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Migrant crisis: Why do so many people head to the UK and where are they coming from?

·6-min read
Migrant crisis: Why do so many people head to the UK and where are they coming from?

Priti Patel said there was “no quick fix” to the migrant crisis following the deaths of 27 people in the Channel on Wednesday.

The Home Secretary was due to meet with her French counterpart over the weekend, but the meeting was dramatically called off on Friday.

France reacted furiously to a public letter released by Boris Johnson which set out five steps he thinks both sides should take to tackle the situation, including introducing joint Anglo-French patrols on French beaches and plans to tackle criminal gangs organising the crossings.

A group thought to be migrants adrift in a dinghy in the Channel (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)
A group thought to be migrants adrift in a dinghy in the Channel (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)

Despite millions of pounds spent and dozens of arrests, thousands of people continue to attempt to get to the UK with many paying huge sums to do so.

Here we look at why so many people are willing to risk their lives to get to Britain and where they are coming from...

How many people are crossing the Channel to get to Britain?

Small boat crossings began to surge late 2018. More than 24,000 people have made the crossing from France to the UK by boat so far this year - a sharp rise on the 8,404 in 2020.

In 2019 the number of irregular migrants, who do not come through traditional legal routes, was around 16,000 , while it was about 17,000 in 2020.

The overall number of overall asylum applications in the UK reached 35,737 in 2019. It fell slightly to 29,456 last year as a result of far fewer arrivals by air and an increase in arrivals by small boat across the Channel, according to the Government. Asylum applications peaked in 2002 at 84,132.

There is no official record of how many people have died attempting the perilous Channel crossing. Research by the Institute of Race Relations, released in November last year, found 292 people had died trying to cross by vehicle, tunnel or water since 1999.

This year 34 people are believed to have died while crossing the Channel in small boats, including the 27 who drowned after their small dingy sunk on Wednesday.

Which countries are these people coming from?


An estimated half a million Syrians died when President Bashar al Assad ordered a violent crackdown on Arab Spring protesters in 2011, sparking the country’s civil war.

Many Syrians were forced to flee, resulting in the 2015 European migrant crisis, which saw up to a million people being given refuge in Germany and a large camp, that become known as the Jungle, created in Calais.

Military offensives in north-west and north-east Syria internally displaced 684,000 and 174,600 people respectively. Tens of thousands of others forced to flee their homes still live in makeshift camps that do not provide an adequate standard of living.

Many who stayed at the time are now leaving as the war continues, albeit at a lower level, and the country faces huge food shortages.


Amongst adults, Iran was the top nationality claiming asylum in the UK in the year ending September 2021.

Iranian nationals have increasingly been trying to reach the UK by crossing the Channel. The country has long been criticised by human rights groups for its treatment of people who disagree with the regime.

It is a hardline Islamic nation state where people are expected to live under its interpretation of Sharia law.

Iranian Kurds and Christians in particular say they face persecution in Iran.



The Taliban seized back control of Afghanistan earlier this year after the withdrawal of UK and US troops.

The increasingly unstable situation, and fears about a return to the hardline regime, caused many to flee even before soldiers left.

Women and non Muslims face particular suppression under the Taliban regime, Life is also highly dangerous for Afghans who worked with US and UK troops during the 20 years of occupation.


Yemen is one of the Arab world's poorest countries and has been devastated by civil war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebel forces.

Air strikes are reportedly regularly launched against targets in built up areas.

The UN said the war has resulted in huge levels of suffering and, by December 2020, had caused an estimated 233,000 deaths, including 131,000 from indirect causes such as starvation, lack of health services and infrastructure.

Tens of thousands of people have also been killed or wounded as a direct result of the fighting, including more than 10,000 children.


Iraq has seen years of internal unrest and war and economic opportunities are limited. The country has a significant Kurd population and, unlike Iran, does not has its own autonomous Kurdish region.

Many Kurds fled during the period in which Islamic State advanced across the north of the country from 2014. It was US and UK-backed Kurdish fighters who eventually defeated the militant group.

The country’s Government still sees excessive use of force against protesters, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and attacks on freedom of expression, according to human rights groups.

Since Islamic State’s defeat Turkey has conducted regular military action in the north of the Kurdistan Region, according to the Foreign Office.


Eritrea is a state in northeast Africa on the Red Sea coast, which shares borders with Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti. It is one of the poorest countries in Africa.

According to Amnesty International thousands flee abroad because authorities violate the rights to freedom of expression, religion and freedom of movement.

The highly militarised country has indefinite military conscription, with the average soldier serving six years in the force, and imprisons government critics and pro-democracy leaders.


The large North African country that borders the Red Sea saw huge street protests after the autocratic leader Omar al Bashir was overthrown in 2019.

The Darfur region has been plagued by civil war and conflict for two decades. Some 2m people are estimated to have died in the conflicts and millions more have been driven from their homes.

In 2011 the country split in two, with South Sudan becoming a new state. The government heavily controls the media and has failed to protect the population from human rights abuses arising from armed attacks by militias, according to charities.


Arbitrary arrests of pro democracy activists and human rights offences have significantly increased in Vietnam, according to Amnesty International.

The one party Communist state is undergoing an economic boom thanks to its manufacturing industry, but opportunities are still scarce for many.

Two years ago 39 Vietnamese nationals died while making the crossing in a lorry.

Why do migrants leave France or other safe countries to risk coming to the UK?

The Government has long said refugees should seek refuge in the first safe country they reach.

While there is no legal requirement for someone to claim asylum in any particular country, there is a requirement for the first safe country in which they arrive to hear their claim.

If this does not happen, people are free to make claims elsewhere. Charity workers in France have claimed many people seeking asylum there do not have good experiences at the hands of the authorities.

Those with family already settled in the UK often want to come here and migrants are also more likely to have some grasp of English than other European languages.

In 2020 Germany received the highest number of asylum applications (122,015), followed by France (93,475).

In the same period, the UK received the firth largest number of number applicants with 36,041, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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