25 essential books about refugee experiences and migration

From devastating stories of lives lived in exile to tales of hope-filled new starts.

When the numbers involved are so large and the news so overwhelming it’s possible for those fortunate enough to be standing outside it to lose sight of the individuals and humanity at the heart of what’s become known as the ‘refugee crisis.’

Here, we share stories – including both fiction and non-fiction – of people who have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, persecution, extreme hunger or climate change, or have moved from one country to another in search of opportunity. With narratives that span continents and generations, and insights both hard and hopeful, each book gives a unique perspective, offering empathy and solace to those with shared experiences, and the opportunity to refocus and increase understanding for those without.

Here are our reading suggestions of books about refugees and migration. 

What Strange Paradise

by Omar El Akkad

More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too-many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one made the passage: nine-year-old Amir, a Syrian boy who has the good fortune to fall into the hands not of the officials, but of Vänna: a teenage girl, native to the island, who lives inside her own sense of homelessness in a place and among people she has come to disdain. And though Vänna and Amir are complete strangers and don’t speak a common language, Vänna determines to do whatever it takes to save him.


by Kaveh Akbar

Cyrus Shams has been grappling with his mother's death ever since her plane was shot down over the Persian Gulf when he was just a baby. Now, newly sober, he embarks on a journey to uncover her true identity and the mysteries attached to her life. As Cyrus pieces together clippings from his mother's life, he is faced with a shocking revelation that shatters his beliefs. Electrifying, funny, wholly original, and profound, Martyr! heralds the arrival of a blazing and essential new voice in contemporary fiction.

The Art of Losing

by Alice Zeniter

Spanning three generations across seventy years, Alice Zeniter’s The Art of Losing is a story of how people carry on in the face of loss, told through the eyes of Naïma. Raised in France to Algerian-refugee parents, she knows very little about her family's past, on which they refuse to answer her questions. Taking her desire to learn about her heritage into her own hands she embarks on a trip that will change her life and her understanding of her family forever. 


by Aravind Adiga

Danny – Dhananjaya Rajaratnam – is an illegal immigrant who for three years has been working as a cleaner in Sydney, living in fear of being 'dobbed in' to immigration and sent back to Sri Lanka. Careful not to draw attention to himself, he is as close as he's ever come to a 'normal' Australian life. But when one morning he hears a client of his has been murdered, his world comes crashing down. Because Danny thinks he knows who is responsible. Now he's faced with a choice: come forward with his knowledge about the crime and risk being deported, or say nothing, and let justice go undone? Over the course of a day, Danny must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.

The Year of the Runaways

by Sunjeev Sahota

Derbyshire-born author Sahota’s novel depicts a disparate group of yong Indian men thrown together in a house in Sheffield, each having fled India in search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the chaotic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband's clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call. The Year of the Runaways spans India and England, the past and the present day, focusing on the pressures and pains of illegal immigration. 

The World and All That It Holds

by Aleksandar Hemon

In an epic tale spanning continents, The World and All That It Holds presents a love story that conquers the Great War, revolution, and migration. On an ordinary day in 1914, pharmacist Rafael Pinto's life shatters with the arrival of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, propelling him into the menacing trenches of Galicia. Amid the grim realities of war, Pinto's sole motivation is his relationship with fellow soldier, Osman. Their shared journey takes them from the trenches to perilous adventures involving spies and Bolsheviks, traversing mountains and deserts. Throughout this journey, it's Pinto's love for Osman that will truly survive. 

Kololo Hill

by Neema Shah

Uganda, 1972. A devastating decree is issued: all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days. They must take only what they can carry, give up their money and never return. For Asha and Pran, married a matter of months, it means abandoning the family business that Pran has worked so hard to save. For his mother, Jaya, it means saying goodbye to the house that has been her home for decades. From the green hilltops of Kampala, to the terraced houses of London, Kololo Hill explores what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones.


by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book cover for Americanah

Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love. But when they both depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West, they are divided – Ifemelu heads for America, while Obinze plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. It takes fifteen years for them to be reunited again in a newly democratic Nigeria where their passion for their homeland – and each other – can finally blossom. A fearless, gripping novel that spans three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a must-read story of love and expectation set in a modern globalized world. 

