Dover and Calais

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Calais and clandestine migration into the UK: Concerns and context

24 Oct 2014

The route between Calais and Dover is hugely significant for the UK both in practical terms – as a major route in and out of Britain for people and goods - and symbolically as both a gateway to Britain and a barrier that protects it (Readman 2014).

Footage of a group of migrants attempting to force their way onto a passenger ferry at Calais, with the intention of entering the UK unlawfully, some possibly to claim asylum later on, created something of a media sensation last month (September 2014), reigniting debates about migration and asylum issues in the UK, France and the wider EU.

This commentary will consider four key aspects of the current situation in Calais: the background, definitions of ‘illegal’ immigrants and asylum seekers, existing data and the role of policies.

Dover-Calais: bottleneck, barrier, border and breakthrough point

The 20 mile stretch of the English Channel between Dover and Calais is the narrowest point between the European mainland and Great Britain. Dover is an important representation of Britain’s sense of separateness from “the continent”. The “White Cliffs of Dover” have long been used in popular culture to represent the physical barrier between England and any threats from wider Europe. They are seen as a symbol of the solidness of Britain’s national boundaries – a natural barrier recognised for their defensive importance as far back as Julius Caesar’s first foray into the British Isles.

While Dover is often seen to represent the solidity of Britain’s coastal borders, Calais, in many respects, has traditionally represented something of the opposite for Britain – a source of potential threat to Britain’s borders. Caesar’s invasion fleet is believed to have been dispatched from somewhere nearby, Napoleon’s forces were stationed there ahead of a planned invasion of the UK in 1805, and Calais was expected to play a significant role in the aborted plan by Germany to invade Britain in 1940 (Operation Sea Lion).

Recent media narratives dealing with the ‘threat’ posed by Calais have tended to focus on its role as a transit point for irregular migrants intending to access the UK hiding on trucks, in cars and on trains passing through the Channel Tunnel.

The Dover/Calais ferry route carried more than 10 million passengers in 2013, while the Channel Tunnel, which also passes through Calais, carried 18.8 million passengers in 2013. The huge volume of international traffic passing through Calais, and its geographical position as the closest point to the UK, may both be factors in attracting migrants intending to access the UK by clandestine means. While those migrants in Calais hoping to travel to the UK are very visible – and therefore make for compelling news stories – research suggests that vastly greater numbers of irregular migrants in the UK arrived by air rather than in the back of a truck, and that most started out with legal status, but subsequently lost it (Düvell 2011).

Makeshift camps occupied by migrants aiming to enter the UK, and visible groups of irregular migrants living rough in and around Calais, have created anger in both the UK and in France, with both sides accusing the other of failing to deal with the problem and take responsibility for the migrants. A similar situation in the late 1990s prompted the French Red Cross to open a camp at Sangatte in 1999; however this was closed in 2002 after pressure from the UK government and media, which depicted the camp as a cynical attempt to encourage asylum seekers to choose Britain rather than France.

The current Mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, has recently called for the creation of a new shelter for migrants outside Calais, and has also argued that British passport control officials should be “sent back home”, effectively moving passport controls back onto British soil. This would, arguably, make it easier for migrants to reach the UK and claim asylum – though the Carriers Liability Act would still mean preventative measures would be in place in France.

The efforts by migrants to ‘storm’ ferries at Calais last month prompted the current UK government to say that it would be providing £12million (€15million) to help Calais to boost security at the port.

So, while Calais is a very visible bottleneck through which many of those intending to enter the UK by clandestine means may pass, it does not seem to be the main route into the UK for irregular migrants. However, given the hidden nature of this group, much uncertainty remains regarding the characteristics of the irregular migrant population of the UK.

Definitions: Illegal immigration or asylum seeking?

Asylum seekers are those who have travelled to another country to seek refugee status. Signatories to the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees have a legal obligation to protect those who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries for their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Media depictions of the migrants in camps and sleeping rough in Calais fluctuate between describing them as ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’. The distinction between asylum seekers who are yet to claim asylum and ‘illegal’ immigrants is ambiguous and confusing – and often the legal status of these people is unresolved.

In theory, at least, an asylum seeker is defined by whether or not they have claimed asylum and are therefore seeking refugee status. In practice many of the people in Calais may well intend to claim asylum on arrival in the UK, but while in France their legal status is often that of irregular migrants – generally described in the press as ‘illegal’ immigrants.

When a person claims asylum in the UK the government is obliged to assess their claim and cannot return them to their country of origin if they risk persecution there for things like their political beliefs, ethnicity or sexuality. But when a migrant has potentially travelled through a number of EU states before claiming asylum in the UK, questions are often raised about why that person has not claimed asylum elsewhere in the EU.

The Dublin Convention sets out criteria for allocating responsibility for processing asylum claims, principally allocating responsibility to the state responsible for the asylum seeker’s entry to the EU, albeit with some allowance for family unity.

However, it is almost impossible for many asylum seekers to reach Europe legally and most can only do so without prior authorisation. This means that most asylum seekers arriving in the EU will do so by land or sea, meaning the system potentially overburdens the member states at the EU’s periphery.

The Dublin System means, in essence, that the UK’s geographical situation – buffered from the rest of the world by continental Europe and the Atlantic Ocean – would lead to it only receiving asylum seekers who managed to enter the UK by plane or after a sea journey.

A person’s rationale for travelling to the UK rather than another EU member state to claim asylum or to reside illegally will vary person by person: People may fear for their treatment in certain states, and consider the UK to be safer for them, but other factors such as language skills, networks of family or friends and expectations based on books, magazines, TV and newspapers may all play a role.

