At any one time there are about 2,000 migrants camping in the forest, living in abandoned warehouses and sleeping under bridges in and around Calais. Another several hundred or more are living in similar circumstances in Grande-Synthe, next to Dunkerque. 

The lives, backgrounds and journeys of these 2,000 or so asylum-seekers will vary enormously but they are united in their intention to reach the UK. Around 24,000 have done so this year alone— a huge rise from last year’s 8,417.  This is thought to be down to the pandemic, with the UK accepting fewer lorries and other vehicles, Channel crossings became the only means of entering the UK.

We are all too aware of the dire conditions and extreme danger faced by these people. We are perhaps less aware, or rather less conscious, of the fact that the 21 mile Channel crossing is just the final step in a journey which for most spans thousands of miles consuming perhaps a year of people’s lives. 

The stream of irregular migrants gradually decreases as it moves north with the Channel crossing presenting itself as the final frontier for the final trickle of those who have not claimed asylum elsewhere. This means that those braving the Channel in kayaks or dinghies are usually the migrants  who have endured the longest journeys. 

The sad question of why anyone would leave home to make this desperate journey is one for another article. Instead, let’s consider the journeys themselves and how these tens of thousands of people have reached the north coast of France over the past eight years since the European migration crisis began.  

Where are they coming from?

The latest official data from the Home Office on the nationality of those crossing the Channel stated that of the 24,000 people who have entered the UK through crossing the Channel this year the majority are Iranian (at around 29%) with large numbers also hailing from Iraq (20%), Sudan (11%), Syria (11%) and Vietnam (9%). Around 98% go on to claim asylum. However, it goes without saying that in the world of irregular migration (that is to say often illegal migration), any statistics must encompass a large margin for error — experts have called the process of documenting irregular migration counting the uncountable. Nevertheless, although imperfect, statistics on the country of origins of migrants crossing the Channel gives obvious clues on the journey many of them have taken to reach UK shores.

How are they getting here?

Routes into Europe shift and vary once border controls catch onto the situation, or, as seen in Belarus earlier this month, channels are opened up to apply political pressure on neighbouring countries. Individual migrants, asylum seekers and organised gangs alike are resilient in trying new routes and means of entering the EU. That being said, according to Infomigrant, a news site set up with the intention of helping migrants access reliable and balanced information, there are three main routes into and through Europe.

The first is the Central Mediterranean through which migrants attempt to reach predominantly Italy and Malta from Libya and Tunisia. At least 575 people died making the crossing across the Mediterranean. Most of these migrants tend to remain in Southern Europe although a significant number continue their journey north. 

Next, and perhaps most pertinent to the Channel crossings, is the Eastern Mediterranean Route and the Balkans routes since these are the journeys mainly taken by Iraqi and Iranian irregular immigrants who make up the vast majority of people crossing the Channel. Most journeys from the east of Europe begin with a flight to Turkey but what follows can hugely vary. Although the number of crossings have been significantly reduced since the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, around 15,000 attempted to enter the EU via the Eastern Mediterranean last year, mainly landing in Greece. Most travel via dinghy, setting off at the Turkish town Ayvalik, aiming for Lesbos.

Once this first dangerous sea-crossing had been made, few remain in Greece. At the height of the migrant crisis (the first six months of 2015) for instance, of the 68,000 people arriving by sea in Greece, only 5,115 had applied for asylum there. Most then attempt to move through the Balkans and into EU countries although many (around 15,000 to date) find themselves stuck in refugee camps on Greek Islands. 

The Balkans route avoids sea crossings with migrants entering the EU through Bulgaria or Northern Greece from northern Turkey. People then attempt to move north through North Macedonia, Serbia (although this has become near impossible since the EU strengthened its Serbian border in 2018) or Bosnia and Herzegovina, then onto Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. The crossing into Croatia from Bosnia is especially brutal. Migrants have to cross over snow-covered mountains and face the Croatian police— the majority of the 15,672 pushbacks from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina involved violence, according to the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN). 

