UK sees record number of illegal immigrants crossing English Channel, as deportation plan stalls

The United Kingdom saw a record number of migrants in a single day coming across the English Channel this week, as the government struggles to implement a scheme to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda.

British media reported that 1,295 migrants crossed the channel from Europe in small boats, a daily record. The BBC reported that means that 22,557 migrants have crossed since the start of the year.

Illegal immigrants typically have crossed into the U.K. by hopping onto the backs of trucks as they crossed from Calais, France to Dover either by ferry or by the Channel Tunnel. 

However, the number coming across via the Channel on small boats increased sharply after 2018. According to U.K. government figures, there were just 299 illegal immigrants caught coming across in small boats in 2018. In 2021 that number had soared to 28,526.

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The illegal immigrants are mainly from countries far from the U.K., and have moved through multiple safe countries in order to get to Blighty.

Official figures show that since 2018, Iranians and Iraqis represent half of all small boat arrivals, followed by migrants from Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Vietnam and then Albania. However, this year Albanians are now tied with Afghans as the nation with the most people arriving by small boats, with each accounting for 18% of the total. Additionally, some 2,165 Albanians arrived in Britain via this route in the first six months of 2022. 

The British government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has repeatedly pledged to crack down on illegal immigration -- but has struggled to deliver on its promises.

Earlier this year, Johnson’s government announced a deal with Rwanda that would see illegal immigrants sent there instead -- a move that sparked outrage from Britain’s left-wing politicians as well as the United Nations. 

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The agreement was similar in some aspects to efforts by the Trump administration in the United States to implement "safe third country" agreements that would see migrants sent there instead. Such agreements are designed to stop those who are using asylum claims as a cloak to cover economically-driven migration.

Johnson said in a speech that the move was made possible by Britain’s departure from the European Union, which gave Britain greater control over its immigration policies.

"This innovative approach driven by our shared humanitarian impulse and made possible by Brexit freedoms, will provide safe and legal routes for asylum while disrupting the business model of the gangs, because it means that economic migrants taking advantage of the asylum system will not get to stay in the U.K.," Johnson said. "While those in genuine need will be properly protected, including with access to legal services, on arrival in Rwanda and given the opportunity to build a new life in that dynamic country supported by the funding we are providing."

Johnson said that seven out of 10 migrants who arrived by small boats were men under the age of 40 and have passed through "manifestly safe countries, including many in Europe where they could and should have claimed asylum."

However, the first flight in June was blocked after the European Court of Human Rights -- separate from the European Union, from which the U.K. has departed -- issued an injunction. 

Flights have been on hold since then amid the ongoing legal challenge with objections focused on alleged human rights issues related to sending migrants to the East African country. 

The Guardian reported Thursday that the Home Office is planning a new deportation flight ahead of a U.K. High Court hearing on the matter next month. The U.K. also this week announced a new plan to "fast-track" deportations of Albanians out of the country.

"Large numbers of Albanians are being sold lies by ruthless people-smugglers and vicious organized crime gangs, leading them to take treacherous journeys in flimsy boats to the U.K.," Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement. "This abuse of our immigration system and people risking their lives cannot go on."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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