A one-year-old baby was among 60 people crammed onto a small boat that got into difficulty in the Channel this weekend, i has learnt.
Utopia56, a humanitarian hotline for boats in trouble at sea, received four distress calls from migrant boats on Saturday, which saw the highest number of arrivals in a single day so far this year.
One call, received at 9:44am on Saturday, came from a boat carrying a one-year-old infant, four women and 55 men. The caller said that the boat was struggling in the water and that many on board did not have life jackets.
Another call, received at 8:10am, was made from a boat carrying 70 people that had also got into distress.
Thomas Chambon, who leads Utopia56’s work in the Channel, said that large numbers of people crammed on to small boats such as this is becoming increasingly common, as smugglers pack more and more people into the dinghies to maximise their profits.
“From what we’re seeing, the number of people on the boats is rising. Seventy people on one boat – a year ago this was not normal. But since June, we’ve often been seeing 50, 60 or 70 people on board,” he told i. “Nowadays, we see more people without life jackets than with.”
Smugglers are increasingly packing people into DIY dinghies made of plywood, which are prone to collapsing in the sea.
They are also feared to be directing people on longer, and more dangerous routes across the water to avoid detection by French authorities.
All the distress calls taken by Utopia56 were received in a two-hour window between 7:45am and 9:45am on Saturday, but it was not clear how long the vessels had been at sea before getting into difficulty or what happened to them.
Utopia56 informs the relevant coastguards about all distress calls which it takes from small boats but is not informed of the outcome of the case.
More than 20 incidents were reported to UK rescue crews on Saturday, i understands from official sources, but some of these may have been from the same boat.
French and UK boats are understood to have worked together to carry out many of the rescues, with some incidents taking place in French waters.
One boat attempted to set off three times on Saturday despite its engine failing twice, according to French authorities.
What are the rules on seeking asylum in the UK?
To apply for asylum in the UK, a person must be physically on British soil.
However, people cannot get permission to travel to the UK to claim asylum and there is no asylum visa.
Immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, previously admitted “there is no provision within our Immigration Rules for someone to be allowed to travel to the UK to claim asylum or temporary refuge or to make a claim for asylum or protection from abroad”.
How can people travel to the UK to seek asylum?
People eligible for visa-free travel to the UK can take a plane and claim asylum once they reach a British airport. However, this relies upon them having access to a passport, airport and money for the flight upfront, which charities say some people fleeing persecution don’t have.
Under current laws, people from the 63 countries without visa-free travel to the UK – including Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq – must enter the UK irregularly to claim asylum, according to a Parliamentary briefing on the issue.
This could be by small boat, using fake documents, or by lying about their purpose for coming to the UK by travelling on a visa for tourism or study.
Is it illegal to seek asylum?
It is not illegal to seek asylum – this is a right protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But under British law, it is illegal to enter the UK irregularly.
The new Illegal Migration Act means anyone who arrived by small boat is unable to apply for asylum in the UK and will instead be deported and barred from ever re-entering the UK.
What official channels are there for resettlement in the UK?
People from certain countries, or with close family links to the UK, can apply for resettlement in the UK through other official visa schemes.
Those from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong can apply to come to the UK via designated resettlement schemes, while those with close family in the UK can also apply to be reunited with them.
The Government has also said people can come to the UK through one of three resettlement schemes from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Between 2015 and March 2023, the UK has resettled more than 28,400 individuals under UNHCR resettlement schemes, around half of whom were children.
But the UNHCR has said there is no way for asylum seekers to apply for these and that they are only for a “very limited number of refugees”.
Should people seek asylum in the first safe country they come to?
Under international refugee law, people are not required to make their asylum claim in the first safe country they arrive in. Some people continue through European countries to reach the UK because they speak the language or have family connections.
However, UK asylum law encourages people to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach. For example, people who travel through a safe third country can be treated as inadmissible to the UK and deported. If they are allowed to stay, they can also be given a less favourable immigration status.
Premar, the French Government agency operating in the Channel, said that it encountered a migrant boat in distress off the coast of Étaples and rescued five people, before the boat set off again with the remaining passengers.
Later in the day, the same boat reported an engine failure and the French navy intervened to rescue 49 of those on board. The boat’s engine began to operate again and two people continued for a third attempt. It is not clear whether they arrived in the UK.
Following Saturday’s crossings, Premar issued a public warning about the risks of crossing the Channel, saying that it was one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with more than 400 commercial ships passing through it each day.
“The weather conditions are often difficult. It is a particularly dangerous area, even when the sea seems to be calm,” Premar said.
The number of people arriving in the UK via small boat reached its highest this year on Saturday, with more than 800 people reaching the UK in 15 vessels. A further 113 people arrived on two boats on Sunday.
And the crisis is set to worsen, with Border Force bracing for a surge in small boat arrivals this week as people smugglers seek to cash in on the September heatwave, which brings calmer waters and milder temperatures.
More than 20,000 people have arrived this year so far, with the union for Border Force officers warning of “unacceptable pressures” on staff and urging the Government to introduce “safe and legal routes” for people to claim asylum in the UK.
Utopia56 also urged the Government to rethink its Channel policies in light of the arrivals, saying: “We are asking for legal ways for people to seek asylum in the UK. For us, the EU, French and English laws are just pushing people to the smugglers, because they don’t have another way to seek asylum in the UK.”
The Home Office has said it is “committed to exploring new safe and legal routes” but must first stop small boats arriving in the UK.
A spokesperson said: “Our priority is to stop the boats, and our Small Boats Operational Command is working alongside our French partners and other agencies to disrupt the people smugglers.
“While the UK has a strong track record of providing protection those who genuinely need it and we are committed to exploring new safe and legal routes, we must first grip the rise in illegal migration. Our Illegal Migration Act is a key part of our work to deter people from making unnecessary journeys to the UK.”