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Small-boat migrant crossings fall in 2023

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-01-03 09:27
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A group of migrants on an inflatable dinghy is seen during sunrise from the French rescue vessel "Abeille Normandie" as they try to cross the English Channel from the coast of northern France, as warm weather and calm seas are favourable for crossings, France, Oct 2, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

Newly-released figures from the United Kingdom government show the number of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel from mainland Europe fell in 2023 for the first time since records began.

The provisional total of 29,437 was 36 percent down on 2022's record figure of 45,774, and the news will be a welcome boost for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as the countdown to the country's next general election begins because he has made migration control a key policy issue.

Since the UK left the European Union, it has no system in place to return migrants to mainland Europe, which has created a large and expensive problem for the government, which it has attempted to address by sending people to the landlocked African country of Rwanda to have their asylum applications processed. So far, this has proved legally complex, extremely expensive, and has produced no results.

However, doubts have been raised about how effective the government's measures to reduce small-boat crossings have been. Speaking to the BBC, Immigration Services Union representative Lucy Moreton said the assumption was that there were specific reasons, such as weather conditions, that had contributed to the "unusually low numbers" recorded in 2023, and the figure was expected to rise in the coming year.

"There have been other confounding factors," she said. "We have had particularly high winds, we have had a larger number of days where it is less likely that we are going to get migrants in boats.

"But we have also had much larger boats, much more seaworthy boats, so the planning assumption is that this is a glitch."

Another major linked issue is the asylum backlog — people who are already in the country, awaiting a decision on their status.

Figures published by the government in November showed that, as of July 30, there were 62,157 what it called legacy cases — dating back to before June 2022 — and 74,622 flow cases, post June 2022.

The Home Office has attempted to clear as many legacy cases as possible this year, but Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, told Sky News there was still a huge backlog, which meant it was "misleading" for the government to be claiming victory.

"After mismanaging the asylum system for so many years the government was right to clear the backlog but was wrong to do it in a way that has failed to see the face behind the case and instead has treated people simply as statistics rather than with the care and compassion they deserve," he said.

Stephen Kinnock, the opposition Labour Party's shadow immigration minister, whose as-yet unrevealed plans to address the challenge of migration will be a key issue in the next election, said "no slicing or renaming the figures can disguise that fact" that "the asylum backlog has rocketed to 165,000 under the (Conservative Party), eight times higher than when Labour left office.

"Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak's promise made a year ago to end asylum hotel use has been disastrously broken, with a 20 percent increase to 56,000, costing the British taxpayer more than 2 billion pounds ($2.54 billion) a year."

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