Calais Migrant Crisis Explained: 14 Reasons People Risk Their Lives To Claim Asylum In Britain

29/07/2015 19:08 | Updated 22 December 2015

Attempts by migrants desperate to reach Britain through the French port of Calais reached a new peak in 2015, as hundreds of people rushed the Channel Tunnel repeatedly in the Summer in chaotic scenes.

Over 1,500 people tried to board trains and trucks one night, and one man was crushed to death by a truck in the fray as he tried to get underneath a train, according to French police.

His was the ninth death this year in Calais, after 2,000 people tried to access the tunnel on another day, just a week after a teenager's body was found on the top of a Eurotunnel train.


Migrants walk along railway tracks at the Eurotunnel terminal

To reach the tunnel, migrants must cross a motorway on foot, climb or cut through barricades and then clamber into cargo trucks or freight cars. In July, Eurotunnel said it had blocked more than 37,000 attempts since January.


These life-threatening attempts to reach the UK are nothing new - they have been going on for years.

But experts say a series of factors over the last twelve months have caused a global increase in migrants "unprecedented since the World War II era", leading to a "perfect storm" on Britain's doorstep.

  • 1 It's not really about the UK
    According to experts who spoke to The Huffington Post UK, the factors making people try to hide in lorries to reach the Britain have little to do with the UK itself. Due to rising conflicts around the world, people may be desperate to reach our country, but the UK's situation is far from unique - in fact far more people seek asylum in other countries, explains Jan Brulc, a spokesperson for the Migrants' Rights Network. The handful of people a day that Brulc believes make it to the UK via the Channel Tunnel are part of a far wider global problem. "We need to keep the perspective on the fact that Germany takes over 100,000 asylum seekers and Britain takes just over 20,000 every year," he says. "Not all asylum seekers are trying to make it to the UK. For the ones that do want to, it’s usually down to the fact that they might have family members in the UK already so they think it might be easier for them to re-establish their lives, or they speak English.”
  • 2 Calais is just a symptom
    In the last few years, fleeing from conflict has become the main cause of migration to Europe, says Brulc: "We have had the conflict in Syria going for years now, the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq is still not secure: people feel under threat. Then we have the situation in Eritrea.” What is happening in Calais is just one manifestation of these Middle Eastern and African crises, says Andrej Mahecic, a spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency. 59.5 million people are currently displaced around the world, a phenomenon he describes as "global displacement unprecedented since the World War II era." Migrants at Calais are no longer likely to be seeing a 'better life', in the UK, he says, but to be escaping violence and abuse. The proportion of Syrian refugees has rocketed in the last year: 33% of all arrivals into Europe last year were Syrian. Another 18% were Eritreans, many escaping forced labour and torture in the African country. "In the years before, it could have been characterised mostly as a migratory movement driven by other reasons, such as ambitions to improve somebody’s life, and get opportunities. But clearly [migrants are coming from] the countries where there is a situation of conflict, where the push is incredibly strong. This is not a crisis driven by smugglers, it is driven by these massive push factors in the Middle East and Africa.” Of the 100,000 refugees who have arrived in Greece this year, 61% are Syrian and 21% are Afghans, Mahecic says. “These two nationalities make up 82% of all arrivals, which speaks of the changed nature of the movement.”
  • 3 The Syrian catastrophe
    Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
    If you had to reduce the world's migrant crisis down to one word, that word would be Syria. “The combination of the push factors creating this perfect storm is first of all the fact that you have unabated conflict inside Syria, which has killed more than 220,000 people," says Mahecic. The country's devastating four-year conflict means that more than half of its population - 11 million out of 20 million - is now either a refugee or has been displaced from their home, according to Mahecic. “This means every second person in Syria is now in a situation of displacement,” he adds.As refugees move through Europe seeking a home, this naturally trickles down to Calais, a key port to access Britain, though countries like Germany and France are more favoured.
  • 4 Syria's neighbours can't cope
    The huge number of people leaving Syria - four million and counting - are creating intense pressure on the nearby countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. "It is now is now bringing the neighbouring countries which have been carrying the brunt to a breaking point. It is no longer possible for them to offer the infrastructure, the services, the protection space for the Syrians in neighbouring countries," says Mahecic. Turkey is hosting the largest number of refugees in the world: at least 1.59 million people according to the UNHCR. This creates an overspill of people who cannot be supported in countries immediately next to Syria, and so move on to countries including Britain.
  • 5 Collapse in Libya
    Rowan Griffiths/Daily Mirror/PA Wire
    “The collapse of law and order in Libya occurred last year," says Mahecic. As the county teeters on the brink of economic collapse and lawlessness, after a drop in oil revenue and years of political power struggles, this has created more refugees fleeing terrible violence, and also displaced people who have fled to Libya from places like Syria for a second time, often into Europe via Greece or Italy, and perilous trips across the Mediterranean.
