Record number of migrants crossed English Channel into UK in 2021

Asylum seekers came despite millions of pounds promised to French authorities to tackle issue

A group of people thought to be migrants brought ashore from a lifeboat at Dungeness in Kent as the UK dealt with a surge in Channel crossings. PA
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More than 28,300 people crossed the English Channel to the UK aboard small boats in 2021, more than triple the number recorded in the previous year.

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.

During the past 12 months, smugglers have packed more and more people aboard larger dinghies, sometimes with deadly consequences.

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

A Home Office minister said the government is “reforming” its approach to asylum through its New Plan for Immigration.

The number of arrivals peaked in November when, despite dropping temperatures, at least 6,869 people reached the UK.

Between November 10 and 16, more than 3,100 made the perilous crossing, the most in any seven-day stretch in the current crisis.

That same month, a new single-day record was also registered, with 1,185 people reaching British shores aboard 33 boats on November 11.

Going into 2021, the most arrivals on a single day had been 416, set in September 2020.

A view of a warehouse facility in Dover, Kent, for boats used by people thought to be migrants. PA.

Overall, at least 28,395 people reached the UK aboard small boats in 2021, analysis by PA showed.

Despite international efforts to crack down on people smugglers, gangs have continued to ply their deadly trade in the Dover Strait, charging thousands of pounds for a spot on flimsy, inflatable boats.

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

This is supported by PA data which showed an average of 28 people travelling aboard each small boat that arrived in the UK in 2021, up from a little more than 13 in 2020.

The dangers of crossing the English Channel were laid bare on November 24, when at least 27 people died after 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.

“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,” he said.

“[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 in 2021, data from the UNHCR show, and about 1,839 people have been reported missing or dead.

Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais that 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.

“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.”

Updated: January 04, 2022, 12:01 AM