The number of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel in small boats has risen sharply this year compared with 2018, according to recent estimates. The issue has attracted considerable parliamentary and media attention with the French and UK Governments committing to increased joint operations. While the UK Government has suggested it will “send back” those who cross the Channel “illegally” by boat, charities and lawyers have called on the Government to recognise that everyone has the right to seek asylum.

This Insight looks at how many migrants are attempting to come to the UK via small boats, the nature of UK – French cooperation, and some of the law and policy in this area. This is a complex area and this Insight does not seek to provide an exhaustive overview of the law and policy.

In this Insight we will be using the UN Migration Agency (IOM) definition of a migrant.

How many people are crossing the Channel by boat?

In May the Home Affairs Committee released figures collated by the Home Office on the number of boats containing migrants crossing the Channel. The figures show 562 migrants were recorded as attempting to cross in 2018. Of these, 297 arrived in the UK.

  UK Arrivals without interception Intercepted and brought to UK Intercepted and returned to France Aborted departure from France
Total 2018 106 191 144 121

The numbers have reportedly increased significantly in 2019. Unofficial figures collated by Sky News state 1,456 migrants had successfully crossed the Channel by small boat up until 11 October this year. This is almost five times the 2018 figure.

During an oral statement to the House of Commons on 7 January 2019, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid provided three explanations for the increase in attempted crossings by boat: instability in the Middle East and North Africa, organised crime, and strengthened UK-French border security.

A record 86 migrants crossed the Channel in a single day in September 2019. As of 3 October, the Home Office told the BBC that “more than 85 migrants who entered to the UK illegally on small boats had been returned to Europe” this year.

Who rescues migrants in the English Channel and where are they taken?

The narrowest part of the Channel, the Dover Strait, is just 21 miles and consists of British and French territorial waters. In other parts of the Channel, international waters separate UK and French territorial waters. Search and rescue zones have been divided between the two countries. UK Border Force has a total fleet of 11 boats, with five currently deployed in the Channel.

During a January 2019 Commons debate on illegal seaborne migration in the Channel, then Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes said:

“In the majority of cases, if a migrant is picked up in UK waters they are taken to the UK, and if they are picked up in French waters they are taken to France. The action plan we signed with France last week makes a commitment that migrants encountered in the channel will be taken to the nearest safe port, in accordance with international maritime law.

“Too often, migrants in the channel dictated to those who came to their rescue where they should be taken. That is not right, and I have asked officials to do all they can to prevent that “asylum shopping”, whether on land or at sea.”

UK-French cooperation

UK-French cooperation in this area has been formalised through a series of bilateral agreements, including the Sangatte Protocol in 1991 and the Treaty of Le Touquet in 2003. The latter allowed for France and the UK to carry out immigration controls in each other’s territories at sea ports.

In 2018 the UK and France agreed the Sandhurst Treaty, in which the UK committed to spend €50 million to ‘improve security’ and ‘reduce illegal migration flows’ towards northern French ports, amongst other measures.

Responding to a written question, then Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes provided further information

“As part of the Sandhurst Treaty, signed by the UK and France in January 2018, we have allocated £3.6 million to fund the development of the Dublin process to support transfers of eligible children to the UK (including training for those working with unaccompanied children, family tracing and targeted information campaigns).

“We are also funding access to the French asylum accommodation service, the provision of health services, psychological and legal support as well as the cost of transporting asylum seekers from reception centres to locations where their asylum claims are considered.”

A joint action plan was also agreed in January 2019 to specifically address the issue of small boat crossings. It included over £6 million investment in new security equipment, increased CCTV coverage of beaches and ports and a mutual commitment to conduct returns of migrants under international and domestic laws.

An ‘enhanced action plan’ was agreed on 15 October 2019. It aims to halve the number of migrants attempting the crossing from 300 in August to 150 during October, and ultimately for ‘attempts to cross the Channel in small boat to be an infrequent phenomenon by Spring 2020.’ The measures announced included:

  • Doubling patrols and deploying new detection equipment to increase interceptions on French beaches.
  • Action to intensify efforts to tackle criminal gangs through strengthened intelligence sharing.
  • Engaging directly with migrants to discourage them from making the journey.

What happens to these migrants once they arrive in the UK?

When asked about migrants intercepted off the coast of Dover, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Sky News:

We will send you back. The UK should not be regarded as a place where you could automatically come and break the law by seeking to arrive illegally. If you come illegally, you are an illegal migrant, and I’m afraid the law will treat you as such.

The same day, the Independent reported that “Lawyers and charities have also condemned Boris Johnson for stating that he would send any asylum seekers who successfully cross the Channel back to France, branding the remarks  ‘inflammatory’  and  ‘misleading’.”

Migrants who enter the UK clandestinely can claim asylum. As Colin Yeo, an immigration and asylum barrister, explains: “Ultimately, the latest asylum statistics suggest that the majority are genuine refugees who will be recognized as such once their asylum claims are processed.”

Claiming asylum

International law does not require asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe country they enter. This principle has been recognised in UK case law, and Section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 also provides a defence against prosecuting refugees for entering the UK illegally.

‘Refugee status’ is granted to asylum seekers who are found to meet the Refugee Convention’s definition of a ‘refugee’ (i.e. the person is outside their country of origin and has a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group). If granted asylum, applicants and their dependants may be given five years leave to remain in the UK, which can subsequently lead to settlement.

Those who do not claim asylum may be subject to the UK’s laws on illegal entry and may face prosecution and/or removal. Failed asylum seekers (those who the Government determine not be to refugees and who exhaust any available appeals) may also be liable for removal from the UK. The Dublin III Regulation also allows for asylum seekers to be sent back to another EU27 State if they have registered there, or if there are familial ties to another EU State.

Further reading

What is the Dublin III Regulation? Will it be affected by Brexit? House of Commons Library

Migration statistics: How many asylum seekers and refugees are there in the UK? House of Commons Library

About the author: Melissa Macdonald is an assistant research analyst, at the House of Commons Library, with assistance from Hannah Wilkins.