Record numbers of migrants cross English Channel despite new penalties

A record number of migrants attempted to make the dangerous journey across the English Channel on Monday, casting fresh doubts over government efforts to tighten up the border and “break the business model” of people smugglers.

By midnight, almost 700 migrants had been detected travelling in 14 small boats, according to data released on Tuesday by the Ministry of Defence, which also confirmed that a monthly record of 3,683 migrants had attempted the crossing from France in July.

This brings the total number of migrants navigating the busy shipping lanes from France to England to more than 17,000 so far this year, compared with 28,500 over the course of 2021.

Outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson’s government had hoped tougher immigration legislation, combining jail terms of up to four years for people entering the UK by unofficial channels with life sentences for those profiting from the traffic, would bring numbers down and “break the business model” of people smugglers.

Home secretary Priti Patel buttressed the legislation by announcing in April her flagship plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda under a £120mn deal with the central African nation. But since then the numbers heading for the UK have climbed.

A spokesperson for the UK government described the situation as “unacceptable” and insisted it was reforming the country’s “broken asylum system”. They said that 23 people had been arrested since the Nationality and Borders Act made it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK by irregular means.

“Under our new Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda, we are continuing preparations to relocate those who are making dangerous, unnecessary and illegal journeys into the UK,” they added.

A report by the cross-party House of Commons home affairs committee said last month that there was no evidence the Rwanda policy was deterring asylum seekers from crossing the Channel or the people smugglers who bring them in.

But the MPs acknowledged that one possible reason for the increase in recent crossings was that, because the Rwanda scheme had yet to take off, people traffickers were encouraging migrants wanting to risk the crossing to do so before it got under way.

Patel’s Rwanda plans were brought to a dramatic, if temporary, halt in June when a string of legal challenges that went as far as the European Court of Human Rights grounded the first of many scheduled removal flights. A judicial review into the legality of the policy, launched by a coalition of refugee and human rights groups, and trade unionists, is due to begin in September.

The MPs argued that there was no magic remedy to the Channel crossings but said greater collaboration with France had to be part of any solution.

The Home Office on Tuesday declined to confirm reports in The Times newspaper of a new multimillion-pound payout to France to bolster surveillance and patrols.

“The UK’s partnership with France in 2022 has resulted in over 13,500 crossing attempts from France being stopped — 60 per cent more than this stage last year,” it said, adding that joint security operations had also led to the dismantling of 21 organised crime groups involved in trafficking.

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