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Channel crossings: who would make such a dangerous journey – and why?

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the people who reach the UK after risking their lives in small boats have their claims for asylum approved

Last week’s tragedy in the Channel has reopened the debate on how to stop people making dangerous crossings, with the solutions presented by the government focused on how to police the waters.

Less has been said about where those people come from, with most fleeing conflicts and persecution. About two-thirds of people arriving on small boats between January 2020 and May 2021 were from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. Many also came from Eritrea, from where 80% of asylum applications were approved.

According to Dr Peter Walsh at the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, those countries have among the highest acceptance rates of asylum applications, so it is likely that most of those crossing the Channel have genuine asylum claims that should be accepted by the government.

Refugee countries of origin

“These are people from some of the most chaotic places in the world,” said Walsh. “These are people from countries racked by civil and ethnic conflict and by political persecution. You don’t have to be Einstein to deduce why people are successful in asylum claims.”

For many, the UK becomes a destination because they have relatives or know there is an established community, while others prefer an English-speaking country and some simply believe they will be treated better.


Iran has been the largest source of asylum seekers to Britain through all routes, including on the small boats from France. Almost three-quarters of the 4,199 applicants in 2020 had asylum granted.

Until last week’s tragedy, the deaths of a Kurdish-Iranian family last year had been the worst. They had left Sardasht in north-west Iran, where relatives said they lived in poverty.

The Home Office guidance on deciding asylum applications mostly concerns persecution from the state towards political opposition or ethnic and religious minority voices, but also includes women fleeing violence and people worried about persecution because of their sexual orientation.

Iranians have made up the highest number of asylum applicants since 2016. A survey published that year said most believed their lives were in danger and thought the UK would offer more freedom and safety.


Many of those crammed into tents in Calais are young Sudanese people, many from Darfur, where 2.3 million people remain displaced by a war that started in 2003. Though the intensity has lessened, the conflict continues, and the Home Office notes claims by non-Arab Darfuris persecuted for their ethnicity.

Altahir Hashim, a Darfuri who fled Sudan 10 years ago and settled in the UK, said conditions there have not improved and that his generation have no livelihoods or hope in the displacement camps where they are forced to live. “It’s about values, dignity, self-worth. In a country where you’re raped, killed and your house is set on fire, there’s no future,” he said.

Coming to the UK, he said, is not necessarily a conscious choice but one forced on them by conditions in Sudan and neighbouring countries: “In Libya you are treated like an unwanted servant, I hear from others stories about racism, about not being paid for work you do. That’s not safety.”

“The circumstances you are in, they tell you this isn’t the place for you, so you make a decision at the time that you have to go to the next place and eventually you end up in the UK.”


Although numbers have fallen since the height of the Iraq war, 2,185 people arrived in Britain on small boats between January 2020 and May 2021, according to Home Office data published by the Refugee Council.

The Home Office approved 49% of asylum seekers from Iraq last year, a much lower figure than neighbouring Syria despite both countries being racked by conflict and the Islamic State over the past two decades.

Asylum claims made by Iraqis include fleeing insecurity in the country as well as fear of persecution for being from a religious or ethnic minority and for political activity.


Syrians were most likely to be accepted, with 88% granted asylum or leave to stay in the UK. Since the beginning of 2020, Syrians ranked fourth in arrivals by boat – after Iran, Iraq and Sudan.

For most, the war is the main driver. The retreat of Islamic State and the government’s regaining of control over most of the country has meant a reduction in fighting, but most Syrians abroad have no plans to return to the country, fearing they will be punished.

While part of the debate around migration in the UK has focused on encouraging refugees to remain in countries near their homes, a UN survey in March revealed that 90% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq cannot meet their basic needs. As a result, a fifth were considering moving on to new countries, which could include the UK.


Eritreans were sixth among the arrivals from 2020 to May 2021, behind Vietnamese people, but make up the fourth highest number of asylum claims, with 80% accepted.

Related: ‘Horrific’: 10 people suffocate in overcrowded migrant boat off Libya

For some, religious persecution is a cause, as those practising “unauthorised” religions can be imprisoned, but for many the reason is Eritrea’s enforced military service. Eritrea remains one of the world’s most repressive countries, according to Human Rights Watch, and many young people flee to escape indefinite conscription.

The UK offers for many the hope of freedom and potential economic security, especially those who have faced traumatic journeys in other countries such as Libya, where HRW has documented abuse of migrants in detention.

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