Numbers: UK vs other EU members

To see the situation in Calais in context, one also needs to look at what has been happening across the world, and in particular in other EU countries. Of particular interest are the number and trends in asylum seekers and irregular migrants.

Asylum seekers

Similarly to the 1999 refugee crisis – which was prompted mainly by those fleeing war in the Balkans – there is currently significant upheaval and instability in almost half of the EU’s neighbouring states. This year, the global refugee population could reach record levels (for the post war period) of over 51 million. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) believes that more than 3,000 migrants attempting to reach the EU by boat from North Africa and the Middle East have lost their lives at sea so far this year. Additionally, so far this year, around 150,000 people have been apprehended on the external borders of the EU, according to Frontex.

In absolute numbers, the UK received over 29,000 asylum applications in 2013 (including dependents), and comes 4th out of 28 EU states (after Germany (126,000), Sweden (54,000) and France (66,000). In terms of the number of asylum applications per capita, the UK came considerably lower down the list – in 16th place out of 28. Furthermore, three of the four non-EU members of the EEA also took in more asylum seekers per capita than the UK. The UK received about 6% of EU asylum applications in 2013, but has about 12.5% of the EU’s population.

Irregular migration

Current estimates of the UK’s population of irregular migrants are inadequate, vague, contested and out of date. Any efforts to estimate the number of irregular migrants in the UK or in other countries are automatically limited by the simple reality that this is a set of people who, by definition, do not wish to be found or counted.

Nevertheless, the Clandestino project looked at estimates of the irregular migrant populations in countries around Europe in 2008. The UK estimates used for the project were based on 2001 Census data and, while uncertain, suggest that at that time the UK may well have had the largest population of irregular migrants in the EU (the range was estimated at between 417,000-863,000, Gordon et al 2009), though this still does not mean it had the largest number per capita. However, the economic and geopolitical scenario facing the UK and the rest of Europe is vastly different now.

UK policies: Encouraging or discouraging asylum seekers and irregular migrants?

Asylum policies

A recurring narrative in the UK media is that the UK is seen as a ‘soft touch‘ by migrants intending to come and either claim asylum or live in the country without legal status.

This point was reiterated by the recent comments of the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart who claimed that Calais was being over-loaded with migrants whose intention was to come to the UK because: “Everyone who comes to Calais, comes because they believe they will be looked after if they get to Britain.” She added that she believed that they saw Britain as an “el Dorado” where they could “Work the black market easily.”

The concept of a ‘soft touch’ is subjective: the treatment of asylum seekers in some other EU countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, is viewed as harsh, and has drawn censure from international organisations such as the European Court of Human Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UK has made significant efforts not to be seen as a ‘soft touch’ for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or claim most benefits in the UK. Those in need of financial support are provided with about £5 per day and, if they are provided with accommodation, they are not able to choose where they are placed to live.

These policies have been deliberately introduced to discourage asylum claims by economic migrants, and are intended to make life uncomfortable for asylum seekers in the UK. Many other countries in the EU have a considerably less restrictive set of policies for asylum seekers. Those in Sweden, Germany and Italy, for example, are allowed to work if they fulfill certain criteria.

Policies affecting irregular migrants

Irregular migrants cannot claim benefits in the UK, cannot work legally, do not have the legal right to access services such as healthcare, and are subject to detention and subsequently deportation if they are found.

In 2013, 50,741 foreign nationals were removed from within the UK under immigration law, or were known to have departed under threat of such removal. However, as discussed above, the UK’s population of irregular migrants may be more than 10 times that figure. In 2013 about 600 people were prosecuted in the UK for assisting illegal immigration, leading to about 230 convictions.

Criminal prosecutions for the employment of irregular migrant workers have been rare. For example, in 2013 there were only three criminal convictions in the entire UK for the employment of irregular migrant workers, though it should be noted that a criminal conviction requires proof that an employer knowingly used irregular migrants.

These data, of course, do not necessarily mean that it is easy for irregular migrants to work in the UK. However, they do raise some questions about this issue.

Civil cases and fines are more common – between 1 October and 31 December 2013, for example, more than 200 civil penalties were issued, with employers facing fines of up to £20,000. The 2014 Immigration Act has also introduced legislation to make it harder for irregular migrants to live and work in the UK.


For many reasons, including geographical location, The UK currently receives below the EU average number of asylum claims per capita, and receives fewer asylum seekers in absolute numbers than several other EU member states.

The existing evidence suggest that the UK has had a higher irregular migrant population than other parts of the EU, both in absolute terms and per capita.

When conflict or instability occurs in the environs of the EU, it is likely to lead to an increase in the number of people attempting to reach the UK – though the UK is buffered from the direct impacts of this by both the sea and by mainland Europe. Calais is certainly a place where migrants intending to reach the UK without a visa are likely to gather. These migrants are very visible. But this visibility in Calais is not, in itself, evidence that it is a particularly important route into the UK for irregular migrants or asylum seekers.

Finally, it is worth noting that irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Calais may not be representative of others around the rest of the EU. Those in Calais are, by definition, a self-selected group who intend to come to the UK. The lack of migrants in Calais who intend to travel to other countries is an obvious result of the fact that it is a port of entry to the UK and nowhere else, and it is self-evident that these migrants will see the UK as an attractive destination – because that is why they are in Calais.

With particular thanks to Dr Franck Düvell, Dr Cathryn Costello, Dr Miriam Cherti and Dr Bastian Vollmer for contributions and advice.


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