Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to Top

To Top

Migrants and refugees on the UK-French border: research on attempts and crossings of the English Channel by sea, 2018-2021

Since 2018, the number of people attempting to cross the Channel in boats to join the UK has been rising. They quickly raised strong concerns and reactions from public authorities on both sides of the Channel. A new increase has been reported in the last 2 weeks.

The additional risks taken by the maritime route are real: between 2018 and 2020, 11 deaths are formally linked to accidents that occurred during an attempted crossing by boat. But despite the various plans put in place by the authorities, attempted crossings persist, or even spread along the coastline.

It therefore seems relevant to try to better understand this phenomenon to adapt the responses of the various actors to the situation. This research is based on a study of « open source » data, a statistical study, and interviews with associative actors. Several topics are covered:

  • The way in which these crossings are carried out, rescue operations, as well as treatment on land;
  • Maritime law and regulations regarding rescue operations in the Channel;
  • The actions taken by the authorities in response to these crossings (action plan, bilateral agreements, etc.);
  • The risks of these crossings and the accidents that have occurred;
  • Profiles and backgrounds of the people who made these crossings;
  • The factors behind the strong increase in this way of crossing.

Full original report (in French) can be found here online:

The PDF report can be downloaded here:

Potential solutions to avoid new accidents in the Channel

Strategic elements to be taken from this research

Operational rescue services

While certain periods with a high number of attempts sometimes seem to exceed the rescue capacities and thus lead to a delay of a few hours in the response to distress calls, the available data on accidents that have occurred in recent years do not show any responsibility of the MRCC for their occurrence or for other failures in the rescue system. All ports of disembarkation can be considered as safe places.

“A place of safety is a location where rescue operations are considered to terminate, and where: the rescued persons’ safety of life is no longer threatened; basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met; and transportation arrangements can be made for the rescued persons’ next or final destination”.[1]

An inconclusive interception and deterrence strategy

While the interception and deterrence strategy has limited the scale of the phenomenon, it has not had a systemic impact on the maritime crossings and has been carried out to the expense of the search for alternatives to be offered to migrants at the border. Given the evolution of the data from 2018 to 2021, crossings by boat now seems established. While other methods of crossing the Franco-British border have been controlled in the past (via the Channel Tunnel, or certain truck parks), this objective seems illusory for the sea route. Moreover, this strategy seems to have no or negative impact on accident risk factors. In her report submitted in application of UN General Assembly resolution 71/198, the former Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, already pointed out the limits of these strategies:

“Although often justified on grounds that they disrupt the business model of smuggling, most experts agree that these policies make migrants more dependent on smugglers, putting their lives at even greater risk. The intensification of border controls traps both States and migrants in “a vicious circle in which increasing numbers of border deaths lead to calls to ‘combat’ smuggling and increase border patrolling, which forces refugees and other migrants to use more dangerous routes using smugglers’ services”.” [2]

The need to know more about the displaced populations present on the coast

There are currently no public results of surveys conducted by state actors on the backgrounds and situations of people on the coast. Local NGOs do not seem to have the time or resources to carry out such work. Several journalists have carried out research in this area, but it mainly concerns people who have died in accidents: this panel is too small to obtain representative results.

Research on the model of that conducted by the association Trajectoires would allow us to better understand many elements regarding this phenomenon:

  • The profiles of the people making these crossings: country and region of origin, causes of migration, sociological profile…;
  • Their situation (status of the persons and the rights and mechanisms to which they are entitled);
  • The different existing pathways and the phases that compose them, by looking for the key elements causing the transition from one phase to another, the entries and exits from common law, the constraints they have encountered;
  • The types of protection and/or integration strategies implemented, life projects;
  • Their level of information, in particular on the situation in the destination countries, on their legal possibilities, the existing mechanisms, etc;
  • The role played by social and protection systems and policies, the difficulties of access and their failures, the existence of non-recourse to rights, etc.

Such research requires substantial financial and human resources to be carried out. Nevertheless, it would allow us to address the situation of exiled people on the northern coast in depth, and thus to go beyond the current situation and develop appropriate and evidence-based support policies.

A real lack of study of the effectiveness of the actions taken.

Several measures have been renewed or reinforced in the various bilateral plans over the last three years, although it is difficult to identify correlations between the responses carried out by the French and/or British authorities and the evolution of the number of attempts and crossings. If work on the effectiveness and impact of these measures has been carried out by public administration, the results are not public.

