‘He was just a kid’: the boy who became a symbol of Spain’s migration crisis

Four-year-old Samuel Kabamba died a year ago trying to reach Europe with his mother

Samuel Kabamba and his mother, Véronique Nzazi.

Among the immaculately tended, flower-bedecked graves of Barbate cemetery, one tomb stands out. Its occupant was not from the Andalusian town – he was not even Spanish – and his gravestone is decorated not with an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary but a picture of waves breaking on a sandy beach and a photograph of a little boy wrapped up in a scarf and coat.

“God has given and God has taken away,” reads the epitaph in French. “Blessed be God.”

Here, surrounded by the dead of a country he never knew, lies Samuel Kabamba, a four-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who died trying to reach Europe with his mother, Véronique Nzazi.

A year ago this Saturday, his body washed up on a beach near Cape Trafalgar, a few miles from Barbate. Its discovery briefly sent Spain’s collective conscience into spasms and elicited inevitable comparisons with Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian refugee whose death forced the world to consider the human cost of the migration crisis.

Statistics from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) showed that 21,468 migrants and refugees arrived in Spain by sea in 2017, with 223 people – including Samuel and his mother – dying as they made the journey. The number of arrivals had more than tripled on the previous year, when 6,046 people reached Spain and 128 people died en route.

Figures for the first three weeks of 2018 suggest that Spain is set for what the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, calls “another very challenging year”. By 22 January, 848 people had arrived in the country by sea and 22 had died in the attempt.

Father Gabriel Delgado, a Cádiz priest who has worked with migrants and refugees for 25 years, learned of Samuel’s death through a contact in the Guardia Civil shortly after the body was found.

Samuel’s coffin being carried to his grave in Barbate cemetery.
Samuel’s coffin being carried to his grave in Barbate cemetery. Photograph: Diocese of Cádiz and Ceuta

For two days he waited for word of the tragedy to spread – and for the attendant outrage. When neither was forthcoming, he tweeted: “The death of Alan, the little Syrian boy, moved the world. On Friday, the body of a young immigrant boy washed up on the coast of Cádiz and no one’s saying anything.”

Samuel and his mother had left their family in Kinshasa in March 2016 to seek treatment for a tumour on her neck and for a lung condition the boy had.

After travelling to Algeria and spending eight months in Morocco, they climbed into a small inflatable boat on 12 January 2017, hoping to reach Europe. The boat never made it. A fortnight after Samuel’s body was discovered, Nzazi’s was found on a beach in Algeria.

As news of their deaths emerged, a local NGO tore into the EU for shutting Europe up “like a fortress”, keeping out those fleeing war, hunger, misery and exploitation.

“We don’t know how many Alans, how many Samuels, how many men and women lie at the bottom of the sea without their families knowing anything,” said the Human Rights Association of Andalucía. “All of them had a life and a story that Europe cannot ignore.”

María Jesús Vega, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Spain, says last year’s sharp rise was probably down to a combination of factors: Italy’s controversial efforts to stop people crossing from Libya; conflicts in parts of sub-Saharan Africa; unrest in the Rif region of Morocco; the effects of climate change; people trafficking; and changes to visas.

On a single day last August, the Spanish coastguard rescued 593 people, including 35 children and a baby, from the strait of Gibraltar. But despite the increase, says Vega, Spain still lacks the infrastructure and resources needed to accommodate and help those who reach its shores.

“Last year we saw a lot of improvisation when it came to accommodating people – you had people in cells, sports centres and sometimes in prisons. Sometimes there isn’t even enough space in those places so people end up on the streets. That obviously isn’t a solution.”

Equally pressing is the need to quickly identify and protect vulnerable migrants and refugees, including victims of people trafficking and unaccompanied minors. The Spanish government says it has spent more than a decade working to build a migration policy that helps potential migrants stay in their own countries.

“The solution to irregular immigration is necessarily a matter of creating opportunities in countries of origin and working to improve the paths of legal migration,” says a spokesman for the interior ministry.

“These two big areas are fundamental to the proper management of migrant flows, which are a phenomenon that has always existed and will always exist. However, we must be aware that the fruits of such work cannot be reaped over a short time period.”

Spain’s crisis is still dwarfed by the situation in the central Mediterranean. Last year, almost 119,000 people reached Italy by sea; a further 2,832 died.

For Delgado, the “terrible, tragic disgrace” unfolding on the frontiers of southern Europe calls for a more compassionate and practical approach. Instead of looking at ways to strengthen its borders, he says, Europe should be focusing on the suffering of those in “powder keg” countries in Africa. At the moment, though, 2018 “is heading in the same direction” as the previous year.

The priest, who serves as director of the diocese of Cádiz and Ceuta’s migrant assistance foundation, the Everyone’s Land centre, has buried more refugees and migrants than he can remember. Sometimes there is neither a name nor a definitive date of death.

“It’s one of the things I find most difficult. You never get used to the burials. Every tragedy is different but they all have something in common: great suffering and individual stories of famine or war or injustice, but also the people and the countries they left behind.”

Delgado says the people of Barbate – a town on one of the frontlines of the migration crisis – are still shocked by Samuel’s death. Its residents packed the church where his funeral was held and, on the second Wednesday of every month, people gather in the town and in other parts of Andalucía to form “circles of silence” to commemorate the dead and call for a better response to the humanitarian emergency.

A memorial event for Samuel on the beach where his body was found four days earlier.
A memorial event for Samuel last year, held on the beach where his body was found. Photograph: Diocese of Cádiz and Ceuta

The beach where Samuel’s body appeared a year ago is quiet out of season. Dogs chase balls into the surf and walkers stroll past posters for beach yoga and tuna-fishing trips. A pair of local anglers pulling on their waders point to the wreckage of a rigid inflatable boat that lies half buried in the sand beyond the rockpools.

People are used to the boats and the odd bale of drugs washing up, they say, but they never expected the sea would give up the body of a four-year-old child: “He was just a kid. Normally it’s adults in the boats.”

In the town cemetery, a woman tending her sister’s grave nods towards Samuel’s tomb, which is bunched with white chrysanthemums.

“Un angelito,” she says. A little angel.

For many, Samuel remains the Spanish Alan Kurdi: one of the countless migrants who lie in graves on either side of the strait or at the bottom of the sea, a small symbol of a vast crisis that manages to provoke incredulity, indignation and indifference in equal measure.

But when Delgado thinks of Samuel, he remembers the pictures he has seen of him and his family in Kinshasa.

“I think,” he says, “of a little boy with a smile on his face.”



2 replies

  1. What is wrong with us humans? We are rejecting immigrants, but then weren’t we ALL immigrants at some point in history and probably will continue this journey through time in the future, too for various reasons that come along the way.

    Why are some of us so possessive of the places that we live in? None of us are going to be living where we are forever. If not ourselves, the next generation or the one after it will probably move to seek ‘greener’ pastures.

    I believe, we should do away with these restrictive borders and the selfishness that it creates….


    Saudi Arabia, a the richest oil country in the workd, they do not need to work hard like the West and America. So Saudi should or MUST give a good example to the world to accept immigrant from Africa and Asia.

    Most immigrant are Muslim, why should the West and America have responsibility to accept thousand immigrant from Islamic country. It is not make sense at all.

    Muslim around the workd demand Saudi and Iran to accept immigrant to their countries instead.

    Do not you agree that
    All ❤️

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.