More than 28,300 people make Channel crossing to the UK in record year

Last year's record number is an increase of 20,000 from 2020. Credit: PA

More than 28,300 people crossed the English Channel to the UK aboard small boats in 2021, three times the number for 2020.

But arrivals will continue and more people will drown in the narrow sea between France and Britain if the government pursues its “dangerous and callous policy”, ministers have been warned.

A group of people adrift in a dinghy before being rescued off the coast of Folkestone, Kent Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

Last year’s record number – an increase of about 20,000 on 2020 – came despite millions of pounds promised to French authorities to tackle the issue.

The last 12 months have also seen smugglers packing more and more migrants aboard larger and larger dinghies, sometimes with deadly consequences.

A Home Office minister said the government is “reforming” its approach to asylum through its New Plan for Immigration outlined in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which has received some criticism from rights campaigners.

Key statistics on English Channel crossings in 2021

Figures for small boat crossings are based on Home Office data obtained and analysed by the PA news agency.

- At least 28,395 people reached the UK aboard small boats in 2021.

- At least 6,869 people reached the UK in November alone, the highest number in a month and nearly the entire total for 2020.

- 3,114 people made the perilous crossing between November 10 and 16, the most in any seven-day stretch in the current crisis.

- 1,185 people reached British shores aboard 33 boats on November 11, setting a new record for a single day. The record for 2020 was 416 people, set in September.

- January saw the lowest number of successful crossings, with 223 people arriving in the UK, one of only four months last year with a figure below 1,600.

- More than 1,000 boats are believed to have been met by Border Force or landed on UK beaches.

- About 28 people on average travelled aboard each small boat that arrived in the UK in 2021, up from just over 13 in 2020.

- 41% of days in 2021 saw men, women and children crammed into unsafe dinghies reach Britain from France.

- At least 27 people died in a single dinghy drowning incident off the coast of France in November.

The boats used by people attempting the dangerous crossing stored in a facility in Dover, Kent, after being intercepted by Border Force. Credit: PA

Despite international efforts to crack down on people smugglers, gangs have continued their deadly trade, charging thousands of pounds for the perilous journey in flimsy inflatable boats.

The dinghies seen leaving French shores and being towed into Dover have noticeably increased in size over the past year with some carrying as many as 50 people.

The dangers of the English Channel were laid bare on November 24 when at least 27 people died as their boat sank.

The dinghy was likened to a blow-up pool by French interior minister Gerald Darmanin.

Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive at Refugee Action, said that the UK government’s policy will lead to more deaths in the Dover Strait.

He said: “People will continue to cross the Channel in flimsy boats, and smugglers will continue to profit, unless ministers open up more routes for refugees to claim asylum here.

“[In November] we saw the deadly result of their strategy of keeping people out rather than keeping people safe, when at least 27 people died near our coast.

“And yet the government wants to legalise this dangerous and callous policy in its Anti-Refugee Bill, which will only lead to more people drowning. It must wake up and scrap this bill now”.

Despite the increasing numbers, the UK’s small boat arrivals are a fraction of the number of people arriving in Europe.

At least 120,441 people arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean by land and sea in 2021, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

At least 1,839 people are estimated to be dead or missing, according to the same data.

Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais which supports refugees living in northern France, said rising numbers of small boat arrivals in Britain reflect a shift away from attempts to cross by lorry.

She told PA: “They are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, having lost family members in bloody conflicts, suffered horrific torture and inhumane persecution.

“The government tells us that people should travel by legal means but, if this were truly possible, why would so many be risking their lives in flimsy boats?

“If the government were serious about stopping people smugglers, it would create a safe way for people to claim asylum and put people smugglers out of business once and for all”.

French police pass a deflated dinghy on the beach in Wimereux near Calais Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

Home Office minister Tom Pursglove MP said: “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”.

He said the government is “reforming” its approach by “making the tough decisions to end the overt exploitation of our laws and UK taxpayers”.

Mr Pursglove added: “The public have been crying out for reform for two decades and that’s what this government is delivering through our New Plan for Immigration.

“The Nationality and Borders Bill will make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK illegally and introduce life sentences for those who facilitate illegal entry into the country.

“It will also strengthen the powers of Border Force to stop and redirect vessels, while introducing new powers to remove asylum seekers to have their claims processed outside the UK.

“MPs have already voted to reform this broken and abusive system and the sooner the House of Lords approves the Borders Bill, the sooner these reforms can be delivered”.