Channel deaths: Who are the migrants crossing to Kent from France and where do they originate from?

A series of what are known as “push factors” have been blamed for driving migrants from their homes countries, so that they end up coming to the UK across the Channel.

These push factors – a combination of conditions in the countries the migrants are coming from and the links those countries have with the UK – add credibility to the claim that the vast majority of them are genuine refugees, according to groups that represent them.

Research carried out by the Refugee Council on those arriving in small boats in 2020 and up to the end of May 2021 found that most come from countries that are either in a state of conflict, or where human rights can be severely curtailed.

Sadly the 27 who died on Wednesday while attempting to cross were not the first, with deaths also occurring in 2019, 2020 and earlier in 2021.

The fact that some nationalities, like Syrians and Eritreans, have a first-time grant rate (the percentage of asylum applicants who are given asylum) of more than 80%, pro-migrant NGOs say, shows that the vast majority of those who cross the channel are genuinely fleeing oppression or persecution.

Why are so many now crossing the Channel?

The number of people using the route from France to Kent has increased sharply since the phenomenon of small boat crossings began to surge in late 2018.

What hasn’t sharply increased is the overall level of irregular migration to the UK.

In its New Plan for Immigration, published in March this year, the Home Office’s figures suggested there were around 13,000 irregular migrants coming to the UK in 2018, 16,000 in 2019 and 17,000 in 2020.

But the share of those coming via boat has rocketed, from about 2% in 2018, to 11% in 2019 and then to 50% in 2020. Figures for 2021 are not available yet. That 50% share of 17,000 is still a fraction of the number annually who become irregular migrants through other means.

The reasons for the steep rise are not fully clear, but Oxford University’s Migration Observatory cites 2002 Home Office research as shedding some light on why asylum seekers might choose to leave their home for the UK, with the desire to reach a safe destination high up in the list.

Other factors include: the perception of the UK as being safe, tolerant and democratic; the selection of the UK by the person’s smuggler; the presence of contacts already in the UK; historical links between the country of origin and the UK and an already existing ability to speak English.

With the only publicly available Home Office research as to why they attempt to reach the UK being 20 years old, there may now be other factors – the influence of social media for example – that have become increasingly important in the last two decades.

But, as the graph shows below, even with several major wars around the world and other significant events occurring, the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK has been broadly steady during that time, after a spike at the turn of the century.

Where are the migrants from?

Analysis of Home Office data by the Refugee Council shows that the majority of those trying to cross the Channel in small boats in 2020 and 2021 come from a handful of countries.

That picture hadn’t changed from the two years before.

Sky News analysis of those who made the crossing in 2018 and the first half of 2019, found that the range of countries was broadly similar.

The top country of origin then, as in the most recent analysis, was Iran.

At first, almost all the crossings included people from Iran. What may be the case is that as increasing numbers of migrants have been successful in their bids to cross, news has spread to migrants making their way to the UK from other countries.

It is also possible that people smugglers trafficking people from other countries are increasingly using small boats.

The reason why Iranians were the first group to appear to attempt to use small boats was unclear at the time, but speculation included changes in visa rules in some European countries that could have prompted a surge in people leaving Iran.

Another explanation was that conditions for some Iranians had deteriorated sharply in the months before the first series of Channel crossings were attempted.

Why are they leaving their home countries?

Here are some of the reasons people coming from the most recent top 10 places of origin might want to leave:


Iran is an autocratic regime that has a long record of being criticised by human rights groups over its treatment of people who disagree with those in power.

It is a hardline Islamic nation that was forged out of a revolution that created the first modern Islamic state, which expects its people to live under its interpretation of Sharia law.

While other religions are officially tolerated, there are significant tensions, with Christians in particular saying they face persecution.

Another group which is known to frequently seek asylum in the UK are Iranian Kurds, who, like many Kurds, come from a group that has long-sought its own homeland. Kurds have been known to clash with authorities over the expression of their views.


Iraq also has a significant proportion of Kurds, although, unlike Iran, it has its own autonomous Kurdish region.

Many Kurds suffered during the period in which Islamic State advanced across northern Iraq, and it was US and UK-backed Kurdish fighters who eventually defeated the militant group. Since IS’s defeat, Turkey conducts regular military action in the north of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, according to the UK’s Foreign Office.

Meanwhile, the whole country remains tense after years in which internal unrest and civilian death was frequent and economic opportunities are limited.


The 2019 overthrow of autocratic leader Omar al Bashir following massive street protests came after a long period of civil war and conflict in Darfur.

Since then, a civilian coalition that had been sharing power with the military has been overthrown in another coup, adding to the instability and prompting further protests.


Syrians rose up against their long-time autocratic leader Bashar al Assad in 2011 but quickly the country was plunged into a civil war in which an estimated half a million have died.

Syrians flooded out of the country in 2015 during the European Migrant Crisis, with up to a million being given sanctuary in Germany, but many who stayed at the time have continued to flee as the war has continued, albeit at a lower level.


While the nation may be undergoing an economic boom, conditions for those living in communist Vietnam are far from easy, and the deaths of 39 migrants from the country in a lorry in Essex in October 2019 illustrated how desperate many are to leave their home country.


Eritrea is another country that has had the same autocratic government for near decades and Amnesty International says thousands have abroad due to repression and indefinite military conscription as the country faces tensions on its borders.


Even before the Taliban earlier this year took back the country from which they were unseated in 2001, the increasingly unstable security situation was making life highly dangerous for many Afghans. There are fears of an exodus after the hardline regime returned.


Many of the Bedoun minority, of which there are possibly hundreds of thousands in Kuwait, remain stateless and find accessing public services impossible. In general, human rights groups say authorities unduly restrict freedom of expression and association.


Yemen is the location of what some observers say is the currently the world’s worst war with the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebel forces regularly launching air strikes against targets in built up areas, with a UN report projecting this week that the death toll from starvation, illness and fighting as a result of the conflict will reach 377,000 by the end of 2021.


While Ethiopia is a democracy, it has been rife with political tensions since the end of a civil war in the 1990s. The current president, Abiy Ahmed – who was elected following mass protests against the preceding government’s alleged infringement of rights – is waging war against a rebel group in Tigray.


The latest study by the Refugee Council found migrants crossing the channel in 2020 and 2021 came from some 50 countries. This compares with a census carried out in 2018, which found they came from 28 countries.

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