More than 45,000 people crossed the Channel to the UK in small boats over the past year, according to government figures, with 90 crossing on Christmas Day.
Two boats from France on 25 December were the last recorded in 2022, according to the Ministry of Defence, bringing the total number of people who crossed to 45,756. Rain and high winds on the south coast may have prevented crossings.
The figures are down on government estimates – officials had predicted about 60,000 people could make the crossing this year.
The issue has become key for Rishi Sunak’s government and for Conservative MPs. There have also been rising concerns about safety after four people died in the freezing waters of the Channel in mid-December. Those rescued told fishers they had paid £5,000 to get into the flimsy boat. An inquest into their deaths last week heard that the men, whose identities are yet to be confirmed, were believed to be of Afghan and Senegalese heritage.
Sunak has promised to bring in legislation in 2023 to make it “unambiguously clear that if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here”. His government signed a deal with France in November to increase cooperation over asylum seekers and migrants, with UK officers joining a programme of French beach patrols. But it does not give UK officers the power to patrol in France, only giving them the right to observe, and there is no “returns agreement”.
The deal, which is the fourth UK-France Channel deal in three years, promised a 40% increase in the number of patrols to try to detect small boats about to make the voyage from France as well as extra investment in port infrastructure in France, the use of technology to detect crossings, such as drones, and greater cross-Europe cooperation.
This week, the former prime minister Theresa May said efforts to change modern slavery laws risked creating other loopholes that could be exploited, after the home secretary, Suella Braverman, promised to alter the flagship legislation introduced by May.
Braverman said the laws were “abused by people gaming the system” to stay in the UK when they would otherwise face deportation.
Sunak previously said he had spent more time on combating Channel crossings and on immigration policy than on any other issue apart from the economy. His five-point immigration plan includes a £700m permanent unified small boats operational command; a commitment to stop using hotels to house asylum seekers as much as possible; doubling asylum caseworker numbers; and a new deal with Albania to return people to the country.
A government spokesperson said: “The global migration crisis is causing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system. Nobody should put their lives at risk by taking dangerous and illegal journeys. We will go further to tackle the gangs driving this, using every tool at our disposal to deter illegal migration and disrupt the business model of people smugglers.”