The Lonely Londoners

by Sam Selvon

Book cover for The Lonely Londoners

Both devastating and funny, The Lonely Londoners is both an account of the immigrant experience, and one of the great twentieth-century London novels. At Waterloo Station, hopeful new arrivals from the West Indies step off the boat train, ready to start afresh. There, homesick Moses Aloetta, who has already lived in the city for years, meets Henry 'Sir Galahad' Oliver and shows him the ropes. In this strange, cold and foggy city where the natives can be less than friendly at the sight of a black face, has Galahad met his Waterloo? The irrepressible newcomer refuses to be cast down: he and all the other lonely new Londoners must try to create a new life for themselves.

You People

by Nikita Lalwani

Book cover for You People

Pizzeria Vesuvio isn't just your average Italian restaurant. Run by the charismatic Tuli, it's a refuge for the city's marginalized; people like Welsh nineteen-year-old Nia, haunted by her troubled past, and Shan, having fled the Sri Lankan civil war, desperate to find his. But when Tuli's guidance leads them all into dangerous territory, and the extent of his mysterious operation unravels, each is faced with an impossible moral choice. You People is a story of compassion and humanity which demonstrates the struggles of navigating life in modern-day Britain without the security of citizenship.

Hope Not Fear

by Hassan Akkad

Despite having experienced the unimaginable, BAFTA award-winner Hassan Akkad holds onto hope and demonstrates the kindness humanity is capable of every day. Hope Not Fear details both Hassan's life in Syria before the war and his perilous journey to the UK as an asylum-seeker, followed by his experiences from the Covid-19 frontline as an NHS cleaner at a London hospital. His account of the pandemic even drove a government U-turn on the exclusion of the families of NHS cleaners and porters from its bereavement compensation scheme. Hassan's story of triumph over adversity by standing together, united in kindness and love, is an important message of our time. 

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here

by Jonathan Blitzer

New Yorker journalist Jonathan Blitzer's first book goes back to the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala; to the American prison system and the policies of mass deportation that transformed local street criminals into international crime syndicates. And then the Trump era, in which immigration became a vector of resurgent populism. But Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here isn't just a detailed chronicle of US immigration issues, it's a moving saga listening to those directly affected, and those aiding or impeding them.

A Fort of Nine Towers

by Qais Akbar Omar

Qais was eleven when a brutal civil war engulfed Kabul. For Qais, it brought an abrupt end to a childhood: one of the most convulsive decades in Afghan history had begun. Ahead lay the rise of the Taliban, and, in 2001, the arrival of international forces. A Fort of Nine Towers is the story of Qais, his family and their determination to survive these upheavals as they were buffeted from one part of Afghanistan to the next. Drawing strength from each other, and their culture and faith, they sought refuge for a time in the Buddha caves of Bamyan, and later with a caravan of Kuchi nomads. When they eventually returned to Kabul, it became clear that their trials were just beginning.


by Yusra Mardini

Now a Netflix film, Butterfly is the story of Yusra Mardini's journey from war-torn Damascus to Berlin and from there to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games competing in the 100m butterfly. After fleeing her native Syria to the Turkish coast, Yusra Mardini boarded a small dinghy full of refugees headed for Greece. On the journey, the boat's engine cut out. It started to sink. Seventeen-year-old Yusra, her sister, and two others took to the water to push the overcrowded boat for over three hours in open water. Eventually, they managed to land on Lesbos, with Yusra and the others having saved the lives of those on board. And this was just the beginning of her story.

