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Q&A: Migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats

02 Jul 2021

By Peter William Walsh

This commentary was originally published on 16 October 2020 as Migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats: What do we know? This is an updated version of that commentary.


Continued reports of migrants trying to reach the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats have intensified debate about unauthorised migration and asylum seeking.

On 24 March 2021, the government published a policy statement outlining its New Plan for Immigration. The statement outlines reforms of the UK’s asylum system, including penalising asylum seekers who arrive in the UK without authorisation from a country the government considers to be safe, such as France. A major aim of these reforms is to reduce the number of people crossing the English Channel in small boats.

This Q&A reviews what we know about small boat arrivals in the UK.

How many migrants have crossed the English Channel in small boats?

The Home Office does not regularly publish a running total, though it does keep administrative records of small boat arrivals and occasionally releases figures. On other occasions, Home Office data arrive in the public domain via news reports (e.g., here), or publications by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (e.g., here).

The most recent official figure is found in the policy statement for the New Plan for Immigration. This states that in 2020, around 8,500 people were detected attempting to enter the UK clandestinely by small boat – up from around 1,800 in 2019. Of the 8,500, 74% were aged 18–39, and 87% were male (p. 7). There is currently no official statement on the number that have crossed in 2021.

However, news outlets have provided running tallies of the number of Channel migrants detected in 2021, said to be based on data given to them by the Home Office that has not been officially published and which therefore must be viewed as provisional. For example, the Telegraph reports that in 2021 until 28 June, around 5,500 migrants reached the UK in small boats. If arrivals continue at that rate, then the number for 2021 would be bigger than that for 2020.

A second official count, which includes the number of arrivals per quarter from Q1 2018 to Q2 2020, is found in a letter of 2 September 2020 from the Home Secretary to the Home Affairs Committee. It states that in 2018, around 300 people had been “detected” attempting to enter the UK clandestinely by small boat, with around 1,800 detected in 2019 (Figure 1, ‘Channel migrants detected’). These numbers refer both to people detected at sea and brought to the UK, as well as those detected within the UK where authorities believed individuals arrived by small boat, even if no boat was found. They do not include those who were prevented from departing France, or who were intercepted by French authorities and returned to France.

A large majority of people who cross the Channel in small boats claim asylum once they are in the UK. In oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on 3 September 2020, Abi Tierney, the Director General of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), stated that of the roughly 5,000 people who had crossed the English Channel in small boats from January to September 2020, 98% claimed asylum.

Although the number of people detected crossing the English Channel and seeking asylum has increased, the overall number of people seeking asylum in the UK fell considerably in 2020, probably because of the closure of other routes, such as air and road, due to Covid-19 (Figure 1, ‘Asylum applicants’).

Figure 1

How does this compare with other countries?

The UK is not the only country dealing with the unauthorised arrival of migrants by boat. Greece, Italy, and Spain have all received many more such arrivals in recent years.

The UN reports that in 2020, Italy had around 34,000 sea arrivals, Spain 40,000, and Greece 10,000, compared to the UK’s 8,500 (Figure 2).

Figure 2

How long has this been happening?

Reports of migrants attempting to enter the UK clandestinely by crossing the Channel go back at least twenty years. In the late 1990s, people began moving to Calais to try to reach the UK, and migrants camps began to form. In response, the French Red Cross built the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais in 1999. The camp was closed in 2002, but some migrants remained there, with the area continuing to attract migrants planning to reach the UK.

The problem rose to prominence again in 2014. At that time, the focus was on people attempting to enter the UK without authorisation by stowing away on ships, such as passenger ferries, and on trucks, cars, and trains passing through the Channel Tunnel. In early 2015, another encampment began to form in Calais, which came to be known as the ‘Calais Jungle’. In October 2016, the Jungle was cleared, when it was estimated to be home to seven thousand migrants.

Since 2014, the UK has strengthened its security at the French–UK border, and has implemented immigration controls at ports in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Yet despite the closure of Sangatte and the clearance of the Calais Jungle to prevent stowaways, crossings continue in small boats, which have been recorded regularly since late 2018.

Why are migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats?

There is little evidence on why migrants are crossing the English Channel in small boats. The Director General of Immigration Enforcement, Tyson Hepple, has said that Channel migrants are asked why they came to the UK, but that those data are not routinely published.

In 2002, the Home Office published a report on the decision-making of asylum-seekers in general (and so not Channel migrants in particular). The research was based on 65 interviews, and there is no way of knowing how representative this sample is. The report found that seven main factors led to migrants seeking asylum in the UK:

  • The desire to reach a safe place, with the UK being viewed as safe, though not necessarily more safe than other countries;
  • The ability to pay for long distance travel;
  • The selection of the UK by the agent (such as a smuggler), with the migrants not being given a choice;
  • The presence of friends or relatives in the UK;
  • The belief that the UK is a tolerant and democratic country;
  • Previous links between their origin country and the UK, including colonial links;
  • The ability to speak English or a desire to learn it.

