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The Risks of Irregular Migration

Smugglers may try to convince you to pay for their help to reach the United Kingdom by boat, train, car or lorry. But this journey can be incredibly dangerous. We’ve summarised some of the main risks for you here.


Smugglers often use small boats that are not suitable for crossing the English Channel. The waterway between the UK and France is one of the busiest in the world. Smugglers usually plan to cross at night or early in the morning, when conditions are particularly rough. Some migrants have also tried to swim out to ferries, but this is very dangerous as the water is very cold and the currents are strong.

In December 2018, the UK and France agreed to step up surveillance in the Channel and reinforce measures to dismantle smuggling networks. Since then, the British government announced increased surveillance of the Channel by air and boat and more foot patrols on beaches and coastal areas.

Meanwhile, France has launched an action plan in the coastal areas of Nord and Pas-de-Calais which includes reinforced surveillance and security measures at the ports of Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais, as well as on beaches and other places along the coast from where smugglers and migrants could launch the boats. Local residents have also become more vigilant and have been asked to call the police if they spot anything suspicious.

It is likely that you will be caught by the police if you try to hide in a car or lorry that will be boarding a ferry or train. The British authorities have very thorough procedures for detecting people who are hiding in vehicles. They have cutting-edge technology that allows them to check around 250 vehicles per hour. They have also introduced heavy fines for drivers caught bringing irregular migrants into the country.

If you attempt to travel through the Eurotunnel, you risk detection, being hit by a train or electrocution. If you are detected, you will be arrested. The surveillance inside and around the entrance and exit of this tunnel is very tight. There are over 400 security cameras, several miles of high security fencing and staff who monitor the area. Trains pass through the tunnel at up to 100 miles per hour and there have been cases of migrants dying of electrocution while attempting this journey.

Smugglers give migrants false information. They are more concerned about earning money than about the well-being of migrants. They convince migrants that dangerous, irregular journeys are easier than they actually are, so they can charge them high amounts of money for their services. But being unaware of safer, legal alternatives can have serious costs for a migrant, such as detention, debt and exploitation.

Migrants who manage to reach the UK are often forced into slavery to pay off their debts to smugglers. This can include prostitution or domestic servitude.

Female migrants are at higher risk of being abused and exploited. To protect themselves from these dangers, women tend to isolate themselves more than male migrants. But the more they isolate themselves, the less likely they are to receive important information about safer, legal alternatives to irregular migration.

Women are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and can sometimes be forced into prostitution. Along their irregular migration journey, the risks of gender-based violence is also high. As irregular migrants, they do not know their rights and generally try to avoid police. Even if they manage to get to the UK, they frequently end up in debt to smuggler networks and continue to be exploited.

Even if you do reach the UK on one of these dangerous routes, there is a high chance you will be caught and removed upon or after your arrival. If you are eligible to apply for asylum, you will have to do so in the first European country you passed through due to an EU law called the Dublin Regulation. This law means that asylum seekers are the responsibility of the first European country they reach. So the UK may return you to another European country if you want to claim asylum.

If you are not eligible to make an asylum claim, the UK will return you to your home country. If your asylum claim is rejected and you do not voluntarily leave the country, UK Immigration Enforcement (UK-IE) may arrange a forced return at any time.

Failed asylum seekers who do not return voluntarily or by forced return are staying illegally in the UK. They are ineligible for support, including health care or other benefits, and are only able to work illegally, if at all. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and reduces their chances of successful legal migration applications in the future.

Irregular migrants can be detained for up to 18 months before being deported, according to the laws of the European Union (EU). In 2017, nearly 47,000 people were detained in France. Migrant detention facilities in France are often cramped and have prison-like security measures in place. Access to outdoor spaces may be limited, and there is little opportunity for recreational activities.

The UK also uses migrant detention facilities. They have one of the largest detention centres in Europe, with nearly 29,000 people detained on immigration-related charges in 2018, including over 13,000 asylum seekers and 42 minors. Many of these migrants will be returned to their home countries or the first country they passed through in which they could have applied for asylum. There have been several complaints about conditions at short-term holding facilities, including poor lighting and ventilation, and inadequate sleeping or washing facilities.

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