  • 6 No home for Syrians in Egypt
    The situation for Syrians fleeing conflict has also "changed profoundly in Egypt" says Mahecic, after a new regime that is less welcoming towards them was introduced last year. After Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was elected, many Syria refugees settled in Libya feel compelled to leave. "They can no longer stay there with the way they are being perceived, harassed and detained,” Mahecic claims.
  • 7 Greece is at breaking point
    Santi Palacios/AP
    Greece - plagued with its own finance and employment problems - is now the epicentre for those migrating across the Mediterranean from countries like Syria. Over 100,000 people have arrived in the country so far this year. Many now choose to travel onward to countries like the UK, as Greece and neighbouring Mediterranean countries simply can't cope with the numbers. Brulc says: “Once migrants enter the EU, they need to apply for asylum in the first country, which is responsible for their claim. But some of them choose [not to declare themselves to authorities and to] travel on because the system is not working and Greece and Italy just can’t process all of the applications they get.” The pressure is only growing: 2014 saw 219,000 migrants reach Europe by sea, the highest number ever. This year has already brought a considerable increase, according to the UNHCR.
  • 8 The EU has other migration priorities
    The European Union has historically viewed the issues at Calais as "a problem for the UK and France to resolve," which could have added to the crisis, says Brulc. Migrants in the Mediterranean are the EU's main focus, he says, and it has made attempts to address that humanitarian crisis, such as trying to break up smuggling networks and trying to start a resettlement programme across the EU with quotas. In fact, these efforts to move migrants away from other hotspots could have added more pressure to Calais, he notes. Brulc warns that the EU must “step up and engage with what’s happening in their surroundings." "There is a refusal to try share some of the responsibilities across different EU member states, so that countries that are not on the external borders could take more asylum seekers and alleviate some of the pressures that are piling up in Greece and Italy," he said. "That would be a good thing, then we would see some developments."
  • 9 Calais is a hot spot
    “Why Calais?" asks Brulc. "Calais is a hot spot, it’s a symptom of the failure of the EU to address the crisis on its external borders." The port is a natural way to access Britain - offering reliable transport and the shortest journey. But it's just one of many migration points around the world. "Calais is by far not the only place where migrants will show up in large numbers," stresses Brulc. "We have that in Greece, on the islands, in Athens, on Sicily, Lampedusa. Those are the spots where people show up.”
  • 10 Migrant camps are being cleared
    Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images
    French police have made repeated raids on migrant camps in Calais as part of the country's struggle to manage the rising level of people coming from across the Mediterranean, including 140 people who were removed in June. The police measures could be putting "additional urgency for people [in Calais] to think that they need to try and get into the UK as soon as possible," says Brulc.
  • 11 With some of Europe crumbling, the UK offers hope
    Fuse via Getty Images
    Though the experts stress the UK is less attractive than many other countries, Brulc says that our economy's gradual recovery from the recession is a draw: “The UK economy is doing extremely well so they think it might be easier for them to find employment. London is a driving force, whereas in Greece and Italy there just are no jobs for anyone."
  • 12 The UK patrols its borders
    moodboard via Getty Images
    One reason migrants are taking radical risks in Calais is that fact that the UK is not part of what's known as the Schengen area - 26 European countries that have a border agreement. Migrants can travel between these countries and claim asylum without being stopped by border police, but UK border police operate at Calais to check documents and prevent illegal migrants from reaching the country - which is why many turn to desperate measures like jumping into vans and clinging onto trains.
  • 13 And it really is quite hard to get in
    PHILIPPE HUGUEN via Getty Images
    The thousands storming trains and trucks, risking their lives in the process, are in some ways a reflection of just how hard it is to get into Britain. Brulc says: “The security measures in Calais are really tight. I think people should see exactly what it is. There are fences all around and a lot of money has been put into the security." Measures include the new so-called National Barrier Asset, a two-and-a-half-mile long high security fence, and advanced detection devices which can sense breathing on trucks, as part of a €15 million package of measures. "This is not people just walking up to a platform and jumping on a train, it is very difficult to get into the UK and through all of the security checks where they search vehicles with dogs and x-ray machines. It’s an extremely sophisticated operation trying to prevent people coming into the UK."
  • 14 But security isn't enough
    PHILIPPE HUGUEN via Getty Images
    No matter how many fences and security devices are used, Calais won't improve until governments address the overall problem of displacement, says Brulc. "I don’t think anyone thinks at this point that policing and border control measures are going to resolve the underlying reasons why people are in Calais and that’s where really the governments will need to look at that.”

Suggest a correction