Importantly, the researchers found little evidence that the respondents had a detailed knowledge of UK asylum procedures, benefit entitlements, or the availability of work in the UK. There was even less evidence that the respondents had a comparative knowledge of how these conditions varied between different European destination countries.

Campaigners argue that one factor driving asylum seekers’ choice to enter the UK irregularly and via clandestine means, such as by small boat, is that there are no safe and legal alternatives. It is not possible to apply for asylum from outside the UK.

More specifically, the representative to the UK of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that more stringent controls on road travel, and the coronavirus pandemic, have had the effect of closing off lorry and air routes to the UK, leading to more people using alternative means, including crossing the Channel in small boats. This is supported by the recent rise in small boat arrivals coinciding with a fall in the overall number of people seeking asylum.

Where do Channel crossers come from?

The latest official data on the nationality of people crossing the Channel in small boats is also found in the Home Secretary’s letter of 2 September 2020. This stated that around half of those making the crossing from 1 January to 30 June 2020 were Iranian, and around a quarter were Iraqi (Figure 3).

Figure 3

How many Channel migrants claim asylum once they reach the UK?

The Home Office does not routinely publish breakdowns of asylum claims by claimants’ method of arrival in the UK.

However, we do have official information regarding how many Channel migrants claimed asylum for 2020 up until September. In oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on 3 September 2020, the Director General of UKVI stated that of the 5,000 people who had made it to the UK in 2020 to that date, 98% had claimed asylum.

Of these asylum claimants, half had received an initial decision, of which 20% had been granted asylum or another type of permission to stay, 10% were refused any form of asylum-related leave because the Home Office considered that they did not meet the criteria for protection, and around 70% were refused because the Home Office believes that another EU member state country has the legal responsibility for deciding those applicants’ claims because they had passed through another EU country, or had already applied for asylum in another country, before reaching the UK.

Although we do not have any more data on the outcomes of the asylum claims of Channel migrants in particular, we do know that in recent years more than half of asylum applications result in a grant of asylum or other form of permission to stay, taking into account successful appeals (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Notably, the likelihood of people being granted asylum varies widely by nationality, with the nationalities that are most common among Channel migrants, like Iranian and Syrian, having a higher-than-average likelihood of being ultimately granted asylum or another type of permission to stay (Table 1).

Table 1

How many Channel migrants have been returned to EU member states?

There is no law that says asylum seekers must make their asylum claim in the first safe country they arrive in after leaving their country of origin. Under an EU law called the Dublin III Regulation, asylum seekers in EU countries can in some circumstances be transferred to the first EU member state in which they arrived after leaving their origin country.

However, on 31 December 2020, when the Brexit transition period ended, the UK ceased to be party to the Dublin III Regulation. To maintain the option to return an asylum seeker to their first EU country of entry, the UK would have to enter into agreements with either individual member states, or with the EU as a whole. Without such agreements, the UK will find it difficult to transfer asylum seekers to EU countries.

There are no routinely published official statistics on pre-2021 Dublin returns broken down by returnees’ method of arrival in the UK, such as clandestinely via small boat. However, in a Parliamentary written answer, the government said that from January 2019 until June 2020, 155 people who entered the UK without authorisation on small boats had been “returned to Europe” – less than 4% of the roughly 4,300 detected arrivals in that period. However, it is not clear how many were returned under the Dublin regulation.

There are, however, official statistics on the total number of Dublin transfers that took place while the UK was party to the agreement. These statistics show that in recent years a small fraction of asylum seekers are returned to other EU member states under the Dublin scheme. In the five-year period 2016 to 2020, around 194,000 people applied for asylum in the UK – while there were only around 1,250 Dublin transfers out of the country (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Will the New Plan for Immigration reduce small boat arrivals?

One of the government’s major aims with the New Plan for Immigration is to reduce small boat arrivals. It aims to achieve this by prohibiting people from claiming asylum who entered the UK without authorisation from a country considered by the Home Office to be safe. The Home Office has said it will try to return such people. However, if they cannot be returned, they will be permitted to claim asylum and the Home Office will hear their asylum claim. If they are accepted by the Home Office to meet the criteria for asylum protection, they will receive not the usual statuses, but a lesser ‘temporary protection status’ lasting up to 30 months and which, unlike full refugee status, will not include an automatic right to settle in the UK, comes with restricted family reunion rights, and no recourse to public funds except in cases of destitution. The government has said that it will still seek to remove people with temporary protection status. The rationale for this policy is to deter unauthorised entry to the UK.

There is limited evidence on whether such deterrence policies are likely to work. In the Home Office’s 2002 report, Understanding the decision-making of asylum-seekers, the researchers found little evidence that asylum-seekers were aware of asylum policy, which suggests their decisions are unlikely to be much influenced by it.


The Migration Observatory’s work on post-Brexit immigration policy is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

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