Small boat crossings: What are the facts and how can they be stopped?

By Lewis Denison, ITV News Westminster Producer

The UK has an ever-growing problem of people trying to enter by crossing the English Channel on dangerous small boats. Despite repeated efforts to stop them, the numbers keep on rising.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed to reduce the arrivals and is unveiling yet another plan to make that a reality, the so-called Small Boats Bill. However he's already being warned it's unworkable.

In a nutshell, the plan will seek to render all asylum applications by those who enter the UK inadmissible - a policy ministers say will crush the business model of traffickers because it will stop huge numbers being allowed to resettle here.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman wrote in the Telegraph that the government has "pushed the boundaries of international law to solve this crisis".

Opposition parties and charities such as the Refugee Council are against the plan, but no one wants small boat crossings to continue because of the dozens who die while making the desperate journey.

Here are the facts around small boat crossings and the various options which have been presented as ways to stop them.

How big is the problem of small boat crossings?

A huge record-breaking 45,755 migrants were recorded as reaching the UK on small boats in 2022, a figure which grew by 60% on 2021.

And in 2023 alone, more than 2,500 people have succeeded in crossing the Channel, despite the bitterly cold winter weather.

The number of small vessels arriving (1,109) in 2022 was only slightly higher than the 2021 figure of 1,034, but the number of people increased significantly.

In 2022, there was an average of 41 people per small boat. This has increased compared to 2021, when there was an average of 28 people per small boat and is much higher than 2020 (13 people per small boat), 2019 (11 people) and 2018 (7 people).

There was at least one small boat recorded arriving on 2 out of every 5 days in 2022.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that the only way into the UK would be a “safe and legal route”. Credit: PA

How many migrants who cross on small boats are allowed to resettle in the UK?

The Refugee Council says of all those who crossed the Channel last year two thirds would be granted asylum, however the processing of asylum applications in the UK is very slow and has a huge backlog.

Just 210 people who arrived on a small boat in 2022 had their asylum applications approved, out of 40,302 who applied. The grant rate was 62% because there were only 340 decisions made.

Out of the 83,236 who have arrived on small boats since records began in 2018, just 6,242 have had applications approved and 56,883 are awaiting a decision.

Small boat arrivals accounted for 45% of asylum applications in 2022.

A huge 89,398 people applied for asylum in 2022, the latest Home Office figures show, more than double the number during the European migration crisis in 2016, but lower than 2002 when there was unrest in Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Somalia.

And a total of 160,919 people were waiting for an initial decision on an asylum application in the UK at the end of December 2022, up 60% from 100,564 at the end of December 2021 and the highest figure since current records began in 2010.

The number of people waiting more than six months for an initial decision stood at 109,641 at the end of 2022, up 77% year-on-year from 61,864.

How much are small boat crossings costing the UK?

The government is spending approximately £5.6 million per day on housing asylum seekers in hotels after they cross the Channel illegally, according to the latest figures.

And the UK was spending £21,700 on providing aid per refugee in 2021, according to the latest figures from the International Development Committee - that number is likely to have increased significantly for 2022.

The committee also said between March 2020 and September 2022, the number of asylum seekers housed in “contingency accommodation”, which largely consists of hotels, increased from almost 2,600 to more than 37,000.

The prime minister has made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities.

Which nationalities are crossing the Channel most?

Almost half of all small boat crossings (48%) were made by people from Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan or Syrian.

In 2021 more than half of those detected crossing the Channel were of Iranian or Iraqi nationality (30% and 22% of the total respectively).

A further 10% were Eritrean, 9% were Syrian and 5% were from Afghanistan.

2022 saw a change in the breakdown of nationalities.

Across the first nine months of 2022, Albanians accounted for 35% of arrivals – the highest proportion of any group.

Afghans accounted for 15%, Iranians 11% and Iraqis 10%.

These figures are based on the total number of arrivals for whom nationality has been recorded by the Home Office.

How many are deported or detained?

There were 20,446 people placed in immigration detention in 2022, 16% fewer than in 2019, the most recent comparable figure due to the pandemic.

Albanians were the most common nationality entering detention in 2022, with 7,609 making up 37% of entrants, more than double pre-pandemic levels in 2019 (3,483).

By the end of December 2022, there were 1,159 people held in immigration detention.

In the year ending September 2022, there were 3,531 enforced returns, 51% fewer than in 2019 (7,198). 

The vast majority were foreign national offenders, with 2,958 of those deported.

What is the government's plan to 'stop the boats'?

The details are still scarce, with ministers reportedly set to reveal the plan this week, but early indications say there would be a duty placed on the home secretary to remove “as soon as reasonably practicable” anyone who arrives on a small boat.

Arrivals will also be prevented from claiming asylum while in the UK, with plans also to ban them from returning once removed.

Another aspect of the plan will reportedly see all those who enter the country illegally locked up at detention centres until they are deported, either to a safe third country or Rwanda where the UK has an asylum processing deal.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The home secretary has been clear that if you arrive in the UK illegally, you should not be allowed to stay. 

“We will shortly introduce legislation which will ensure that people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly returned to their home country or a safe third country. 

"Our work with France is also vital to tackling the unacceptable rise in dangerous Channel crossings. We share a determination to tackle this issue together, head-on, to stop the boats.”

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What ideas have been presented as ways to stop small boats?

There have been several ideas considered before Suella Braverman's forthcoming small boats bill, however many appear to be unworkable.

Most charities say the best way to stop small boat crossings would be to open up routes to apply for asylum by people outside the UK.

Current rules say a person must be physically in the UK in order to claim asylum there. It is not possible to apply for asylum from outside the UK and there is no option to obtain a visa with the purpose of seeking asylum.

One plan which never got off the ground was the idea of "push backs", which would see small boats in the Channel returned to France before they reach the UK.

Charities fear that seeking to turn boats away while on the water could put lives at risk and could be illegal.

Another plan was to urge France to step up police patrols on its northern beaches, however that does not appear to have worked.