For example, several « communication campaigns » have been carried out in the framework of bilateral agreements, notably on social networks. But an « evaluation of the impact of information campaigns in the field of migration« , conducted by the IOM in 2018, « revealed that the effects of these campaigns are not clear » and pointed to « the lack and limited quality of available evidence« .[3]

The very process of defining and implementing the various bilateral agreements and action plans, which seems to be mainly driven by the Franco-British Migration Committee, is unclear. Greater transparency regarding the work of this Committee would help to analyse these policies and develop more appropriate measures.

The need for flexible, multidisciplinary, and responsive systems and responders.

The  » opportunities  » to intervene with migrants are short: testimonies seem to indicate journeys on the northern coast (or even on the whole of the French territory) which may only last a few days or weeks.

The need for a regional approach seems strong: the area concerned by these crossings is large (and seems to be getting bigger every year), and the migrants concerned by these attempts do not only come from the Calais and Grande-Synthe camps.

The public making these crossings is still poorly known but tends to be increasingly diverse, whether in terms of nationality, background, administrative situation, or asylum status, as well as life projects. Moreover, the deterioration of living conditions, as well as the difficulties of accessing safe accommodation, has increased dependence on smugglers and seems to play a dominant role in the migration strategies and life plans of migrants: this will complicate the establishment of a relationship of trust with social and humanitarian workers, and impact on access to information.

Thus, the policies implemented in response to these crossings and the measures put in place must be multidisciplinary, reactive, and highly flexible. Given the context and the existing problems, those involved will need a sufficiently flexible working framework to allow the implementation of a dynamic of outreach and to intervene in different areas (accommodation, camps, disembarkation sites, day centres, etc.).

In view of these elements, three areas of work can be explored or developed: prevention work, risk reduction work, as well as post-rescue care and follow-up of rescued persons. The issue of safe and legal routes could also be explored but will require more legal analysis and a better knowledge of the public.

Prevention work

The arrival on the northern coast takes place after a passage through several European countries, where steps have been taken in some cases. A better knowledge of the people making these crossings (see above) will allow us to know the elements in their journey that led them to make it:

For what reasons was the UK chosen as a destination? Was it so from the country of origin? If not, what caused this change in strategy? Would safe passage have been possible (see below)? Were protection and/or integration pathways undertaken in other countries? If so, what ended them? If not, what entry points were missed?

Thus, the answers to these questions would allow us to define the needs to enable these people to carry out their life project and exercise their rights without having to take these risks in the Channel: do the shortcomings come more from access to services and facilities under common law, or more from the laws currently in force?

The various elements studied in this research already give us some leads for reflection to carry out this prevention work.

For people wishing to re-establish family and/or community links, are there any mechanisms that allow them to do so in a safe and legal manner? Do they know about it? Have they been able to consider them in a healthy setting, outside the camps and the influence of possible smugglers? If so, why don’t they want to do it?

The living conditions resulting from the strategy of intensive repetition of land evictions seem to play an important role in the deterioration of the migrants’ state of health and encourage risky behaviour, such as these crossings. A moratorium on these practices, as already requested by several associations and institutions, seems particularly necessary.

Several elements show transits in reception centres in France: do the people there have sufficient access to information on existing procedures and rights? Do social workers have the framework and tools to be able to address in depth the issue of migration projects and strategies under consideration, such as these crossings and their risks?

Risk reduction work

Given the scale of the phenomenon of Channel crossings, and the time needed to carry out prevention work, the occurrence of these attempts cannot be ignored. The aim here is to put in place measures to reduce the risk of accidents, while ensuring that they do not materially assist the attempted crossings.

The difficulties in search and rescue operations seem to be concentrated on triggering the rescue and search phases, penalised by the lack of knowledge of the rescue systems and a lack of maritime skills on board these RIBs, particularly in terms of finding their way around the sea and giving a precise position to the rescue services. The continuation of the information work carried out through the flyer produced by the collective Watch the Channel seems to be a good way of limiting these issues.

Post-rescue care and follow-up of rescued persons

In the « SMGA intervention principles » section of the Channel and North Sea ORSEC plan, it is written that « the implementation of the ORSEC plan of the department(s) concerned aims to ensure:

  • The immediate reception of shipwrecked persons on land
  • Their identification,
  • The triage, medicalisation, and evacuation of the injured,
  • Orientation towards a reception centre for uninjured persons,
  • Possibly, the setting up of a mortuary. « 

The setting up of a « reception centre for uninjured persons » does not seem to be carried out after disembarkations on French territory, as the shipwrecked persons are handed over to the national police and rescue services, with whom care is quickly terminated due to the lack of suitable facilities.

This kind of structure, also known as a « centre d’accueil des impliqués » (CAI) [4] or « centre d’accueil et de regroupement » (CARE), is provided for in various ORSEC plans (as well as in other rescue procedures) and several examples can be found in technical documents available online. But it does not seem particularly designed for this kind of situation, context and public.

