Record migrant numbers risk lives to reach UK

Inspirational: Disabled refugee Nujeen Mustafa is set to study psychology in Germany. © BBC

Should rich countries take in more refugees? Illegal crossings of the English Channel have risen to an all-time high, reigniting an agonising debate on the West’s responsibilities.

As dawn breaks over the white cliffs of Dover, a small flotilla of rubber dinghies is heading towards the shore.

Inside the overloaded boats, dozens of people are desperately bailing out water as they navigate the world’s busiest shipping lane. They come from different countries — Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea — but all of them share the same dream: a new life in England.

Some are met on the beach by border officials and shepherded to reception centres, ready to begin the long process of applying for asylum in the UK. Others simply disappear into the English countryside, their fate unknown.

For locals, this is an increasingly familiar scene. Already this month, 1,487 migrants have crossed the English Channel, and more are arriving every day.

And now, some locals are accusing the French navy of allowing sinking boats to reach British waters, unwilling to take the migrants back to Calais.

Today, five years on from the height of the refugee crisis, Europe is still facing an enormous dilemma: how to cope with the thousands of people arriving on its shores.

Governments are taking vastly different approaches. While countries such as Hungary have flatly refused to accept any refugees, this week Germany announced plans to take another 1,500 people after a fire devastated a detention centre on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving thousands homeless.

It may sound like a lot of people, but the new arrivals account for just a fraction of the total number of refugees in Germany.

In the summer of 2015, the country became the first in Europe to suspend the Dublin Regulation and open its borders. Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German people “wir schaffen das” – “we can do this” – and over the next two years, more than one million people applied for asylum in Germany.

One of them was 16-year-old Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian refugee who crossed Europe in a wheelchair. She told reporters she dreamed of becoming an astronaut and meeting the Queen.

Today, her plans to find an alien may be on hold, but Nujeen has enrolled at school, become a campaigner for disabled refugees and even spoken at the UN.

However, not every story is a success story. Only half of the migrants who have come to Germany since 2013 have found paid jobs. Meanwhile, in the UK, local officials in Dover have warned the government they are running out of resources to care for unaccompanied children.

Despite the challenges, critics say Western countries should be doing more. There are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide – and 85% of them are currently hosted by developing countries. Refugees make up only 0.26% of the UK population.

Indeed, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England, said in 2015: “This is a disgrace. That we are letting people die when, together, Europe is such a wealthy place. What is screaming out is the human tragedy of this problem, to which we can be more generous.”

So, should rich countries take in more refugees?

Migrants making waves

Of course they should, say some. The world is facing a humanitarian crisis. Wealthy countries have a moral obligation to help people fleeing war, persecution and even poverty. And admitting more refugees can only enrich society – world-renowned singers Freddie Mercury and Rita Ora, and author Judith Kerr all originally came to the UK to escape persecution.

Definitely not, say others. Germany’s decision to completely open its borders was a mistake: it is impossible for over a million people to all find jobs and successfully integrate. Rich countries should only take in the number of refugees that they have the resources to care for. Many wealthy nations are already struggling to cope – it would be irresponsible to take in even more people.

You Decide

  1. Would the world be a better place if every country had open borders?
  2. Should economic migrants be treated differently from refugees?


  1. Write a letter to a child refugee who has recently arrived in your country explaining what life is like where you live.
  2. Research the rules that determine who can come and live in your country. Do you think they are too strict or too lenient? Would you make any changes? Write half a side explaining your thoughts.

Some People Say...

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Warsan Shire, British writer and poet.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that throughout history, wealthy Western nations have repeatedly faced refugee crises and overcome the challenges that they cause. The kindertransport scheme helped 10,000 children from across Europe to escape the Nazi regime and reach safety in the UK ahead of World War Two. In later years, four of those children became Nobel prize winners. Meanwhile, the United States has accepted roughly 3.3 million refugees since 1975, mainly from Cuba, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether open-border policies, as enacted by Germany, help the refugee crisis or actually worsen the problem by encouraging more people to risk their lives to reach Europe. In 2015 former UK Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that international aid was the answer to the crisis. UK money was “going into the horn of Africa and other countries in Africa to try and help bring them the stability that not so many people try to come”.

Word Watch

A small fleet of ships or boats. As security at ports has been tightened, more people are now choosing to cross by boat rather than hiding in lorries.
Protection granted by a state to someone who has left their home country as a refugee. In 2019 the UK received 35,737 applications for asylum .
English Channel
The stretch of water separating France and England is only 21 miles at its narrowest point, making it a popular way to enter the UK.
A town and major ferry port on the northern coast of France. In 2016, authorities demolished the “Calais jungle”, a huge refugee camp of up to 10,000 people, but smaller camps have re-emerged.
Refugee crisis
In 2015, more than a million people arrived in Europe by land and by sea, leaving many countries struggling to cope with such an influx. The vast majority were escaping conflict in Syria.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, signed by 145 states, defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.
The Greek island, located in the Mediterranean Sea, is often the first place refugees reach in Europe. More than 12,000 people fled the recent blaze at the Moria camp, despite it being designed for only 3,000.
Dublin Regulation
Also known as “Dublin III” . The rule states that refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country they arrive in – often Greece or Italy.
Local officials
Children who arrive in Dover, Kent, are the responsibility of Kent County Council. More than 400 children have entered the authority’s care so far this year, overwhelming the system.
Developing countries
A country that is not yet highly industrialised. For example, Jordan, with a population of 10.7 million, is host to over 2.9 million refugees

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