How To Be A Refugee

by Simon May

Born in the UK to German parents who raised him Catholic, when Simon May was growing up, he knew something about him was different from his peers. In How To Be A Refugee, he seeks the truth behind who he and his family really are. A deeply personal examination of the experience of German Jews living in Hitler's Germany, this is the story how of three women – May's mother and his two aunts – denied and hid their Jewish heritage to survive. From converting to Catholicism to marrying into the German aristocracy and entering into an engagement with a card-carrying Nazi, this is a side of the Jewish refugee experience rarely discussed. 

No Friend But the Mountains

by Behrouz Boochani

In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani fled Iran and sought asylum in Australia, but instead, he was illegally imprisoned in the country’s notorious detention camp on Manus Island in northern Papua New Guinea. Painstakingly written on a smuggled mobile phone, one text at a time and compiled and translated from Farsi, this is an incredible story of how after escaping political persecution in Iran, Boochani ended up trapped as a stateless person. This vivid, gripping portrait of his years of incarceration and exile shines a devastating light on the fates of so many people, as borders close around the world.

Lights in the Distance

by Daniel Trilling

Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine and has reported extensively on refugees at Europe’s borders. His work has been published by the Guardian, Al Jazeera, the London Review of Books, Newsweek and New Statesman, to name a few. In his book Lights in the Distance, Daniel draws on years of reporting to build a portrait of the refugee crisis through the eyes of those living through it. By taking the reader from Calais to Sicily, the Evros and the Ukraine through the accounts of the people he meets, Trilling presents an illuminating exploration of the nature and human dimensions of the refugee crisis.

The Book Collectors of Daraya

by Delphine Minoui

Besieged by Syrian government forces in 2012, after four years of shelling, bombs and chemical gas attacks, the rebel suburb of Daraya in Damascus was left in ruins. Yet, in this most hopeless of places, incredible acts of bravery and passion were playing out. In The Book Collectors of Daraya, award-winning French journalist Delphine Minoui shares the story of forty young Syrian revolutionaries, their extraordinary quest to save their town's books, and the hope they created in their community through the power of literature.

Red Dust Road

by Jackie Kay

From the moment when, as a little girl, she realizes that her skin is a different colour from that of her beloved mum and dad, to the tracing and finding of her birth parents, her Highland mother and Nigerian father, Jackie Kay’s journey in Red Dust Road is one of unexpected twists, turns and deep emotions. Poet Jackie Kay takes a trip to Nigeria in search of her birth father in this warm but unsentimental journey into nature, nurture and identity.

My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You

by Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksander Hemon found himself an exile when, aged twenty-seven, war broke out in his home country of Sarajevo while he was on holiday in Boston. He was unable to return home for five years. In My Parents he tells the story of his parents’ immigration to Canada, and the lives which were disrupted by the war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo. It is an intimate portrayal of family and devastating history of his native country. This Does Not Belong to You is an exhilarating, touching companion to My Parents, full of beautiful, poignant and funny memories of Hemon’s Sarajevo childhood.

The Woman Warrior

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Chinese-American Hong Kingston delves into her mother’s past in this tale of a changing China in the 1940s. Fusing myth and memoir, The Woman Warrior is a classic of feminist writing. Throughout her childhood, Maxine Hong Kingston listened to her mother's mesmerizing tales of a China where girls are worthless, tradition is exalted and only a strong, wily woman can scratch her way upwards. Growing up in a changing America, surrounded by Chinese myth and memory, this is her story of two cultures and one trenchant, lyrical journey into womanhood.

What Are You Doing Here?

by Floella Benjamin

Actress, television presenter, and member of the House of Lords – Baroness Floella Benjamin is an inspiration to many. But it hasn't always been easy: in What Are You Doing Here? she describes her journey to London as part of the Windrush generation, and the daily racism that caused her so much pain as a child. In adulthood, she went on to win a role in the groundbreaking musical Hair, call for diversity at the BBC and BAFTA, and much more. Sharing the lessons she has learned, imbued with her joy and positivity, this autobiography is the moving testimony of a remarkable woman.

In this episode of Book Break, Emma recommends even more refugee and immigration stories from around the world.