The proportion of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats who are from Afghanistan has increased fivefold this year, fuelling accusations that ministers are not doing enough for them.
Of the 4,540 people who made the journey in the first three months of the year 1,094 were from Afghanistan, according to new Home Office figures. Last year 1,323 Afghans crossed the Channel and accounted for one in twenty crossings.
Afghan was the most common nationality between January and March at Afghanistan at 24 per cent, followed by Iranian at 16 per cent and Iraqi at 15 per cent. The latter nationalities typically outnumber Afghans.
In total 9,327 migrants have crossed the Channel this year, a figure not reached until August last year.
Immigration experts said the rise in Afghan arrivals was directly linked to the Taliban’s return to power last August. The UK evacuated 15,000 Afghans who had worked with or for the British during its 20-year military operation under a scheme known as Arap.
Shortly after the collapse of the Afghan government, ministers promised to set up a separate resettlement scheme for up to 20,000 more people. However, it was only launched in January and its numbers have been inflated by 7,000 Afghans who were already transferred under the Arap scheme, leaving fewer places for people who still fear Taliban reprisal.
It means the Home Office has already met its target of settling 5,000 Afghans in Arap’s first year, but it stands accused of manipulating the figures and watering down its commitments to refugees.
Ministers have struggled to find permanent homes for Afghans because the average family has six or seven people. Twelve thousand refugees are living in hotels at a cost of £1.2 million a day.
Analysts and charities said the number of Afghans crossing the Channel was proof Britain had not helped enough.
Dr Peter William Walsh, senior researcher at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said: “The arrival of Afghans in small boats on the UK coast indicates that many more wish to find protection here than are able to do so under the UK government’s existing schemes.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The sharp increase in the numbers of people fleeing Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan having no choice but to make desperate journeys over the Channel to find safety here in the UK is concerning but unsurprising.
“This increase is the inevitable consequence of the restrictive nature of the Afghanistan resettlement schemes, for which the vast majority of Afghans are simply ineligible.
“The government must honour the promises they made to the people of Afghanistan by immediately ensuring the most vulnerable people in the country are able to access a safe route to the UK, so they are nor forced to risk their lives in order to find safety here.”
It has also prompted fears that Afghan refugees will be deported to Rwanda under Priti Patel’s controversial policy for illegal arrivals. More than 50 migrants from various countries have already been notified of the government’s intention to send them there, although legal challenges by trade unions and campaigners have delayed the first flight.
Marley Morris, of the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said deportation to Rwanda would be an “unimaginably awful outcome for people who have already faced such great hardship”. She added: “Contrary to the government’s claims, there are few safe routes for people forced into small boats to make it to the UK.”
The new Home Office data also showed that the average small boat crossing the Channel was carrying 32 people, up from 28 last year. Crossings were held at least once every three days between January and March. One in six migrants were children, mostly boys, and half of those were unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
Three in four asylum decisions were approvals in the year to March, a 32-year high that undermines claims by ministers that the vast majority of arrivals are economic migrants. The previous high was 82 per cent in 1990.
The Home Office said the rising approval rate was partly because of Brexit; Britain is no longer party to the EU’s Dublin Agreement, which lets it reject claims on the ground that arrivals should seek aslyum in other European countries that they passed through.
Asylum was granted to 98 per cent of Syrians, 97 per cent of Eritreans, 95 per cent of Sudanese, 91 per cent of Afghans and 88 per cent of Iranians in the year to March.
Overall asylum applications hit 55,146, the most since 2003. The asylum backlog continues to break records, with 110,000 people awaiting a decision at the end of March. The backlog is driven by a decline in the number of decisions in 2020 and 2021 and soaring applications, particularly during last summer.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The UK has made one of the largest commitments to support Afghan refugees of any country, and will resettle up to 20,000 Afghan women, children and others at risk. The rise in dangerous Channel crossings is unacceptable.
“The Nationality and Borders Act will crack down on the evil people-smuggling gangs who are abusing our immigration laws, risking lives and hinder our ability to help people come through safe and legal routes.”