A record number of migrants crossed the Channel from France this week, pushing the total number of crossings to more than 10,500 this year, reports Olivia Gavoyannis.

The Home Office confirmed that at least 482 people made the trip across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes on Wednesday, with a further 475 reaching the UK on Thursday. Both numbers surpass the previous daily record of 430, set in July.

These record numbers have triggered emergency talks between Chris Philp, the UK immigration minister, and French authorities – who signed a £54 million deal with Home Secretary Priti Patel last month to stop migrants embarking on dangerous crossings from French beaches.

The hefty sum of money was meant to be spent on doubling the number of police officers patrolling the beaches of northern France to 200 – as well as investing in surveillance technology. However, the holiday season is believed to have affected the number of French police available.

As well as ramping up the pressure on French authorities, Patel, who has repeatedly promised to make the route across the Channel “unviable”, met with Greek authorities this week to discuss “shared challenges on illegal migration”.

As part of her visit, the Home Secretary visited a controversial new “closed” asylum centre on the Greek island of Samos, prompting concern that she plans to implement the “prison-like” and “inhumane” structures for asylum seekers in the UK.

In a statement published after the trip, the Home Secretary said: “We have seen a surge in illegal migration across Europe, and we must continue to work closely with Greek partners to tackle this challenge that both our countries face.”

But is the UK really in the middle of a migrant crisis?

Despite the new records of boat arrivals being set, it’s important to note that asylum applications have actually reduced recently, and the UK receives only the 17th largest intake of any country when measured per head of population.

In the year ending March 2021, the UK received just under 27,000 asylum applications – 24 per cent fewer than the previous year. This included 2,044 applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, down 42 per cent over the period – contradicting the narrative that this is a spiralling crisis.

Despite the diminishing number of people seeking safety in the UK, the backlog in asylum cases has reached a record high. 

At the end of March 2021, over 66,000 people were yet to receive an outcome on their initial claim for asylum – and three quarters of them been had waiting in limbo on news of their fate for more than 6 months.

The Home Secretary has announced more “fair but firm” plans to reform the immigration system – this time, through the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission and create tougher sentences for people smugglers.

But charities and human rights groups say she needs to take a different approach.

In Ben Kelly’s piece for Reaction, Dan Sohege, Director of Stand for All, a human rights advocacy and support organisation, told him: “These latest plans will only increase the number of asylum seekers detained and placed in limbo. Priti Patel’s bill will do nothing to “deter” those seeking asylum. It will, however, mean that victims of gangs are less able to seek assistance from the authorities, emboldening gangs and increasing exploitation.”

A number of charity campaigners have urged Patel to change tack and instead, work with the French to set up “humane” asylum centres in northern France where migrants can apply to come to the UK as opposed to making the dangerous journey across the channel. 

As Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights director at Amnesty International UK, told The Times: “The reason people are putting themselves in serious danger with these Channel crossings is that there are simply no safe alternatives open to them.”

For the government it threatens to turn into a political crisis, though. Number 10 and ministers are worried. Why? Those Leave voters most worried by illegal immigration, who voted wanting robust control of borders could easily notice. Going into the autumn, this could become a threat to the Tories, if they can’t somehow get on top of it or give the impression they have.

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Olivia Gavoyannis,
Reaction Reporter