London - Arash took his first steps on English soil on a cloudy, drizzly day in May, after attempting a perilous crossing of the Channel from northern France.

UK border police intercepted the inflatable dinghy on which he and others spent five hours dodging waves and traffic on one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, and brought them ashore.

Arash, 28, who is now seeking asylum in Britain, is one of more than 27,000 people who attempted the perilous journey in 2021 -- a record.

In 2020, just 8,400 individuals crossed the Channel in small boats. As the numbers have soared, so, too, have fatalities, with 36 this year, including 27 who died in single incident in November.

But Arash, who asked for his real name not to be used because he fears persecution for his religious beliefs in his native Iran, said the risks were worth it.


UK authorities say migrants are using larger inflatable dinghies to cross the English Channel. Photo: Ben Stansall / AFP

"When you don't have any hope in your country and your life is in danger, you will take your chance and you will risk doing this dangerous thing," the former engineering student told AFP.

Arash left his home in southwest Iran in 2018, making his way to northern France via Serbia, Greece and Germany.

En route, he paid thousands of euros to people smugglers and used two fake passports.

For the final leg of his journey, he paid 2,500 euros (£2,130, $2,817) for a place on a crowded boat with 27 others, including two young children.

Most were from Eritrea, Iran and Afghanistan, he said.

Chronology of fatal incidents involving migrants attempting to reach Britain (January 2014 to November 2021)



- Huge delays -

The UK authorities have drawn a link between the increase in arrivals to the use of larger inflatable boats, but the rickety vessels are still often crammed with passengers.

"For sure it (the dinghy) was overloaded," Arash said of his own journey. "We didn't have any space to move around the boat."

As they put to sea from France, he said he was filled with a "feeling that was a mixture of fear and hope".

The high number of migrants crossing to Britain from mainland Europe has become a political headache for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary Priti Patel.

The 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, on which Johnson staked his political career, promised to "take back control" of Britain's borders.


Migrants are helped off a lifeboat in Dungeness after crossing the English Channel. Photo: Ben Stansall / AFP

But officials have since admitted that the number of asylum seekers sent back to the EU has fallen sharply, with Britain now left out of a returns deal between member states.

The flow of migrants has also soured Britain's relations with France, prompting an unseemly blame game even as both sides try to disrupt people trafficking networks.

The chief executive of Refugee Action, Tim Naor Hilton, said Britain -- which has promised France £54 million ($72 million, 64 million euros) to try to stop the crossings -- was "wasting money" by trying to tighten its borders.

"Years of ministerial mismanagement" mean that "any time there is added pressure on the system it cannot cope", he said.

"The Home Office is taking longer than ever to decide people’s claims. These unacceptable delays mean refugees are staying longer in the asylum system and leaves the department struggling to find accommodation."


Asylum seekers waiting to hear about their refugee status are housed near Heathrow Airport. Photo: Justin Tallis / AFP


- Borders bill -

The government's Nationality and Borders Bill is currently before parliament, promising tougher action against people smugglers and, controversially, migrants themselves.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the bill will "fix our broken asylum system, creating a fair but firm immigration system that protects the most vulnerable and cracks down on illegal immigration and the criminal gangs that facilitate it".

If passed, the bill will allow the return of asylum seekers like Arash who have passed through so-called "safe third countries".

Human rights groups are incensed and nearly eight months since his arrival, Arash said he "expected better" from life in Britain.

He was taken for processing at a squat, red-brick building at the foot of the chalk cliffs that loom over the south coast port of Dover, and from there to London.

'Just God, the water and us': risking the Channel 'death route' to Britain (September 2020)

But he has been in a hotel on the fringes of Heathrow Airport ever since, waiting to hear about a decision on his refugee status.

Like the number of crossings, statistics indicate a mushrooming in the number of asylum seekers receiving emergency assistance while in such "initial accommodation" before getting a flat or shared house elsewhere.

Some 2,738 were recorded in December 2019. In September 2021, the figure was 16,794.

"Why are we in the same place, without any plan and it's more or less like a prison?" asked Arash.

by Callum Paton

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