August 17, 2015 - The recent government reaction to the events in Calais has focused on strengthening border control as a primary response.  As many European states, including the UK, take this approach, the complex mixed migration flows and causes of human mobility have been lost in a heated debate characterised by increased security and threats to deport irregular migrants. The reality of what is unfolding across the continent highlights the need for Europe to collaboratively manage the situation in a long-term and rights-based framework, with the initial steps outlined by the European Commission’s European Agenda on Migration as a welcome start to the process.

Calais, a Microcosm

There are around 2,800 migrants in Calais at this moment. This is very small in comparison to the arrivals recorded by IOM through the Mediterranean passage (including Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain) with 249,650[1] arriving since January of this year, plus 2,349 migrants who tragically died en route. The main countries of origin of those in Calais are Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. Other nationalities include Senegal, Central African Republic, Niger, Mali, and Sri Lanka, although in smaller degrees.

In terms of Channel crossing attempts, according to the police and other Calais-based NGOs, small groups of individuals attempt to enter the tunnel in different periods, in some cases trying a number of times. Although data is not official, it is thought that the total number of attempts stood at 1,200 for the night between July 27th and 28th, and 400 during the night of August 1st. In recent days, it is understood that the number of attemps has dropped to between 100 to 200 a night. During these attempts, 10 people lost their lives.

Calais in Wider Perspective

Much has been said about migrant activity causing disruptions to services across the Channel. Much less has been said about industrial action in Calais triggering the route closures and causing severe disruptions since late June. Shifting disproportionate attention to migrants on this issue has led to further anti-immigrant sentiment among the general population, perpetuated by labelling the situation as a "crisis".

As Mr. Eugenio Ambrosi, IOM's Regional Director for the EU, Norway and Switzerland, recently stated, "… while there is a crisis in humanitarian terms and in terms of people losing their lives, IOM does not view this as a crisis in terms of numbers because France, the UK and the EU as a whole have the size, resources and capacity to deal with these relatively low numbers of migrants and asylum seekers.”

To understand the current and future situation, it is essential to comprehend the drivers of such movements across dangerous routes. Those in Calais are often individuals fleeing widespread violence and human rights abuses, particularly those coming from Syria and Eritrea. When put into context, the number of Syrians reaching Europe is minimal in comparison to the 4 million refugees in Syria’s neighbouring states, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Likewise, the numbers of individuals in Calais who attempt to come to the UK represent a small proportion of the world's most vulnerable people. Some believe that allowing migrants in to the UK may act as a 'pull factor'. The reality is that conflicts, abuses, and economic hardships are fueling this unprecedented mobility of people in search of the minimal conditions for survival.

A Balanced Response

While mixed populations are present in Calais, including economic migrants, we must ensure the rights of all individuals, regardless of the reason for migration, are respected, and that the human side must not be lost in the overall discourse. Targeting smugglers to dismantle their operations alone will not resolve the issue. While it is crucial that European states reinforce efforts to arrest and prosecute those profiting from vulnerable people, we must understand that putting smugglers out of business will only be possible by providing real alternatives to those seeking their services. For this reason, it is critical to consider the individual circumstances of migrants in complex flows and ensure that we can adequately identify and assist those with special needs, such as victims of trafficking or asylum seekers. The option to return home needs to be balanced against other components of migration policy, including the availability of legal channels for migration to meet labour market demands. An effective, fair and transparent return policy ensures the integrity of national immigration and asylum systems.

As stated by the IOM Director General, Ambassador William Lacy Swing, migration is desirable, necessary and inevitable - a process which needs to be better managed, rather than a problem to be solved. The EU, including the UK, have a moral and historical responsibility to respond in a humane way and to better establish itself as a global actor based on human rights and democratic values. Migrants can contribute to economies and societies given the chance. A longer term vision to governing migration is vital rather than short-term, crisis and security-focused measures with doubtful and even counterproductive outcomes.

First published in


[1] Figure from 1st January 2015 to 17th August 2015.