One solution to this lack of a post-rescue care solution would be to consider the creation of an emergency reception and accommodation facility, which could be deployed in different places on the northern coast, such as a gymnasium, or directly in the ports of disembarkation[5], and which would operate for a few days after a rescue.

Such a facility could be managed jointly by a relief organisation (such as the French Red Cross or Protection Civile) and an organisation more specialised in taking care and follow-up of vulnerable groups and/or migrants. The intervention of other actors could also be planned. The idea is to be able to allow the people rescued to have a  » respite period  » as well as to provide the team of professionals with sufficient space and time for multidisciplinary intervention. Different objectives could be set (inspired by the general provisions of the ORSEC guide « Support for populations »[6]):

  • Provide an immediate reception after disembarkation, to carry out a census and identify the people rescued, provide them with initial comfort and ensure initial multidisciplinary care in direct link with the teams in charge of rescue operations.
  • Provide emergency or intermediate accommodation (several days to one week), as well as material assistance (food, clothing).
  • Provide medical and psychological support, by triggering the intervention of a medical and psychological emergency unit (CUMP) to deal with the potential psychological consequences of attempted crossings. If necessary, the workers will be able to set up a care programme within the region’s health facilities.
  • Carry out social and legal assessments, which will make it possible on the one hand to inform the people rescued about their different possibilities and existing solutions in an individualised manner, and on the other hand to identify people potentially in need of protection (accompanied and unaccompanied children, victims of trafficking or exploitation, asylum seekers).
  • If necessary, initiate administrative, social, and legal procedures with the appropriate institutions, and propose referrals to the facilities proposed in return.
  • Referring people who wish to do so to other structures with more permanent care, such as emergency accommodation centres, accommodation centres for asylum seekers (CAES, CADA) or follow-up structures for other groups, before the facility is closed.

The development of communication between those working in the area (state supported actors or local associations) and the emergency services could also be useful: it seems that there were few or no exchanges between the associations and the maritime authorities, which could lead to misunderstandings about the role of each parties.

Other measures also seem necessary for post-rescue care, particularly for mental health care: the former coordinator of Médecins du Monde’s Nord Littoral programme, Aurélie Denoual, said in an interview that there was a need for « translation services » as well as « a much more porous system between psychological care (particularly provided by the PASS) and psychiatry, in order to provide care that is better adapted to the public« .  In the Plateforme des Soutiens aux Migrants’ 2020 activity report, psychologist Lou Einhorn also proposed another response in emergency care:

« While many people are exposed to traumatic events, a repressive response still prevails. For example, the survivors of the 27 October shipwreck find themselves in police custody, even though they saw their fellow passengers and children die a few hours before. The Medical and Psychological Emergency Units (CUMP) would have the legitimacy to intervene in view of the tragedy and the potential psychological consequences for the survivors, but also for the members of the communities, volunteers and supporters. »

Safe and legal routes

The few safe and legal passage routes and the weakness of those already in place have long been criticised by shoreline actors. On 2 January 2021, Thierry Le Roy, president of France Terre d’asile, Pascal Brice, president of the Fédération des acteurs de la solidarité (FAS) and Marie-Charlotte Fabié, director of Safe Passage France, denounced in an opinion piece « the unforeseen consequence of Brexit »:

“As asylum and immigration policies were left out of the negotiating mandate, EU rules on asylum policy, notably the Dublin Regulation, ceased to apply on 1 January. While access to the asylum procedure in the UK is already particularly difficult, the few legal channels of access to its territory for non-EU nationals, mainly for family reunification, will disappear, without any serious alternative having been considered for the moment”.[7]

Various possibilities for improvement or creation of new mechanisms are put forward.

Mechanisms based on the restoration of family ties or « other significant links with the UK »:

In August 2020, UNHCR and IOM said in a statement:

“In the wake of the UK’s departure from the European Union, viable mechanisms need to continue to ensure that people, and first and foremost unaccompanied children in various EU countries, who have family or other important links to the UK can continue to travel or transfer safely”.[8]

               In the same statement, UNHCR explained that its research “shows that delays and administrative barriers to family reunion increase the likelihood of people turning to smugglers as an alternative. Less restrictive and burdensome family reunion rules are therefore needed”.[9]

In the above-mentioned letter, France Terre d’Asile, FAS and Safe Passage called for « a new legal route to be defined, allowing for the recognition of the right to family reunification, without which the number of children ready to risk their lives at any cost will only increase« .

