Refugees risk their lives to reach Europe

As migrants in France storm a ferry in their desperation to reach the UK, the UN says that Europe needs to do more to help the world’s rising tide of refugees. What can be done?

After sleeping rough for weeks in Calais, around 150 migrants had reached peak desperation. They tried to storm a ferry about to leave the French port for England, climbing security fences and dashing past guards. The ferry lifted its ramps out of reach and blasted them with hoses.

The port of Calais is a magnet for migrants, many fleeing conflict at home, trying to reach the UK in the hope of a better life. Around 1,300 live in unsanitary camps in or around the city. The mayor has called on Britain to do more to alleviate the problem.

Yet these are just a fraction of the millions of refugees who make the sometimes perilous journey to Europe in order to escape conflicts in countries like Syria, Sudan and Afghanistan. The UNHCR says the continent is not doing enough to aid and house them, and has called for European countries to work together to do so.

More than 100,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy this year in a bid to escape persecution, often travelling on dangerously overcrowded boats. In the last three months, 1,600 people have died in vessels that have capsized, despite the Italian Navy’s best efforts.

While the UK currently houses 126,000 refugees and Italy 78,000, Lebanon is sheltering almost 1m Syrian refugees, even though its own population numbers only 4.4m. The UNHCR says that, given Europe’s resources, it should help more. The exceptions are Germany and Sweden, which currently house half of Europe’s Syrian refugees between them.

With ISIS continuing to destabilise Iraq, the numbers are unlikely to decrease soon. Italy reports the arrival of recent Yazidi refugees, and over a million people have been displaced by the conflict in Ukraine. The UN warns that this refugee flow will lead to ‘devastating consequences’ for the EU if it is not dealt with soon.

The EU is introducing coordinated boat patrols to help refugees crossing the Mediterranean, but the UNHCR says European countries also need to take in far more refugees than they currently do.

A moral duty

The UN estimates there are 10m around the world who have fled war or persecution. While we hear a lot about Europe’s struggling economy, it is still the world’s richest continent. Some say it has a moral duty to help people who have had to flee their homes.

Yet others say that while the plight of refugees is often pitiable, European countries cannot be expected to support them. Not all are in danger at home — some are migrants simply in search of better jobs. The EU has already contributed $2.8bn in aid to the Syrian crisis alone. Allowing more refugees to stay will only encourage more to come; surely it is better to try to help them in their own countries or nearby.

You Decide

  1. Should Europe take on the responsibility and cost of looking after more refugees?
  2. ‘It is not the job of the rich to solve the world’s problems.’ Do you agree?


  1. In groups, list five reasons why rich countries have a duty to help refugees, and list five of the difficulties countries often have in housing them. Compare with the class.
  2. Imagine you have been forced to flee your home country because of violence, have made a difficult journey across Europe to find a new home, but find everywhere unwelcoming. Write a diary entry or a story about your experiences.

Some People Say...

“We can barely comprehend the suffering of refugees, the least we can do is give them shelter.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do refugees have to do with me?
While the conflicts that have driven people from their homes can seem distant, it is important to try to comprehend what these people are going through. In many cases, refugees have had to abandon their families and everything they know because they might otherwise be killed. Yet no single country could afford to help all the world’s refugees.
Why is it so difficult for Europe to house refugees?
Deciding how many refugees each country should take is difficult. For example, Italy is not as rich as Britain — should it shelter as many? Yet it is also closer to warzones — does that give it more responsibility? While Germany has taken many Syrian refugees, many say it is unfair that the country’s taxes are going towards helping people from faraway lands.

Word Watch

The mayor of Calais complained that the refugees have taken the city ‘hostage’ by costing it too much and making life unpleasant for its residents. The refugees often have to take shelter under plastic bags and newspapers.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees coordinates international action to help refugees around the world. It has staff in 125 countries and helps 33.9m people.
The Yazidis are a ethno-religious group that live in Northern Iraq. Earlier this year ISIS launched a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing against them which was only halted by US air strikes.
The patrols have yet to begin, but already the UN has warned that if the EU’s rescue efforts do not match those currently undertaken by the Italian coastguard, hundreds more refugees could die.

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