children were crying. My heart was crying," he said.  

He said he attempted the crossing because he was unable to claim asylum in France. "I have the finger of another country, so I had to go," said the young Afghan. It is not clear what happened to his brother. 

On arrival in the UK, the young man was placed in quarantine for ten days in a hotel. 

'My heart was crying', said the Afghan when speaking about his experience on a small boat travelling from France to Britain

Quarantine has now ended, but he does not know what will happen next or whether he will get his phone back. The Afghan man said he asked whether he could have his phone back for a brief period to contact his family, and then return it to UK authorities. His request was denied, he said. 

The New Arab contacted the UK Home Office about the confiscation of phones from recently arrived migrants, and whether this is standard practice. 

They said that "Immigration Enforcement searches all migrants upon arrival at the Tug Haven at Dover", a town in the southeast of England. 

If a mobile phone is found, "it will be seized as part of an investigation into the organised crime group involved in the facilitation", they said.

Migrants often contact and pay smugglers to help them get across the Channel. Many of the men, women and children resort to this measure because there are no other options for reaching Britain and claiming asylum. 


The UK Home Office added that the migrant "will be informed verbally that the phone will be kept for evidential purpose for three to six months. They are provided with a receipt and contact details". 

The young Afghan said repeatedly he didn't know when he would get his phone back. 

Mike Brown, who has worked for decades with refugees for organisations such as Refugee Action and Bail for Immigration Detainees, told The New Arab that "it was common to find people who had their mobiles confiscated upon entry" when he helped at a Southampton hotel full of asylum seekers. 

"Sometimes they were given receipts for the confiscated phones and details of how they could apply to have them returned," said Brown. 

"But given that their accommodation was chaotic (moved from hotel to hotel) and their level of English poor, it was unlikely without [the intervention of refugee charities] that they would ever see their phones again," he said. 

The refugees advocate added: "This is particularly cruel because it denies them the chance of contacting their families after a dangerous Channel crossing."

UK charity Refugee Council has written about the importance of mobile phones for migrants crossing the Channel. 

"One of the main things asylum seekers ask for when they arrive is to use a phone to tell their family where they are and that they are safe. When they don’t have one, they are distressed until they can make contact with their loved ones," the charity wrote. 

The number of migrants crossing the English Channel has surpassed 25,000 thousand in 2021, according to tallies compiled by the BBC using Home Office data. This is up from around 8,400 in 2020 and 1,800 in 2019. 

Due to the lack of other available routes, many of the men, women and children embark on the perilous journey to escape violence, persecution and poverty in their home country. 

Last month's boat tragedy was the biggest single loss of life that has taken place in the Channel since 2014. Many of the victims were Iraqi Kurds. 

While the British and French government have engaged in a tit-for-tat over how to respond to the disaster and pointed figures at people-smuggling gangs, refugee charities have called the tragedy preventable and predictable. 

They said the UK government must expand safe, legal routes for asylum seekers, instead of penalising them under their new Nationality and Borders Bill. 

The Nationality and Borders Bill was passed by the House of Commons Wednesday. British charity Freedom From Torture called the bill "cruel, inhumane and deeply flawed". 

"My country is dangerous," said the young Afghan who The New Arab met. "I don't know what is going to happen next."