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Rishi Sunak’s pledge to ‘stop the boats’ in tatters as Channel crossings top 5,000 in record start to 2024

Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” is in tatters after figures showed a record number of migrants crossed the Channel in the first three months of 2024.

A total of 5,435 asylum seekers arrived via small boats in the UK this year, Home Office figures showed, a 43 per cent increase from the same time last year.

The figure is also around a fifth higher than the total by this point in 2022, the year which saw the highest number of small boat crossings on record.

Rishi Sunak has made ‘stopping the boats’ a key pledge of his leadership (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak has made ‘stopping the boats’ a key pledge of his leadership (PA Wire)

The total number of arrivals soared over the weekend amid calm weather in the Channel, making it the busiest Easter bank holiday weekend for Channel crossings on record.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said the Conservatives had “overseen an unprecedented level of dangerous Channel crossings this Easter bank holiday”.

Mr Kinnock said: “Over the Christmas break, they were quick to claim credit for the low number of crossings, so where are the home secretary and prime minister now, when we’ve seen almost 800 people arrive in small boats over the bank holiday weekend?”

After Christmas, James Cleverly boasted on social media that “there were no small boat arrivals over Christmas for the first time since they started in 2018”.

A group of people thought to be migrants crossing the Channel in a small boat from the coast of France and heading in the direction of Dover (PA Archive)
A group of people thought to be migrants crossing the Channel in a small boat from the coast of France and heading in the direction of Dover (PA Archive)

Mr Kinnock added: “This is complete chaos. It’s time the Tories got a grip.”

The Labour MP called for the government to adopt his party’s plan to chase people smuggling gangs and set up a new returns and enforcement unit.

Last January Mr Sunak set out his five pledges to voters, with one of them being to “stop the boats”.

A key plank of the strategy is the scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, but the legislation to implement that plan was not passed before Easter because peers inflicted a series of defeats on the government and ministers did not seek to rush it through before parliament’s recess.

It will now be considered by MPs when parliament resumes on 15 April, with the Commons likely to undo the latest changes made by the Lords and send it back to the upper chamber.

The PM has claimed his plan to stop Channel crossings is working, as numbers fell by a third last year. But critics blamed poorer weather, and have seized on the record start to 2024 as evidence the pledge will not be met.

Illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson said: “While Labour continue to snipe from the sidelines at our plan to tackle illegal migration, it is clear that they have no plan at all.

“In fact, Labour voted 118 times against measures that the Conservatives have created to secure our borders, and when Starmer chose his five missions for government there was no mention of immigration whatsoever. The numbers of illegal migrants would only go up under Labour who are determined to scrap a working deterrent in the Rwanda plan.

“By sticking to the plan, the Conservatives have brought small boats arrivals down by a third and 24,000 people were returned last year with more being removed every week. We need to stick to our plan, or we will go back to square one with Labour.”