Channel boat crossings tripled in 2021 as government’s ‘chaotic approach’ to asylum seekers blamed

Priti Patel vowed to make the route unviable in August 2020 but numbers continue to smash records

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Tuesday 04 January 2022 00:12
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More than 28,000 migrants crossed the Channel by small boat in 2021 - with more than 1,000 arriving on a single day - despite Priti Patel's vow to make the dangerous route “unviable”.

The figure is more than three times the total for 2020, amid warnings that attempts to reach the UK will continue unless the government changes its “chaotic approach” to asylum seekers.

Channel crossings have rocketed in the past three years, despite the government paying France millions to increase security along its northern coast.

Ministers have also been ramping up attempts to criminalise asylum seekers, while planning operations to force boats back towards France.

The new Nationality and Borders Bill would make arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence, and allow anyone “facilitating” crossings to be jailed for life.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said a reduction in safe routes, such as resettlement schemes and family reunion, was “forcing more people into risky crossings”.

Interim chief executive Minnie Rahman told The Independent: “If the government wants to stop people being pushed into these dangerous routes in 2022 and beyond, it must open up more safe means of travel, like humanitarian visas, for those seeking refuge.”

Official figures show that only 300 asylum seekers crossed the Channel by small boat in 2018, but the figure rose to 1,800 in 2019, then jumped to 8,460 in 2020.

Calculations by PA Media put the number for last year at 28,395, but the Home Office refused to provide a total.

Officials attribute the dramatic increase to a combination of factors, including a fall in passenger ferry and freight traffic across the Channel during the coronavirus pandemic, and operations targeting lorries causing smugglers to use different methods.

British law means that anyone seeking to claim asylum in the UK must be physically present in the country, and there is no asylum visa.

Ministers have repeatedly hailed resettlement schemes – which arrange transfers for refugees directly from conflict regions – as an alternative to making irregular journeys.

But a scheme to resettle 20,000 Afghans directly from the region has not yet started, while government figures show that only 1,171 refugees were granted protection through resettlement schemes in the year to September.

Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, said the increase in Channel crossings was “exactly what you would expect to happen when you make other routes unviable”.

“The government can pass as many anti-refugee bills as it likes - it won't stop people coming and it doesn't absolve us of our duty to take our fair share of displaced people,” she added.

“The chaotic approach that has been pursued so far has claimed dozens of lives and cost a huge amount of public money. In short it has been a disaster on every level. It's time for the government to radically change its approach and offer safe routes to those that need them.”

The Independent revealed that the government has given more than £700,000 to a “migration behaviour change” company that runs communications campaigns targeting asylum seekers in their home countries.

Seefar said a campaign run in Afghanistan months before the Taliban takeover had “successfully resulted in more than half of consultees … avoiding potentially deadly encounters on the journey to Europe”.

The Home Office has been pushing to jail asylum seekers who steer dinghies crossing the Channel, labelling them “people smugglers”, but the Court of Appeal has found a string of prosecutions to be unlawful.

A judgment last month said asylum seekers who are intercepted at sea or cross the Channel in order to make a claim are not committing a crime.

Almost all migrants arriving by small boat claim asylum, and two-thirds of applications were successful in the year to September.

The Nationality and Borders Bill would make prosecutions easier by lowering the threshold to mean that arriving in territorial waters is an offence, rather than formally entering the country.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said the proposals break the 1951 Refugee Convention, and a parliamentary committee found they “effectively criminalise the act of seeking asylum”.

A Home Office impact assessment for the bill, published in September, said evidence supporting the effectiveness of the government’s plans was “limited”.

“There is a risk that increased security and deterrence could encourage these cohorts to attempt riskier means of entering the UK,” it added.

The home secretary has insisted that the bill will “fix the broken asylum system”, but a recent House of Commons Library briefing said a backlog was increasing because of slower processing, rather than increasing applications.

The total number of cases marked as “asylum work in progress”, which includes initial applications, appeals and failed asylum seekers the government wants to remove, stands at more than 125,000.

The government changed its immigration rules in January 2020 to allow people who travelled through safe third countries to be declared “inadmissible”, but has not struck any returns agreements with EU countries to replace a deal lost in Brexit.

Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: “The number of people seeking asylum in the UK last year was only 9 percent, or 3,000 people, more than in 2019. A properly-run asylum system should be able to cope with an increase this small.

“Instead, Priti Patel's unnecessary delays to processing applications, along with her refusal to provide safer routes for people seeking asylum, has led to the crisis we now see in the Channel.”

The home secretary was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee when it released a 2019 report warning that the use of small boats was rising and the UK’s response could “have the counterproductive effect of forcing migrants to make desperate journeys across the Channel”.

There have been numerous other warnings, including from United Nations agencies, that reducing safe and legal routes “increase the likelihood of people turning to smugglers as an alternative”.

Home Office minister Tom Pursglove MP said MPs had already voted for the Nationality and Borders Bill and “the sooner the House of Lords approves the bill, the sooner these reforms can be delivered”.

He added: “Seeking asylum for protection should not involve people asylum-shopping country to country, or risking their lives by lining the pockets of criminal gangs to cross the Channel.”

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