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Is Prime Minister winning battle to curb small boat crossings in the English Channel?

The Prime Minister has made it one of his key pledges – but is he winning in the battle to curb the number of small boats crossing the Channel? And are voters prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to crunching the numbers?

With the government still in the spotlight over the numbers, and questions continuing over whether the scheme to process asylum applications in Rwanda is unlawful, the stakes could not be higher. Our political editor Paul Francis examines the claim that the government has finally got a grip on the issue…

A group of people being helped by an RNLI lifeboat at Dungeness following a small boat incident in the Channel. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA
A group of people being helped by an RNLI lifeboat at Dungeness following a small boat incident in the Channel. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA

The Prime Minister has hailed the government’s success in one of its key policy areas – curbing small boats crossing the Channel and breaking the grip of people smuggling gangs. What do the numbers say?

The Home Office prefers to measure success through the number of crossings it has prevented rather than the numbers who have got through.

The French authorities prevented 33,000 people from crossing in 2022, which was an increase of more than 40% on the number of crossings thwarted in 2021.

How do the figures compare when you count the total number detected crossing the Channel in 2022 and 2023 to date?

About 46,000 were detected crossing the English Channel in small boats in 2022; the first half of 2023 saw the number around 11,500 – which represents a decline of 10% compared to the first half of 2022.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

A more telling statistic is the one that reveals a sharp increase in asylum seeker claims made in the period between 2018 to 2023; nationals of five countries – Iran, Albania, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria – made up 71% of those crossing in small boats between 2018 and March 2023.

Is the government's claim that it is curbing small boat crossings accurate?

In part, yes. A new law, the Illegal Migration Act, means people who come to the UK illegally will not have a right to stay and will be liable to be returned either to their home country or relocated to a safe third country.

A statement from the Home Office said: “Our priority is to stop the boats – and due to the work of the small boats operational command, alongside our French partners, small boat crossings are down by a third from the same point last year.

“The two tragic deaths in the Channel [earlier this month] serve as another stark reminder of why we must disrupt the gangs driving this evil trade.

“Our thoughts are with the victims’ family and friends at this time.

Home secretary James Cleverly
Home secretary James Cleverly

“We will do whatever it takes to end these perilous and fatal journeys, encouraging people to seek safe and legal passage. Since 2015, over 550,000 people have done so.”

How many asylum seekers in total have made Channel crossings since 2018?

In total, more than 100,000 have made the crossing since 2018, with the numbers steadily increasing over the five-year period.

The dangers of crossings continue to be highlighted by incidents in the Channel. In late August, at least six people died after a migrant boat crossing the English Channel capsized.

According to a report by the Refugee Council, more than 25,000 men, women and children who crossed the channel in 2022 would be recognised as refugees if the government processed their asylum applications

What is the government doing to curb the amount of money having to be spent on hotel accommodation?

Ministers say the crackdown on small boat crossings means that the government no longer needs to block-book hotel accommodation, which can be costly. It is withdrawing some 50 hotels that have been used for temporary accommodation.

Estimates of the costs of using hotels have varied, with the government putting the figure at £7m a day.

However, Full Fact says the figure is closer to £5.6m, with a further £1.2m being spent providing bridging accommodation for Afghan refugees.

What have politicians been saying?

The government has vowed to continue its efforts to process asylum seeker appeals in Rwanda, despite a court ruling it to be unlawful. Dover and Deal MP Natalie Elphicke – who had been a staunch supporter of the government’s stance and its plans to use Rwanda – said the Supreme Court decision “means the policy is effectively at an end. No planes will be leaving, and we now need to move forward”.

She argued “a fresh policy” was needed: “a new Cross Channel Agreement with France to stop the boats leaving and to return those that do to the safety of the French coast. That should be David Cameron’s top foreign policy priority.”

Have there been any major reductions in the numbers trying to make it across the Channel?

Not consistently. If you look at the figures for November, it looks like the amount of traffic by gangs using small boats has dropped off significantly.

But there is a different trend; gangs appear to be organising crossings on planned days.

So in November, the first week saw no arrivals but on later days, the numbers attempting to cross increased by several hundred.

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