Minister wrong to claim small boat arrivals are down 20% in the first six months of 2023

10 July 2023
What was claimed

Small boat crossings between January and June are down 20% on last year.

Our verdict

That’s not correct according to the latest Home Office data. It shows the number of small boat arrivals in the UK between January and June fell by 10% compared to the same period last year. Mr Philp may have been referring to data which shows small boat arrivals were down by 20% in the first five months of 2023.

What was claimed

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sends refugees to Rwanda, so it thinks Rwanda is a safe country.

Our verdict

It’s true the UNHCR has transferred refugees from Libya to Rwanda through a program called the Emergency Transit Mechanism. There are significant differences though between this scheme and the one proposed by the UK government, which the UNHCR has raised concerns about.

“The crossings are down by 20% year on year… the six months to the end of June was down about 20% on last year.”

During an interview on Sky News last week, policing minister Chris Philp MP claimed that small boat crossings in the first six months of this year were “down about 20%” compared to the same period last year.

Data on irregular migration to the UK—including small boat arrivals—is published quarterly, with data for the second quarter of 2023 not yet available. But other data published by the Home Office showing daily arrivals suggests that Mr Philp’s claim is not correct. 

This data—which is described as being based on provisional operational data and “subject to change”—shows that between January and June this year a total of 11,433 people arrived in the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats. That is approximately 10% fewer than the number who arrived between January and June in 2022 (12,747).

The 20% figure has previously been used by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who last month claimed that in the five months since he pledged to “stop the boats”, crossings were “down 20% compared to last year”.

It is true that between January and May crossings decreased by approximately 21% compared to the same period the previous year (from 9,607 to 7,610). The Home Office referred us to this time period when we contacted it about Mr Philp’s comments.

However, Home Office data shows that in June 2023, 3,823 people arrived via small boats—an increase of around 22% compared to June 2022 (3,140)—resulting in a smaller overall decrease when looking at data across the first six months as Mr Philp’s claim did.

If an MP makes a false or misleading claim on broadcast media they should take responsibility for ensuring it is appropriately corrected, and make efforts to ensure the correction is publicly available to anyone who might have heard the claim.

Honesty in public debate matters

You can help us take action – and get our regular free email

What has the UNHCR said about Rwanda?

Earlier in the interview, Mr Philp responded to criticism of the government’s policy of removing asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by small boats to Rwanda by saying that “the UNHCR itself uses [Rwanda] to send refugees to, so the UNHCR thinks it's a safe country”.

As we’ve previously explained, it is true that the UNHCR has transferred refugees in Libya to Rwanda under a scheme called the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM). However there are significant differences between this scheme and the one proposed by the UK government, and the UNHCR has raised concerns about the latter.

The ETM scheme takes asylum seekers being held in detention centres in Libya—a major transit route for refugees hoping to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea—and transports them to Rwanda. 

However, this scheme differs from the one proposed by the UK government, as Libya is not considered a safe country for refugees, whereas the UK is.

The ETM scheme is also voluntary, not compulsory, and is considered a temporary measure with those moved by the scheme given assistance to resettle elsewhere should they choose to do so.

The UNHCR told Full Fact: “The evacuation of the most vulnerable refugees in Libya to the Emergency Transit Mechanism in Rwanda has vastly different aims and modalities to what is currently being proposed by the UK. Critically, the ETM is an emergency, temporary and voluntary program—none of which is true of the proposed UK-Rwanda arrangement.”

It added: “UNHCR notes that whilst Rwanda has generously provided a safe haven to refugees for decades and has made efforts to build the capacity of its asylum system, structures for determining eligibility for refugee status are still in development. Rwanda has primarily provided protection to asylum-seekers from neighbouring countries on a prima facie basis. 

“In UNHCR’s assessment, there is a serious risk that the burden of processing the asylum claims of new arrivals from the UK could further overstretch the capacity of the Rwandan national asylum system, thereby undermining its ability to provide protection for all those who seek asylum. In comparison, the UK national asylum system is highly developed and well-capacitated to consider asylum claims.”

The Home Office did not offer a specific response to the UNHCR’s comments, but told Full Fact: “Our priority is to stop the boats, and our Small Boats Operational Command is working alongside our French partners and other agencies to successfully disrupt the people smugglers.

“The government has gone further by introducing legislation which will ensure that those people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly removed to their country of origin or a safe third country.”

Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Chris Philp to request a correction regarding this claim.

Mr Philp did not respond. 

It’s not good enough.

Will you add your name for better standards in public debate?

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.