Why do migrants risk their lives in the English channel over staying in France?

Thousands of migrants risked their lives to cross the Channel before the tragic drowning of 27 people on Wednesday, in what is thought to be the biggest loss of life in the current crisis.

25,700 people, more than three times the numbers who made the crossing last year, have attempted to reach Britain by sea, according to the Press Association.

What drives these desperate people to try and get to Britain from France, despite it and other EU nations providing a safe place to claim asylum?

Why do they want to come to Britain?

The reasons are varied. Some migrants will be fleeing persecution for their politics or sexuality.

Others will be trying to leave wartorn countries such as Afghanistan, which recently fell to the Taliban, Syria or Iraq.

Some migrants will have left their homes for economic reasons in the hope of building a better life.

A Border Force vessel brings in migrants found off the coast of Dover in August last year.

Credit: Shutterstock

Why don’t they stay in France?

Many do. Less than 3 per cent of refugees in Europe come to the UK with most claiming asylum in safe countries there.

Every year up to five times as many refugees claim asylum in France as try to get to the UK, according to the Care 4 Calais charity.

The mayor of Calais has blamed the British government for not being tough enough on migrants and said the UK had created a pull factor to Britain.

French police stand near as a group of more than 40 migrants run with an inflatable dinghy, to leave the coast of northern France and to cross the English Channel


Those who do attempt the crossing are likely to speak English rather than French or have family members already in Britain.

Others may come from countries with historical ties to Britain or places where the military has been active, such as Afghanistan.

Britain’s benefit system is blamed for attracting migrants but the weekly allowance of £39.63 is less generous than in France, where asylum seekers get £43.50 per week and can start applying for work after six months.

But it is easier to find informal or black market jobs in the UK than in France or other EU countries.

What is France doing?

Britain has two recent deals, worth £28 million and £54m with France to pay for increased surveillance of the coast.

France has rejected UK demands for joint Border Force and French Navy patrols in the channel.

Since November’s £28 million deal, the French have stopped more than 18,000 attempted crossings but most still pass undetected under cover of night.

Despite making more than 10,000 arrests between from August last year until August 2021 and spending €217 million to stop the crossings, according to French Senate figures, the authorities have been largely unsuccessful in stopping the migrants.

What happens?

Most of the boats leave the Northern coast of France. This is often the culmination of a long and dangerous journey in the hands of criminal people smugglers.  

How the dinghies migrants use to cross the Channel compare

The boats are usually intercepted before landing by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or Border Force.

Once in the UK, 98 per cent of the migrants claim asylum, which is a legal right. Asylum claims can take months or years to process.

Some 29,450 applications for asylum were lodged in the UK in 2020, compared to a peak of 84,132 in 2002.

Why the Channel?

Covid has impacted on freight, reducing migrants’ option to cross the channel.

The weather has been less stormy than is usual for autumn, which has meant the crossings have continued beyond summer.

Is it a migrant crisis?

There are fewer asylum claims and sea crossing in the Channel than other parts of Europe. Asylum claims in the UK have remained stable.

Monthly illegal channel crossings (2021 v 2020)

105,135 people arrived in Europe over the Mediterranean this year and numbers were far higher until the EU struck a migrant deal with Turkey to host refugees.

More than 416,600 new asylum claims were lodged in European Union member states last year, including 102,500 in Germany, 81,800 in France, 37,900 in Greece and 21,200 in Italy, according to Eurostat.

What about Brexit?

If the UK was still a member state of the European Union, EU rules would insist that migrants be returned to the first safe country in the bloc they landed in to claim asylum there.

Brexit means that the UK is no longer part of those rules, which makes it more difficult to return migrants.

Rather than an EU wide migration deal, the UK has to strike bilateral agreements with countries such as France and there is no deal on returning migrants with Paris.

UK-French relations have suffered as a result of the Auukus submarine row and disputes over post-Brexit fishing licences, which risk complicating a joint response to the crossings.

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