Channel crossings, migration and asylum – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

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When we launched this inquiry about 2,000 people had, in a year, made the dangerous journey from France to the UK across the English Channel in small and sometimes unsafe boats. Since then, the popularity of this irregular, hazardous means of reaching British shores has rocketed. More than 28,500 people came in small boats last year; an estimated 60,000 or more are expected during 2022, and about 13,000 have already. Soberingly, at least 166 have died or gone missing as they sought a new home in our country, 27 of them lost at sea on a single terrible day last November. Organised criminal networks are profiting hugely from human desperation.

To put the Channel crossings into context, around 1,000,000 visas enabling extended stays in the UK were issued in the last 12 months: those who arrived irregularly in 2021, without a visa, via small boats across the Channel represent less than 3 per cent in addition to that total, although their number looks likely to rise during 2022. The rapid increase in these dangerous crossings was unpredicted. These perilous voyages are also highly visible–photographs of overcrowded dinghies, standing room only, being unloaded on British shores have become familiar sights.

The majority of those who reach the UK in this way are male and relatively young. Most seek asylum on arrival on UK soil, reflecting the fact that the majority also come from just five countries, all of them disfigured by current or recent war. The UK asylum system, meanwhile, costs more than £1.5 billion a year to administer, a cost the Government considers too high and unsustainable in the longer term.

There are safe and legal migration routes to the UK, involving visas and applications for residency, but they do not exist for people travelling from all countries. Exceptionally, refugees from particular troubled countries are provided with particular routes to safe resettlement in the UK: specific schemes are in place, for example, since western troops withdrew from Afghanistan and since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Asylum seekers from other parts of the world face a different challenge. Asylum can be claimed only when a person is in the United Kingdom. Some asylum seekers may arrive on tourist or other visas before making their claims and being assessed to remain or to be returned to their own countries; for others, irregular routes of entry may be the only means of making the journey to enable a claim to be made. Not everyone who arrives across the English Channel on a small boat will seek or successfully claim asylum; the vast majority will, however, claim it and need to be assessed.

There is no magical single solution to dealing with irregular migration. Detailed, evidence-driven, fully costed and fully tested policy initiatives are by far most likely to achieve sustainable incremental change that deters journeys such as dangerous Channel crossings. Close co-operation with international partners, particularly those in France, is equally essential, but has not always proved mutually forthcoming from across the Channel as this has become a very ‘political’ issue post-Brexit. Provision of safe and legal routes for refugees, recognition that the United Kingdom is neither the least nor the most generous host in Europe or in the wider world, and a willingness to co-operate fully with our nearest neighbours by sharing intelligence and equipment to identify and undermine people-smuggling criminal organisations may not offer eye-catching headlines but are most likely to work.

While our colleagues on the Defence Committee have expressed concern about Royal Navy involvement in landing small boats, we cautiously welcome the temporary logistical operations military personnel are undertaking on land at Western Jetfoil and Manston in Kent to enable Home Office civil servants to concentrate their efforts on identifying, interviewing and allocating new arrivals across the Channel to appropriate accommodation. It is to be hoped the Home Office will be sufficiently staffed to resume full control of the sites from January 2023 when military involvement will be reviewed.

Much more clarity is required on the new plan to relocate some migrants from the UK to Rwanda. There is no clear evidence that the policy will deter migrant crossings – numbers have significantly increased since it was announced in April, but one explanation for this may be attributed to scaremongering from people traffickers that because of new regulations coming in across the Channel it will be much harder to access the UK in future so they had better get on with it. There is no clear information on the cost of the plan. The long-term mental and physical well-being of the people the UK intends to send to Rwanda must be secured. Some claim that the UK also runs the reputational risk of appearing to wash its hands of its international obligations.

The Government desires to return Channel crossing migrants, where possible, to safe countries from which they have travelled and where they could have claimed asylum. Departure from the EU’s Dublin Regulation arrangements has resulted in far fewer returns to Europe and attempts to forge bilateral agreements with EU states have entirely failed, but the number of successful returns to EU countries had been dwindling and the policy had not been working well even before Brexit. The Government should refocus its efforts on achieving a co-operative arrangement with the EU so that returns, where appropriate, may be successfully made.

We have no reliable data on why migrants who have reached safe haven in European nation states are sufficiently desperate to reach the UK that they will risk their lives to cross the Channel in flimsy, unseaworthy dinghies and makeshift craft. The Home Office should seek to find out what draws people to the UK to help it develop sound future policy.

The practice of placing unaccompanied children in hotels has resulted in an unknown number of children disappearing temporarily and in some cases permanently. Urgent measures to prevent this are required. As in many other areas, the glacial pace of decision-making (an average 550 days for a child’s asylum application, 449 days for an adult) is a major factor driving the decisions of asylum seekers to leave a life in limbo by acting for themselves.

There were 48,450 asylum applications in 2021, a number broadly similar to those in each year from 2014, apart from a fall during the pandemic, and far less than in the early 2000s. The asylum caseload, however, stood at over 125,000, reflecting how long it is taking to resolve cases. Antiquated IT systems, high staff turnover, and too few staff are among the reasons for this slow pace, and reducing the outstanding caseload should be the Home Office’s highest asylum policy priority.