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Record number of migrant boats crossed the English Channel to Britain in 2021

People believed to be migrants disembarking from boat
People believed to be migrants are brought to Dover, in southern England, on Tuesday by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a maritime charity.
(Gareth Fuller / Press Assn.)

At least 28,300 people packed into small boats crossed the English Channel from France to England’s southern coast in 2021, a record number that was triple the previous year’s tally.

The unprecedented rise, reported Tuesday by the Press Assn. news agency based on data from Britain’s Home Office, reflects the soaring number of migrants seeking to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane, often in flimsy vessels provided by human smugglers.

The arrivals continued Tuesday, with a group of people — most of them men but also a young child in a pink one-piece suit — rescued by a British lifeboat and brought to Dover, on England’s south coast.

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The risks of such a crossing were tragically underscored Nov. 24, when at least 27 migrants drowned as their boat sank after leaving France. The crossings have become a source of tension between France and Britain.

November was the busiest month for crossings of the channel — which is about 20 miles wide at its narrowest point — with 6,869 people reaching Britain. On Nov. 11 alone, 1,185 people made the risky crossing in 33 boats.

The figures also show that the boats are getting larger, with an average of 28 people on board each vessel that arrived in the U.K., up from just over 13 a year earlier.

The already fractious relationship between France and Britain is spiraling further downward in the turbulent aftermath of 27 migrant deaths this week.

Activists are calling for the British government to offer more opportunities for refugees to seek asylum legally in order to decrease the number of perilous channel crossings.

Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive at Refugee Action, said that the British government’s policy would lead to more deaths in the Dover Strait.

“People will continue to cross the channel in flimsy boats, and smugglers will continue to profit, unless ministers open up more routes for refugees to claim asylum here,” Naor Hilton said.

Clare Moseley, founder of the charity Care4Calais which supports refugees living in northern France, agreed.

Slumping economies, conflict and lack of opportunity at home are pushing many young people across borders — even oceans.

“If the government were serious about stopping people smugglers, it would create a safe way for people to claim asylum and put people smugglers out of business once and for all,” she said.

But Home Office Minister Tom Pursglove said that “seeking asylum for protection should not involve people asylum-shopping country to country, or risking their lives by lining the pockets of criminal gangs to cross the channel.”

He said that planned government changes to immigration law would criminalize entering Britain without permission and introduce lifetime prison terms for human smugglers. The changes would also strengthen the British Border Force’s power to stop and redirect boats, and clear the way for asylum-seekers to have their claims processed outside the U.K.

When the reforms were introduced to Parliament in July, Naor Hilton said they were “built on a deep lack of understanding of the reality of refugee migration.”


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