LONDON - Almost 5,000 migrants have arrived in the United Kingdom (UK) after crossing the English Channel so far this year.

Some 349 people were detected crossing the dangerous waterway in seven boats on Saturday, Home Office figures showed.

It takes the total for this year to 4,993 according to the provisional data published by the Government.

Before Saturday’s crossings, 2024 had already see a record high in the number of people making the journey in the first three months of a year.

The previous record high figure for January to March was 4,548 in 2022, with 3,793 arrivals in the first quarter of last year.

Home Secretary James Cleverly warned church leaders not to help asylum seekers exploit the system (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Rishi Sunak’s Government has promised to “stop the boats”, but 2024 – an election year – has illustrated how difficult that pledge will be to meet.

A key plank of the strategy is the scheme to send small boat arrivals 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 April 15, with the Commons likely to undo the latest changes made by the Lords and send it back to the upper chamber.

So far this year, 105 boats have been detected making the crossing, with an average of more than 47 people on each craft.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “A year which started with Rishi Sunak and James Cleverly boasting about the success of their small boats strategy is now setting one unwanted record after another for the number of arrivals.

“Their complacency has been laid bare, and their pledge to stop the boats has been left in tatters.

“We can also see from these figures that there is a major tragedy waiting to happen in the Channel. Poor-quality, overcrowded dinghies are putting to sea and getting into trouble early in their journeys, while the smuggling gangs responsible are left to count their profits.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, from a Border Force vessel following a small boat incident in the Channel on Saturday (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“Enough is enough. If the Tories will not get tough on that traffic, then we need a Labour government that will.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “The unacceptable number of people who continue to cross the Channel demonstrates exactly why we must get flights to Rwanda off the ground as soon as possible.

“We continue to work closely with French police, who are facing increasing violence and disruption on their beaches as they work tirelessly to prevent these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys.

“We remain committed to building on the successes that saw arrivals drop by more than a third last year, including tougher legislation and agreements with international partners, in order to save lives and stop the boats.”

The latest boat crossings came as Home Secretary Mr Cleverly stepped up pressure on the church over suspicions asylum seekers were being able to exploit the system by converting to Christianity to avoid being sent back to their home country.

In a message to church leaders at Easter, the Home Secretary said there is a “real difference” between welcoming a new member of the congregation and “vouching for a person in an asylum tribunal”.

His comments came after alkali attack suspect Abdul Ezedi was granted asylum by a judge who accepted he was a Christian convert despite concerns the convicted sex offender was a liar.

Ezedi’s body was pulled from the River Thames last month following a major manhunt launched after he was suspected of dousing his ex-girlfriend with alkali when he pounced on her and her children, aged eight and three, in Clapham, south London, in January.

Writing in The Sun On Sunday Mr Cleverly said: “Even the church has said they share our mission to stop the boats.

“We have met with the senior church leaders to explain Christian conversion is no guarantee of asylum being granted and we’ve stressed there is a real difference between welcoming new members to a flock and vouching for a person in an asylum tribunal.”

He added: “Allowing people to exploit the system risks detracting from the invaluable work Christians and the church do every day for our society – today of all days.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has previously said there is “no evidence” to support claims the Church of England is “subverting the asylum system” by allowing spurious conversions to Christianity.