The « Dubs Amendment » type mechanisms

« The Dubs Amendment » refers to a hybrid mechanism put in place by an amendment to UK law (Section 67, Immigration Act) adopted in May 2016. Several associations are calling for the re-introduction of such a mechanism. Based on age, child protection and eligibility criteria for asylum on British soil, it has « allowed several hundred unaccompanied minors with no family ties to reach the UK ».[10]


« Relocation is the transfer of persons in need of international protection from one EU Member State to another EU Member State”. When it was a member of the EU, the UK never participated in the relocation programme. The 3 associations that signed the Libération’s tribune nevertheless called for a new mechanism to transfer asylum seekers from a European country to the UK:

« In order to try to provide a lasting solution to the crisis we have been facing for so many years, a route for asylum claims to the UK must be considered, in the spirit of relocation programmes. »

In June 2019, Amnesty International had also called for « safe and legal channels for those seeking asylum […] including sharing responsibility with other European countries for the assistance and protection of asylum seekers« .[11]

There have also been calls for the UK to participate in the programme to evacuate unaccompanied minors from the Greek islands. This is a relocation scheme from Greece to other European countries, launched in March 2020:

« The programme focuses primarily on unaccompanied children and young people, but it also includes children with serious medical conditions and other vulnerabilities, as well as their reference family members. « Serious medical conditions » are those that are chronic, incurable, result in severe disabilities and/or impairments and/or result in significant health costs ».[12]

Refugee resettlement

« Resettlement is the transfer of refugees from one country of asylum to another state that has agreed to receive them and eventually grant them permanent residence”. [13] After resettlement rates of over 5,000 per year from 2016 to 2019, the rate has fallen below 1,000 since 2020. Several organisations have called on the UK to resume and expand resettlement. Following the accident of 27 October 2020, the UNHCR called on the British government to « urgently relaunch its resettlement programme« [14], through the Community Sponsorship scheme[15], which is part of the joint Home Office and UNHCR refugee resettlement programme.

Other complementary pathways for the admission of refugees to third countries

The term complementary route includes several possibilities, some of which have already been suggested above, but others are possible. For example, there have also been calls for the introduction of « humanitarian visas » to allow « a person to enter the UK to seek asylum« , which « could be acquired abroad« , for example by applying « at a consulate or embassy, or other form of overseas delegation« .[16]  The UNHCR also gives other examples of complementary pathways:

  • “Labour mobility schemes, by which a person may enter or stay in another country through safe and regulated avenues for purposes of employment, with the right to either permanent or temporary residence;
  • Education programmes, including private and community or institution-based scholarships, traineeships, and apprenticeship programmes”.[17]

Pathways still too vague to be a solution for the French north coast situation

Firstly, as noted above, the lack of knowledge about the profiles of the displaced persons present on the coast does not allow us to determine which routes would be most suitable, nor how many different routes would be needed or the proportion of people who would be entitled to them.

In addition, many issues need to be clarified before an operational system is achieved:

  • The administration in charge of processing the applications;
  • Procedural delays;
  • The care of people while their application is being processed (this point contains several issues, as shown by Dr Jeff Crisp in August 2020[18]);
  • The criteria for prioritising applications;
  • Monitoring the fairness and effectiveness of these pathways;
  • Informing applicants about how the procedure works…

There are other debates around the issue of pathways. For example, Watch The Channel « does not support calls for ‘safe and legal routes’ for asylum seekers to enter the UK if this involves applying for resettlement from France (e.g. to an embassy)« , as « this approach does not challenge the power of the state to decide in advance who is or is not worthy of recognition as a refugee.« 

The establishment of such routes would still be a good development: even if they cannot be considered now as « the » solution that would offer displaced people a concrete alternative to these attempted boat crossings, they can be real and lasting solutions to individual situations. But it is necessary to go beyond the simple call for the establishment of « safe and legal routes” to address how they would work in practice.

Moreover, the establishment of such pathways will be followed by new situations that need to be anticipated. The issue of « initial reception and longer-term care of new arrivals« [19] from these pathways will thus be of primary concern. It is also necessary to anticipate situations where people will not find the necessary alternative in these pathways to achieve their objective: people who are not eligible for any of these pathways, as well as requests that will have exceeded the number of places available in these pathways. The people left without a solution are as many opportunities as possible for smugglers who can then use these situations to recreate a traffic of migrants between France and the United Kingdom. These various problems go beyond the question of Channel crossings dealt with in this report and relate to the question of reception and protection policies carried out on French territory, the redefinition of which is strongly requested by many more specialised organisations and institutions such as the Défenseur des Droits.


















[18] Jeff Crisp, Twitter :