Why record numbers of migrants are crossing the English Channel in small boats


Britain has been hit by a surge of migrants making the perilous journey across the English Channel, leading to calls for new government measures to tackle the crisis.

At least 886 people succeeded in reaching the UK on Saturday, bringing the total for 2021 to more than 25,600.

Small boat arrivals in 2021 now stand at more than three times the figure for the whole of 2020, when 8,417 people crossed the waterway.

Home Secretary Priti Patel insisted the government was working on a long-term plan to address concerns and said the situation would “take time to fix”.

“The only solution is wholesale reform of our asylum system,” she said.

Here are some of the questions surrounding the issue:

From where are the migrants coming?

Most small boats set off from the northern French coast near Calais and Dunkirk but the stretch of coastline being used is extending.

Those recorded attempting the crossing have come from countries including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kuwait, Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Guinea, Mali, Chad, Somalia, Niger, Libya and Albania.

Why are they coming to the UK?

Some are fleeing war-torn nations and forced military service, while others have faced persecution for their beliefs or sexuality in their home countries.

Many are pursue what they perceive as a better life and feel a connection to Britain, whether through knowledge of the English language and culture or because they have family and friends in the UK.

Why not stay in France as it is a ‘safe country’?

Migrants living in Calais often have to sleep in fields and scrubland and have faced frequent police evictions in the five years since the destruction of the ‘Jungle’ camp.

Often heard in the immigration debate is that people should seek refuge in the “first safe country” in which they arrive – but this is incorrect as there is no such requirement under the UN Refugee Convention.

How are people crossing and is it dangerous?

With limited safe and legal routes available to them, those gathered on the northern French coast can feel compelled to resort to dangerous methods to reach the UK.

Many used to hide in the backs of lorries but recent years have seen a sharp rise in small boat crossings.

Crossing the busy shipping lanes of the English Channel in a dinghy is fraught with peril and the journey has claimed several lives in recent years, including children.

How do the numbers compare to last year?

More than 25,600 people have reached Britain in small boats this year, data compiled by PA shows.

This is more than triple the 8,417 that PA recorded arriving in 2020.

What UK resources are available in the Channel?

Border Force has a limited number of cutters and patrol boats – the vessels it uses to intercept boats and bring people ashore.

When a surge of crossings happens, Border Force, RNLI and coastguard teams can be overwhelmed and cannot address all the incidents at the same time.

Can UK Border Force turn people away in the Channel?

“Pushbacks” of small boats in the Channel are difficult and there is dispute over their legality.

Charities fear that seeking to turn boats away while on the water could endanger lives and the Home Office has not confirmed when or if the tactic will be put into practice.

What happens when people reach UK waters?

A large proportion – perhaps the great majority – of boats are intercepted by Border Force or the RNLI once they reach UK waters, while some land on beaches.

Contrary to some reports, the vast majority (98 per cent for January-September 2020) of people reaching the UK in small boats claim asylum, rather than seeking to “disappear”.

The asylum process can be lengthy, with some waiting months or years for a decision.

How do numbers of arrivals in the UK compare with the rest of Europe? Are asylum claims going up?

The UK continues to see far fewer boats arriving and asylum claims than many of its European counterparts.

At least 105,135 people have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean by land and sea so far this year, data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows.

Asylum applications in the UK have remained steady over the past few years despite the rise in small boat arrivals, with 14,670 claims lodged in the first six months of 2021, compared with 13,370 in the same period in 2020 and 16,619 in 2019.

What does the UK government say about the crossings?

In 2019, Priti Patel promised to make migrant crossings an “infrequent phenomenon” by spring 2020 and then pledged in August last year to “make this route unviable”.

The government says its new New Plan for Immigration will “fix the system” but its Nationality and Borders Bill has been criticised by charities.

What do charities say about the issue?

Aid organisations have long called for the government to set up more legal and safe routes for people to claim asylum in Britain.

Under current legislation, people can claim asylum in the UK only if they are physically present in the country, which some fear encourages attempts at the dangerous journey.

Updated: November 22nd 2021, 9:32 PM

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Publish date : 2021-11-22 21:35:20

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