Channel crossings dropped in 2023 but UK border staff warn decrease was a 'glitch'

About 30,000 migrants arrived in Britain in small boats last year, provisional government figures show

About 30,000 migrants crossed the Channel to the UK from mainland Europe in small boats in 2023, an annual drop of more than a third, government figures released showed. AFP
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The number of migrants crossing the Channel to Britain fell by about a third in 2023 but border staff have warned that the drop is a 'glitch' and higher numbers are expected next year.

Some 29,437 people made the crossing between France and the UK last year, provisional data released by the government shows.

That is 36 per cent lower than the record 45,774 crossings for the whole of 2022. But it is higher than the figure for 2021 (28,526).

However, the Immigration Services Union, which represents border staff, said the decrease in small boat arrivals in 2023 was unlikely to continue into the new year.

Lucy Moreton, the union’s professional officer, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the “planning assumption for 2024 is that 2023 has been unusually low”.

She said that other “confounding factors”, particularly high winds, have made migrant crossing much more difficult for much of the year.

“But we have also had much larger boats, much more seaworthy boats, so the planning assumption is that this is a glitch.”

The Border Force would need to continue to “resource itself” to deal with higher numbers in the future, she added.

The last crossings of the year took place on December 16, when 55 people made the journey from France in one boat. There were no crossings over the Christmas period for the first time in five years.

The Home Office recorded no further crossings for the remaining 15 days of 2023 amid bad weather. That is the longest consecutive period of the year without any arrivals.

The perilous journeys across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes have become a huge political problem for current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who pledged last year to “stop the boats” as part of five promises he made for 2023.

Mr Sunak said last month there was no “firm date” for meeting his pledge.

His ministers have claimed Britain's £480 million agreement with France to increase efforts to stop the migrants is starting to pay off, alongside fast-track return deals struck with countries such as Albania.

The Conservatives had hoped to deter the crossings by preventing all migrants arriving without prior authorisation from applying for asylum and sending some to Rwanda.

But the policy remains stalled after the UK Supreme Court ruled that deporting them to the East African country is illegal under international law.

The cross-Channel journeys on small inflatable vessels, which are often overloaded and unseaworthy, have repeatedly proved deadly.

In one of the latest crossings, at least six men died and dozens more required rescuing in August after a small vessel bound for the south-east English coast from France sank.

In November 2021, at least 27 people died when their dinghy capsized.

The number of migrants crossing the Channel has steadily increased since 299 people were detected in 2018. There were 1,843 crossings recorded in 2019 and 8,466 in 2020, according to the Home Office.

August 2022 was the highest month on record for crossings when 8,574 people arrived in the UK after making the journey. August 22 that year also saw a record 1,295 migrants crossing in a single day on 27 boats.

The number of arrivals per month began to fall towards the end of 2023, which could reflect seasonal changes in the amount of crossings being attempted as a result of the weather.

In December 1,077 people made the journey, compared to the 1,744 arrivals recorded in the last month of 2022.

Thousands of asylum seekers await decision but UK government says backlog cleared

Thousands of asylum cases are still awaiting a final decision despite the UK government insisting it has met a target to clear a backlog of claims.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak previously pledged to “abolish” a portion of outstanding older asylum applications by the end of 2023, giving the Home Office the task of tackling the number of so-called legacy claims.

The department said on Monday that Mr Sunak’s “commitment of clearing the legacy asylum backlog has been delivered” and it had processed more than 112,000 asylum cases overall in 2023.

Officials also made the “highest annual number of substantive decisions in a year since 2002”, it said.

The Home Office said all cases in the legacy backlog have now been reviewed, with 86,800 decisions made, but “4,500 complex cases have been highlighted that require additional checks or investigation for a final decision to be made”.

Ahead of official figures being published on Tuesday morning, it is understood the Home Office has processed about 25,200 newer asylum claims, in addition to making 86,800 decisions in legacy cases, taking the provisional number of total decisions made overall in the year to 112,000.

Updated: January 01, 2024, 11:00 PM