Calls for safe routes to UK as arrivals by small boat treble in a year

Refugee charities are urging the government to open safe routes or risk a new wave of fatalities in the Channel after the number of people who travelled to the UK by small boats trebled last year.

Data released on Tuesday shows that more than 28,300 people crossed the Channel in 2021, three times the number for 2020. The record number came despite tens of millions of pounds being spent by the home secretary, Priti Patel, on new measures to discourage the journeys.

Organisations that help new arrivals said the figures showed that the government’s strategy risked more deaths at sea. In one incident in November, 27 people including a seven-year-old boy and a pregnant woman drowned in the worst tragedy of its kind.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said he could envisage more deaths without a rethink. “This government must change its approach and instead of seeking to punish or push away people seeking safety because of the type of journey they have made to the UK, they must create and commit to safe routes,” he said.

Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, which supports refugees living in northern France, said: “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?”

Minnie Rahman, the interim head of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the government’s closure of safe routes had encouraged more dangerous journeys. “What’s changed is that safe routes to get here – like family reunion routes and the Syrian resettlement scheme – have completely shut down, forcing more people into the hands of people traffickers to get here,” she said.

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At least 28,395 people reached the UK on small boats in 2021, according to analysis by the Press Association. The number of arrivals peaked in November when at least 6,869 people reached the UK.

Between 10 and 16 November more than 3,100 made the perilous crossing, the most in any seven-day stretch in the current crisis. The same month also saw a new record for a single day in the crisis, with 1,185 people reaching British shores onboard 33 boats on 11 November.

Despite international efforts to crack down on people smugglers, organised criminal gangs charge thousands of pounds for a berth in flimsy inflatable boats. Dinghies seen leaving French shores and being towed into Dover have increased in size over the past year, with some carrying as many as 50 people. The data shows an average of about 28 people on each small boat that arrived in the UK in 2021, up from just over 13 in 2020.

Analysis by Ferrari news agency said last week that 28,381 people had travelled by small boat in 2021. The Home Office collects its own small boat data but refuses to release annual figures, which instead are compiled daily by journalists.

The Home Office minister Tom Pursglove said the government was reforming its approach to asylum through its new plan for immigration.

“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 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.”