A new record for the number of arrivals across the Channel in small boats has prompted calls for Priti Patel to rethink her approach to asylum, which experts say does nothing to tackle the reasons people take such dangerous journeys.
The Home Office said 1,185 people arrived on small boats on Thursday, a record for the current migration crisis, surpassing the previous high of 853 set earlier this month.
More than 23,500 people have reached the UK after crossing the Channel onboard small boats this year, according to data compiled by the PA Media news agency.
Jon Featonby, the refugee and asylum policy manager at British Red Cross, said: “It is a brutal, life-threatening journey, especially in the worsening winter weather. The immediate priorities must be to save lives and to ensure anyone who makes it to the UK is met with dignity and compassion – dry clothes, medical care, food, clean water and a safe place to sleep.
“There are no simple answers, but we urge the government to rethink its plans. As it stands, the nationality and borders bill will make the UK’s asylum system harsher and not address the reasons why people take such dangerous journeys. The focus for any reform should be ambitious plans for new safe routes alongside a fair, humane and efficient asylum system.”
The prime minister on Friday called on France to close off the flow of people coming into France in order to stop them then trying to cross the channel in small boats.
On a visit to the Old Bexley and Sidcup constituency in south-east London, Boris Johnson said: “We are working all the time with our French colleagues, the whole of Europe faces a migration crisis as you can see with what is happening in Belarus and elsewhere, but we need to focus on those French beaches.
“What I would say to our French friends is if you close off the door to the corridor at the far end, then people won’t come into the corridor at the other end.
“We need to close down that movement from the French beaches to the UK, if you want to stop people coming into France to come to the UK.”
The nationality and borders bill, described by Patel, the home secretary, as “the biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades”, proposes powers to treat asylum seekers deemed to have arrived in the UK illegally more harshly than those who arrive in the country via legal routes.
Campaigners have labelled it an “anti-refugee bill”, claiming it will penalise those who need help the most, and have argued there are not enough or sufficient legal routes for asylum seekers to take.
Gunes Kalkan, the head of campaigns at Safe Passage International, said: “Forced to flee but unable to find a safe route, it’s devastating that people are having to risk the dangerous crossing across the Channel to reach asylum and their loved ones in the UK because there is no other way.
“No one should ever have to risk their lives to reach safety, but the government’s plan to prevent crossings will only make the situation worse. We’re calling for the government to scrap the cruel and unworkable nationality and borders bill and instead open safe routes to save lives. Safe routes better protect refugees, reunite families and support people to rebuild their lives welcomed by our communities.”
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, called on the government to take action now. He said: “Increasing numbers of people making terrifying journeys across the Channel in freezing cold weather is a dreadful reminder of the lengths people are forced to take to be safe. These are people who face war, terror and persecution in their home countries and are doing whatever they possibly can to flee danger.”
He called for “every man woman and child” to be treated with compassion and humanity.
Three people attempting to cross the Channel in kayaks were reported missing by the French coastguard on Thursday.
Police found two kayaks floating adrift close to the coastline early on Thursday morning and rescued two survivors, who were returned to Calais. The pair said a further three people were missing, prompting a search operation in air and on sea that lasted until late on Thursday evening. The Calais coastguard said it would not resume efforts to find the kayakers on Friday.
A girl wrapped in a red jacket was carried ashore in Dover on Thursday, one of hundreds of people brought into the Kent port after being picked up at sea. Lifeboat crews and Border Force boats were busy well into the evening after spending hours intercepting boats in the Dover strait throughout the day.
Two people have recently lost their lives attempting the crossing and more are feared missing at sea in recent weeks. Further along the coast, more people were reportedly seen arriving on Hastings beach after being picked up by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Patel promised in 2019 to make migrant crossings an “infrequent phenomenon” by spring 2020, and then pledged in August 2020 to “make this route unviable”. During this time the UK government has agreed to pay France millions of pounds to increase security on its northern coast.
Despite the increasing numbers of small boat arrivals, the UK has far fewer boat arrivals and asylum claims than many of its European counterparts. At least 100,907 people have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean by land and sea so far this year, according to data from the UN high commissioner for refugees. At least 1,313 people are estimated to be dead or missing, according to the same data.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said: “The people making these perilous sea crossings are doing so out of desperation, largely because there are no safe and legal routes open to them, and many have family and other connections here.
“Instead of seizing on these highly visible crossings to manufacture a supposed ‘national emergency’ in their attempts to justify draconian new asylum policies, ministers ought to be working constructively with the French authorities to provide safe access to asylum procedures on both sides of the Channel.
“The total number of asylum claims being made in the UK over the last few years has remained relatively low and stable, but Channel crossings have become part of the government’s cynical politicisation of asylum.
“With its current approach, the government is wilfully endangering people it should be helping. These are cruel tactics and they should end.”