Lacking the required travel documents, public transport is rarely an option for irregular migrants. This leaves migrants and asylum seekers with two choices, putting their trust in people-smugglers, or attempting to smuggle themselves by stowing away in lorries, vans and coaches. I spent a year making regular coach journeys between Brussels and London and often saw people being chased out of luggage compartments by irate coach drivers— once even hiding in the coach’s wheel-arch between Brussels and Calais. Smuggling organised by criminal gangs is usually undertaken through hiding migrants in lorries and vans— until this year the use of small boats to cross the Channel was hugely outnumbered by lorries and shipping containers. 

Who is getting them here? 

There are numerous stages of the journey to the UK and smuggling rings (or as they often refer to themselves “agents”) are present at each point, from the initial decision to leave their country of origin to making the trip across the Channel, exploiting and pushing migrants towards entering Europe and the UK irregularly. In October 2020, the Times ran a story examining how smugglers push Iranians (again, the majority of people undertaking the Channel crossing hail from Iran) to the UK. 

Gangs advertise passage to Europe and fake travel documents on social media platforms, especially Instagram and according to the Times report, the UK is held up as “the prize destination” with smugglers writing that asylum claims are more likely to be accepted in the UK and that they only take two months to process. Smugglers also claim that work is better paid in the UK – an Instagram post claims that average annual income in the UK is £65,000. Bizarrely, smugglers push the famously mixed British climate as a reason to pick the UK above other European countries. The real motivation for pushing the UK above all other countries is that the Channel crossing offers smugglers the chance to cash in another £2,000. Smugglers rarely risk their own lives driving small boats across the Channel and instead usually nominate one of its passengers to drive the boat.

The gangs operate in Iran, in camps in Northern France and in currency exchange shops in London. Systems of payment vary, some people pay smugglers the full sum upfront, some pay once they reach their destination and others name a friend or relative to complete the payment once they arrive. This can often mean that smugglers go back on their word and start demanding more money from the friend or relative, opening a fresh means of exploitation.

Most of those attempting to enter the UK irregularly have very little knowledge of immigration requirements and the process of applying for asylum prior to arrival and therefore are vulnerable to the disinformation and lies perpetrated by the rings.  

Recently there has been a rise in what might be called “migrant influencers” – young people who document their journeys through Europe on social media to a large following with some videos raking in more than half a million views. Admittedly, these vloggers appear to be far more honest about the harsh reality of undertaking a journey across Europe than smugglers but there is a certain sheen of adventure to their Youtube videos and they give out practical advice (“I would advise you to avoid cargo trains all together”, advises Anwar, a Moroccan vlogger whose friend died in a shipping container). While these migrant influencers are far from the primary factors pushing people to leave their home country, there is concern that they may indeed influence others to begin the journey through Europe. The video comment sections also provide fertile ground for smugglers (as shown by this BBC report). 

National governments and international organisations continued to crack down on these gangs— last Wednesday, eighteen people were arrested for being linked to an organised crime group involved in supplying the boats which are used to transport people across the Channel. Last July, an Iranian man was sentenced to three years in prison for attempting to smuggle Iraqi teenagers  by hiding them in sofas and armchairs. In January four men responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants were jailed for manslaughter, given sentences between three and eighteen years. It seems however, that one of the biggest factors pushing people to enter the UK irregularly, online disinformation, is going untackled. 

Over the past few days, the impetus to address the current situation has been renewed. There are no obvious solutions for the time being and with each bout of violence and instability, a fresh flow of migrants and asylum seekers appear on Europe and the UK’s doorstep— for instance, while Afghans take up a relatively low proportion of people crossing the Channel for the moment, there are already reports of significant numbers of mainly middle-class Afghans arriving in Greece, fleeing the Taliban and they are unlikely to remain there. However, understanding how these migrants eventually end up on France’s northern coast could offer some insight into how tragedies like that of last week when 27 souls lost their lives might be avoided.