Why do migrants cross the English Channel? Reasons people come to UK from France - as 27 drown in boat tragedy

Twenty-seven people hoping to reach the UK have died in the English Channel after their boat capsized

On Wednesday (24 November), 27 people drowned in the Channel after their boat capsized.

The tragedy has led the UK and France to pledge to work more closely together to stem the flow of migrant Channel crossings.

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At least 25,700 people have attempted to make the journey across the English Channel in 2021 in a bid to reach the UK.

But why are these people so desperate to come here?

Here’s what you need to know.

The main reasons why migrants cross the Channel to get to the UK include family ties and safety (image: Getty Images)

Who are migrants?

Meanwhile, an ‘immigrant’ is someone who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

These two terms encompass groups of people who are leaving their country of origin for particular reasons.

One of these groups is asylum seekers.

These are people who are seeking international protection but whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country they want to enter.

Not all asylum seekers ultimately get recognised as refugees, but every refugee was initially an asylum seeker.

A refugee is a person who has fled their country of origin due to a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” according to international law.

There are also other reasons for migration.

For example, a migrant might be moving for economic reasons, as a result of climate change or because of a natural disaster.

How many migrants come to the UK?

Out of the UK’s population - which sits at roughly 67 million people - Office for National Statistics data states the UK’s net migration was 313,000 people in the year to March 2020.

Net migration is how many more/fewer people there are in a country as a result of immigration and emigration.

The 313,000 figure is lower than the previous peak level of 331,000 - recorded in the year to March 2015 - but a slight rise on 2019.

There were 37,235 applications from asylum seekers in the 12 months to June 2021, a drop of 4% on the previous year.

Legal routes for migrants to the UK have diminished due to Covid-19 (image: AFP/Getty Images)

There are no official figures for the number of people who have migrated to the UK illegally.

But the National Audit Office (NAO) estimates there could be between 600,000 and 1.2 million people who have done so.

Meanwhile, figures from the Home Office put the number of people who have landed in the UK by boat at more than 25,000 in 2021 thus far.

This is a steep rise on 2020, when 8,420 people came across, and 2019 when 1,800 migrants came over by boat.

It has largely been driven by the Covid-19 pandemic cutting the number of legal routes into the UK and Brexit disrupting illegal ones, for example freight between the UK and France has dropped.

Overall, non-partisan fact-checking organisation Full Fact has found that there “isn’t much direct evidence” to suggest the UK is disproportionately favoured by asylum seekers.

Indeed, Germany has been the biggest destination in Europe for refugees.

Why do migrants want to come to the UK?

There are a number of factors why people are willing to risk their lives to come to the UK.

The main reasons are: family ties, the English language, safety, and economic opportunity.

  • Family ties

The UK is a multicultural country that has played a key role in global politics for centuries.

Close political, economic and cultural ties with countries around the world have led many people to settle here.

For example, there are a large number of British people with Indian and Pakistani heritage due to the countries’ close connection to the British Empire.

Crossing the Channel can be extremely dangerous given how busy the shipping lane is and the weather conditions (image: Getty Images)

In more recent years, the UK has become home to people who have been impacted by wars the country has been involved in, such as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And the fact that the UK has been one of the largest economies in the world since the Industrial Revolution has led people from many other countries to come here in search of economic opportunity.

So it is unsurprising that some of those seeking to cross the Channel are doing so in a bid to be with family members who have already settled in the UK.

The right to a family is classified as a human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • The English language

Thanks to the dominance of the British Empire and the USA on the global stage over recent centuries, English is the world’s most widely spoken language.

According to Statista data from March 2021, 1.35 billion people speak English - either as a native tongue or as a second language.

The next most spoken language is Mandarin, with 1.12 billion speakers.

Meanwhile, there are 267 million speakers of French.

Being able to speak the language of a country you wish to reside in can provide a greater chance of securing a job and integrating into a society, hence why some people are keen to reach the UK.

  • Safety

The UK has a global image of being a safe and tolerant democratic society.

Given the home countries of refugees tend to be war-torn or undergoing political upheaval, it is no surprise that many of them have looked at the UK as a place of sanctuary.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in June 2021 68% of the world’s refugees came from just five countries - Syria (6.7m people), Venezuela (4m), Afghanistan (2.6m), South Sudan (2.2m) and Myanmar (1.1m).

73% of these people, and all the other refugees in the world, were hosted in neighbouring countries.

In the case of Syria, these include Turkey (which hosts the largest number of refugees in the world at 3.7 million people), Jordan and Lebanon.

None of these countries can be said to be especially safe or free.

Turkey is under the leadership of an authoritarian ruler - President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Lebanon is in the depths of a major economic crisis and, while Jordan is relatively stable, it has a poor human rights record, according to Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, according to expert in migration policy at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) Matthieu Tardis, people who have made it to Europe often pass through most of the continent’s countries due to hostile environments.

"The bad conditions [migrants] experience in France, in Italy, in other EU countries, pushes them to go even further, to think that in the UK it will be better,” he said.

  • Economic opportunity

The UK is one of the world’s biggest economies.

And it is also one of the least-regulated in western Europe, making it easier for migrants to find informal or blackmarket work once they get here.

“The economy is far less regulated than in France, there are more opportunities,” Tardis said.

“It’s a very liberal economy that needs labour that isn’t that well paid, and foreigners typically accept these types of positions."

Despite the common refrain that migrants are only interested in the UK’s benefits system, analysis by The Times newspaper has shown this to be not the case.

The £39.63 weekly allowance available in the UK is less generous for asylum seekers than in France, where they are given £43.50 per week and can start applying for work after six months.

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