Downing Street blames weather for surge in migrant Channel crossings

Around 60 migrants cross the English Channel on a small boat last month, with the number of crossings having surged this year
Around 60 migrants cross the English Channel on a small boat last month, with the number of crossings having surged this year - Tolga Akmen/Shutterstock

Downing Street has blamed gangs exploiting better weather for the surge in small boats this year – despite claiming a previous fall in crossings was not linked to the weather.

Small boat arrivals passed 5,000 at the end of March for the first time ever, a 30 per cent increase on the same period last year, despite Rishi Sunak pledging to stop the Channel crossings last January.

It comes despite a three-year, £480 million Anglo-French deal, agreed by Mr Sunak last year, to pay for a doubling in officers patrolling French beaches to 800, a joint command centre and a detention centre to prevent migrants from leaving France.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman acknowledged that there had been increases in the numbers crossing, but said the weather, combined with more violence by people smuggling gangs, was behind that.

“We know that criminal gangs will seek to exploit opportunities and weather, and we know that also the French police are facing increasing violence and disruption on the ground and French beaches,” she said.

“We need to keep stepping up our efforts and adapting to the gangs who continually adapt their own tactics. But that’s why, alongside continuing that work, we have to fundamentally break the business model, and that’s what the Rwanda partnership will do.”

In December, ministers had argued that the 36 per cent fall in crossings last year was not linked to the weather.

The Government’s Rwanda Bill – a key plank of Mr Sunak’s pledge to stop the boats – has been delayed until after the Easter recess following a series of heavy defeats inflicted on the Government by the Lords.

It has raised fears that efforts to get the first deportation flights to Rwanda are likely to be delayed from May until June, when people smugglers ramp up operations to take advantage of calmer, better weather.

However, dozens of migrants have received notification from the Home Office over the past fortnight, warning them of possible removal to a “safe third country” as the Government pushes to get its contentious Rwanda plan off the ground this spring.

Letters have told them that, if their asylum claim was deemed “inadmissible”, immigration officers might “consider whether there are any other safe third countries where you would be safe and which agree to admit you”.

A senior asylum lawyer said: “Once the Safety of Rwanda Bill is passed, it will be a safe third country to which a person against whom an inadmissibility decision has been made will be removable.”

Home Office officials denied it was an attempt to speed up the timetable, although asylum lawyers believed it would enable the Government to tackle problems that could delay their removal ahead of the Rwanda Bill gaining Royal Assent.

Downing Street said Mr Sunak was still confident he could deliver on his pledge to “stop the boats” and that the aim was to get deportation flights to Rwanda going this spring.

The  spokesman said: “As we have said before the Easter recess, the most important thing that we can do to fundamentally break the model of the criminal gangs is to get our Rwanda partnership up and running.”