Why are more people attempting to cross the Channel in small boats - why do crossings peak this time of year?

More people attempt to cross the English Channel between September and November because of adverse weather conditions

The government has announced a new deal with France aimed at reducing the number of people attempting to cross the English Channel in small boats in order to claim asylum.

The Home Secretary has warned there are “no easy fixes” to the problem, while the Home Office has been criticised for failing to address underlying causes, and ignoring numerous warnings about the likely impact of its approach.

The number of attempted crossings has peaked between September and November both this year and last year, and the number of people attempting to enter the UK via small boat crossings has peaked this year.

There were 853 people detected crossing the Channel on Sunday, according to the Ministry of Defence, after 972 crossings were detected on Saturday, bringing the cumulative number this year to a provisional total of 41,738, compared with 28,526 last year.

Why do more migrants attempt to cross the Channel around this time of year, and why has the overall number of Channel crossings been relatively high this year?

Why are more people crossing the Channel in small boats?

The number of attempted crossings peaked in August of this year when more than 8,600 people made the crossing, followed by September when just under 8,000 people were detected.

Last year, November saw the highest number of attempted crossings in any month that year, with just under 7,000 crossings, followed by September, which saw around 4,600.

The primary reason there are more crossings in the months leading up to Christmas is the weather, both as it relates to the conditions on the Channel and on the ground in northern France and Belgium.

Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director Steve Valdez-Symonds said: “It’s not just about trying to make the crossing at the last opportunity that the weather may permit, it’s more the misery that awaits for someone who doesn’t manage to make the journey now.

“The weather is going to get thoroughly awful in the months ahead. And if your conditions in Northern France are simply living under a scrap of tarpaulin you’ve really got nowhere to go. Trying to get through the winter ahead is an appalling prospect. The closer we get to that period of the year, the pressure on people to try and make a journey if they’ve been unable to make it so far is just intensifying.”

More generally, Valdez-Symonds says that while the number of people travelling to the UK to claim asylum via this route has increased rapidly in the last four years or so, this has not come alongside an overall increase in the number of asylum claims.

This means that to some extent, the overall number of migrants travelling to the UK has not increased overall, but the most common method of entry has changed.

He said: “Larger numbers of people have crossed the channel in the past, generally not by small boats but by other means. It’s still the case that we are not seeing anything like record numbers of people entering our asylum system.”

However, the number of asylum claims in the last 12 months has been higher than in the previous few years, which could be attributable to a number of factors.

The number of attempted crossings throughout 2020 was relatively low, suggesting that there could have been a build up of people unable to travel during that time who have travelled later.

It is also the case that as the number of displaced individuals has risen dramatically in recent years, starting from the crisis in 2016 which saw huge numbers of people come to Europe through the central and eastern Mediterranean, the UK has accepted relatively few refugees compared with many neighbouring countries.

Valdez-Symonds said: “This country didn’t do anything really to try and share responsibility with anyone else. What we’re seeing is a displacement of people. Because while this country has taken a bit of a holiday, you might say, countries like Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and pretty much every certainly central and western European country, have found their asylum systems receiving many, many more people.

“Because we haven’t all shared responsibility together, it means that there are a proportion of people, an increasing number of people, who find it difficult to find safety somewhere else. You’d have to add all those things up together.”

As well as the situation in Ukraine, there are a number of countries suffering significant humanitarian issues prompting thousands of people to flee. Countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran have been experiencing major crises in recent years, while civil war and flooding is displacing large numbers in Ethiopia.

What is in the UK’s new deal with France?

In a deal signed by the Home Secretary, the UK is set to increase its funding to France to help deal with Channel crossings from £55million to £63million. This will enable more funding for CCTV and detection dog teams to stop smuggling through lorries. There will also be more drones and night vision equipment rolled out, to help the French Border Force.

The number of British Border Force officers patrolling the French cost will increase from 200 to 300, the Financial Times has reported. They may also be stationed in French control rooms as part of the new deal. This would allow immigration officers to observe the way the French are operating - such as how they coordinate searches for boats being launched into the Channel. It would also enable the British to help the French with hunts for people trafficking gangs.

Some funding will also go towards more reception and removal centres in France. Sunak is also reportedly hoping to agree clear targets with Macron for stopping boats crossing the Channel, and is looking to increase the number of French immigration officers patrolling beaches. There are currently 800 daily patrols being carried out in France.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “We must do everything we can to stop people making these dangerous journeys and crack down on the criminal gangs.

“This is a global challenge requiring global solutions, and it is in the interests of both the UK and French governments to work together to solve this complex problem.

“There are no quick fixes but this new arrangement will mean we can significantly increase the number of French gendarmes patrolling the beaches in northern France and ensure UK and French officers are working hand in hand to stop the people smugglers.”

Experts have warned that these measures will do little to solve the underlying problems driving record numbers of people to cross the Channel.

Lucy Moreton, professional officer for the Union for Borders, Immigration and Customs (ISU), said the Government’s deal does not address the “sticking points” keeping numbers high.

Ms Moreton told Times Radio that interrupting migrants to “just let them go to try again” would not have the required impact and nothing in the deal suggested that “the French are going to move away from that position”.

She said: “The sticking points just simply have not been addressed.”

The ISU professional officer added that intercepting migrants so they do not try to get to the UK again was not something the French “have ever wanted to do”, as from the French perspective “they are going the right way and it’s entirely understandable that they are not very keen to interrupt that”.