Stories of hell and hope: books that explore refugee crisis and migration

From harsh stories of lives lived in exile to tales of hope-filled new starts, these are some of the best books about migration and the refugee crisis.

The current refugee crisis is the worst in history. Every day, 34,000 people leave settled lives behind, desperate to find a safer, more hopeful future. Migration has become a political football across Europe and further afield, and media scare stories mean it is all too easy to lose sight of the humanity at the heart of this emergency. 

This year, the team behind the annual Refugee Week, encouraged more people than ever to get involved with one or more 'Simple Acts'. These simple acts, although small, together will make a huge difference to refugees the world over.

One small and simple act that can affect real change, is to read a book; whether it be fiction or non-fiction, read alone or as a part of a book club.

So to help inspire you, here we've shared just some stories of the people who have experienced either voluntary migration or have fled their homes as refugees, that can help us understand a little better the issues surrounding migration and the refugee crisis.

Hope Not Fear

by Hassan Akkad

Book cover for Hope Not Fear

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 has even driven 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 the most important message of our time. 

A Fort of Nine Towers

by Qais Akbar Omar

Book cover for A Fort of Nine Towers

Qais was eleven when a brutal civil war engulfed Kabul. For Qais, it brought an abrupt end to a childhood filled with kites and cousins in his grandfather's garden: 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

Book cover for Butterfly

After fleeing her native Syria to the Turkish coast in 2015, 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 three and a half hours in open water. Eventually, they managed to land on Lesbos, with Yusra and the others having saved the lives of those on board. 

Butterfly is Yusra Mardini's journey from war-torn Damascus to Berlin and from there to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games as a swimmer competing in the 100m butterfly. A UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and one of People magazine's 25 Women Changing the World, discover Yusra and her incredible story of resilience and unstoppable spirit.

The Art of Losing

by Alice Zeniter

Book cover for The Art of Losing

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. 

Lights in the Distance

by Daniel Trilling

Book cover for Lights in the Distance

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, New Statesman and others, and was shortlisted for a 2014 Amnesty media award. 

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.

How To Be A Refugee

by Simon May

Book cover for How To Be A Refugee

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

Book cover for No Friend But the Mountains

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, No Friend But the Mountains is Boochani’s gripping story.

Discover more about Behrouz's story here.

What Strange Paradise

by Omar El Akkad

Book cover for What Strange Paradise

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.

The Book Collectors of Daraya

Book cover for The Book Collectors of Daraya

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.


by Aravind Adiga

Book cover for Amnesty

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 feale 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.

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

by Aleksandar Hemon

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

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 Lonely Londoners

by Sam Selvon

Book cover for The Lonely Londoners

Tamil Trinidadian Sam Selvon was the first black British writer to tell the Windrush generation story of the 1950s. Homesick Moses Aloetta has lived in London for years, and watches as new arrivals learn first to survive in, and then love, their new city.

The Year of the Runaways

by Sunjeev Sahota

Book cover for The Year of the Runaways

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. The Year of the Runaways spans India and England, the past and the present day, focusing on the pressures and pains of illegal immigration.

Burying the Typewriter

by Carmen Bugan

Book cover for Burying the Typewriter

Subtitled Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police, this is a first-hand account of Romanian oppression, and a deeply personal child’s eye view of a father’s rebellion, arrest and imprisonment. At 2 a.m. on 10 March 1983, Carmen Bugan’s father left the family home, alone. That afternoon, Carmen returned from school to find secret police in her living room. Her father’s protest against the regime had changed her life for ever. This is her story.


by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book cover for Americanah

A love story which begins is Nigeria, then spins out into America and the UK as the lovers are divided by military rule in their home country, and reunited there fifteen years on. This is a powerful story of love, race and identity from the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun.

Antigona and Me

Book cover for Antigona and Me

One morning in London, two neighbours start to chat over the heads of their children. One is a writer, privileged and sheltered, one is a refugee from Kosovo. In Antigona and Me, Kate Clanchy tells the story of her nanny and her escape from the violence of war and her marriage. The kitchen-table conversations of writer and subject form the heart of this unusual tale.

Red Dust Road

by Jackie Kay

Book cover for Red Dust Road

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.

The Woman Warrior

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Book cover for The Woman Warrior

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.

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