How many migrants cross the English Channel in small boats?


Migrants in a boar after being picked up in the channel by the Border Force

A record number of people have crossed the English Channel in small boats this year.

The UK has announced new measures to try to bring the numbers down.

How many migrants cross the Channel?

More than 40,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats in 2022.

This is the highest number since these figures began to be collected in 2018.

In 2021, the total was 28,526 people, while in 2020 it was 8,404.

Chart showing the number of Channel crossings by small boats 2018-2022

Chart showing the number of Channel crossings by small boats 2018-2022

Almost all of the people arriving claim asylum. From October 2021 to end of August 2022, 90% of arrivals have applied for government protection.

In the year to September 2022 the UK received more than 72,000 asylum applications, relating to almost 86,000 people. Small boat arrivals are roughly half of these.

Of the 7,805 small boat arrivals who have received an initial decision since 2018, 53% were granted asylum or another type of leave to remain. The rest were refused.

Who are the migrants and where are they from?

In the first nine months of 2022, half of those arriving in small boats were of just two nationalities:

Graphic showing the nationalities of people arriving into the UK by small boat: Albania 11,241; Afghanistan 4,781; Iran 3,594; Iraq 3,047; Syria 2.191; Eritrea 1,509; Sudan 1,211; Egypt 850; Turkey: 689; Ethiopia: 440

Graphic showing the nationalities of people arriving into the UK by small boat: Albania 11,241; Afghanistan 4,781; Iran 3,594; Iraq 3,047; Syria 2.191; Eritrea 1,509; Sudan 1,211; Egypt 850; Turkey: 689; Ethiopia: 440

What has the government said it will do to stop the crossings?

On 13 December the government announced a series of new measures to tackle illegal immigration:

  • A new Small Boats Command Centre will bring together the military and National Crime Agency (NCA) to monitor Channel crossings

  • Increased funding for the NCA to address immigration crime

  • More raids on people suspected of working illegally

  • Move up to 10,000 migrants into disused university halls and holiday parks to save on hotel costs

  • Abolish backlog of initial asylum decisions by end of next year

The government also announced a new agreement with Albania to place more UK Border Force staff in Tirana – the Albanian capital – and fast track the return of failed Albanian asylum seekers.

In November, the government signed a new agreement with France to cover the costs of increased Channel patrols.

The £63m deal will pay for increased number of French officers patrolling the coast and more use of drones.

The government also has a plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda for their claims to be processed.

Can asylum seekers reach the UK legally?

The Nationality and Borders Act made it illegal for migrants to knowingly enter the UK without a visa or special permission.

People that arrive illegally could face four years in prison and removal to a safe country, the government says. However, the UK has an international legal obligation not to criminally penalise anyone who seeks protection as a refugee.

The Home Office says a number of “safe and legal” routes are available.

However, some routes are only available to people from specific countries such as Afghanistan and Ukraine. The government also highlights an immigration route for British National status holders in Hong Kong.

Other asylum routes only accept a limited number of refugees from other parts of the world:

  • UK Resettlement Scheme – opened in 2021 and prioritises those from regions in conflict. It planned to resettle 5,000 in its first year, but resettled 1,125 refugees

  • Community Sponsorship Scheme – opened in 2016 for local community groups to provide accommodation and support for refugees. In 2021, 144 people came through this route

  • Refugee Family Reunion – opened in 2011 to partners and children under 18 of those already granted protection in the UK. In 2021, 6,134 visas were granted through this route

  • Mandate Resettlement Scheme – opened in 1995 to resettle refugees who have a close family member in the UK who can offer a home to them. The scheme has resettled about 430 refugees since 2004, but just two people were resettled in 2021

Organisations such as the Refugee Council and Amnesty International say there are no safe and legal routes for most people to seek asylum in the UK.

Amnesty International said opening up more safe and legal routes would help reduce exploitation at the hands of people traffickers.

What happens when people arrive in the UK?

Most of the people who come by boat claim asylum on arrival in the UK. An asylum seeker is a person who has applied for the right to seek shelter and protection in another country.

Asylum seekers have an initial interview and – if their case is accepted – they can apply to remain in the UK.

However, recent changes to immigration law mean an asylum claim can be rejected if the applicant has a connection to a safe third country. This would include passing through France on the way to the UK.

The Home Office says applicants should receive a decision within six months but statistics show that over 70% of applicants had not heard back within that time.

Speaking to MPs in October about Channel crossings, Home Office official Abi Tierney said that 96% of claims from 2021 are still to be processed.

During the application process, many people are kept in hotels due to a shortage of available accommodation. Some asylum seekers are also held in immigration detention centres.

They usually cannot work while their case is being considered.

If their application for asylum is accepted, they are allowed to stay in the UK. If it is rejected, they face being returned to the country they came from, although they can appeal against the decision.

Clarification 2 December: This article has been amended to make clear that the government’s “safe and legal” routes are only available to certain groups of people who have already been recognised as refugees, or family members of refugees already in the UK.


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