On International Migrants Day, 18 December 2021, we reflect on the recent Channel tragedy and the impacts of immigration policies on transnational families.

On 24 November this year, 27 people tragically drowned in the English Channel when the fragile boat they were using to make the perilous journey deflated. This was just one event amongst very many similar tragedies in recent years, distinguished only by its shocking scale. Organisations have warned the government that a tragedy of this scale was likely (Families Together, 2021). Over 300 people have died trying to enter the UK since 1999 (Free Movement, 2021) – a number eclipsed by the 23,000 deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean in the past seven years (IOM, 2021).

colour photograph of shore line with life jackets and boat wreckeage accumulated at tide mark

The first to be identified among the dead in the Channel tragedy was Maryam Nuri Hamadamin, a 24-year-old Kurdish student from Iraq who was trying to join her fiancé in the UK (BBC, 2021). Maryam’s family reported that she had tried to reach the UK through the British embassy twice, but the process was “delayed”, forcing her instead to take the route she did (BBC, 2021).Similarly, there was no alternative safe route for the 17 men, 7 women and 3 children, who travelled with her, to reach the UK.

Restrictions on mobility due to the COVID-19 pandemic have heightened  desperation in seeking sanctuary and forced people to take more dangerous routes. It is nearly two years since the pandemic first forced social lockdowns, and populations still remain in tightly-bounded national units. Nation-states continue to restrict cross-border travel, enacting policies designed to control migration and restricting mobility for increasing numbers of people, depending on the category of inclusion or exclusion they happen to fall into. For many, heavy constraints on international travel have been no more than an inconvenience. For some, seeking sanctuary and trying to reunite with family members who have migrated, the effects of intensifying border controls to contain the virus makes crossing borders a matter of life and death. In addition, for many migrant families, mobility restrictions may mean disruptions to necessary travel to provide care in instances of  family illness or death.

Increasingly restrictive immigration policies force people to make the journey to safety in more dangerous ways. The proposals in the Nationality and Borders bill, currently making its way through the British parliament, aim to make it harder still to enter the UK, criminalising and punishing those who come to the UK via irregular routes. Yet 98% of people who arrive in the UK after crossing the Channel in a small boat make a claim for asylum, with the majority being granted asylum (Families Together, 2021). Many people seeking asylum have no other option than making an irregular journey, as recognised in the 1951 Refugee Convention. In the UK, at present, there is no humanitarian visa system to provide a safe route for those seeking safety and family reunion rules are highly restrictive (Refugee Council, 2021). People crossing the channel are overwhelmingly refugees in need of protection and safety and like Maryam, are often seeking to join family members who are already in the UK.

The proposed UK Nationality and Borders bill will further restrict access to family reunion rights. Narrow definitions of ‘family’, long delays or refusal to permit family reunification, alongside prohibitive costs and conditions of applying, have a major impact on people’s wellbeing and life chances and infringe their right to family life.

Such border controls may also increase children’s and family members’ caring roles, leading to further inequalities and reducing opportunities for integration. Relatives who may be needed to provide care for children or disabled or elderly family members are unable to join those who have reached settlement countries. Similarly, grandparents and other relatives in countries of origin or other settlement countries living in precarious circumstances may struggle to provide care for children or other relatives ‘left behind’.

Our research project, Transnational Families in Europe: Care, Inequalities and Wellbeing (2021-24) seeks to investigate these family care practices among refugee and other migrant families in France, Spain, Sweden and the UK. We aim to provide timely insights into how caring responsibilities are negotiated between younger, middle and older generations in ‘transnational families’, where one or more family members are separated by distance across international borders.

Such families must deal with the opportunities and constraints of multiple national institutional settings, as well as processes and contexts that go across different national boundaries (Baldassar and Merla, 2014). We will pay particular attention to the caring roles of children and young people, including how they may provide translation and interpreting assistance to support older generations in accessing services.

Transnational families’ experiences need to be understood within the context of population ageing in many European countries and deficits in social care, the COVID-19 crisis and in the UK, the increasingly hostile environment for refugees and other migrants, unfair family reunion policies and the “broken” asylum system (Sigona and Benson, 2021).  We support calls by the Families Together coalition for the expansion of the UK’s refugee family reunion rules and look forward to providing insight into the impact of family reunion policies on transnational families’ caring practices.

Read more on our website: Transnational Families in Europe: Care, Inequalities and Wellbeing

By Ruth Evans (Geography and Environmental Science), Rosa Mas Giralt, James Simpson and the Transnational Families in Europe research team

The project is funded by the JPI More Years Better Lives Equality and Wellbeing across Generations scheme (UK Research and Innovation-ESRC, ANR, AEI and FORTE). It is a collaboration between the University of Reading, University of Leeds, UK, University of Aix-Marseille, France, University of A Coruña (UDC), Spain and Malmö University, Sweden.


Baldassar, L. and Merla, L. (2014) Locating Transnational Care Circulation. In Baldassar, L. and Merla, L. Transnational Families, Migration and the Circulation of Care. London: Routledge, pp.25-58.

BBC (2021) Channel disaster: Kurdish woman is first victim identified. BBC News, 27/11/2021. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-59439533 [accessed 16/12/2021].

Families Together (2021) Statement on Channel Tragedy. Families Together Coalition, 25/11/2021. Available at:

https://familiestogether.uk/2021/11/25/families-together-statement-on-channel-tragedy/ [accessed 16/12/2021].

Free Movement (2021)The tragedy in the Channel. Available at: https://www.freemovement.org.uk/the-tragedy-in-the-channel-2021/ [accessed 16/12/2021]

International Organization for Migration (2021) Missing Migrants Project. Available at: https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean [accessed 16/12/2021].

Sigona, N. and Benson, M. (2021) Debunking key myths bout Britain’s ‘broken asylum system’, The Conversation, 2/12/2021. Available at:  https://theconversation.com/debunking-key-myths-about-britains-broken-asylum-system-172794  [accessed 16/12/2021].