Migrants are paying thousands of pounds to cross the English Channel in the belief that they will never have to leave once they reach the UK, MPs have heard.
Hundreds of people, mostly claiming Iranian nationality, have attempted to make the perilous crossing in small boats in recent months.
On Tuesday, senior law enforcement officers told the Commons Home Affairs Committee that the majority of those who make it to Britain claim asylum upon arrival.
In some cases they have paid £5,000 on average to “facilitators” who arrange the journey, with varying prices dependent on the level of risk involved.
In what is seen as a significant shift, the migrants are seeking out authorities – even dialling 999 from their boats – as opposed to attempting to slip into the country undetected.
Steve Rodhouse, director-general of operations at the National Crime Agency, said: “People are actively seeking being caught or engaging with UK authorities because rightly or wrongly, they don’t fear being returned.
“That, I think, is something that is a significant player in the issue here. I know that Home Office colleagues if they were here … will say there have been a number of returns.
“It’s not my area of expertise at all. But I think at the moment it is in the minds of the facilitators and in the minds of those people willing to make the journey that there is a very low risk that they will be returned.”
Home Secretary Sajid Javid previously sparked controversy by questioning whether those attempting to cross the Channel are genuine asylum seekers.
A report published last month claimed that fewer than half of failed asylum seekers are removed from the UK.
Mr Javid declared a “major incident” and ordered two Border Force boats to be redeployed to the Channel following an increase in attempted crossings.
In 2018, more than 500 migrants tried to travel to the UK on small vessels, with four in five of them attempting the journey in the final three months of the year.
Around 40% of the attempts were either disrupted by French law enforcement or returned to France via French agencies.
The numbers attempting the crossing fell from around 250 in December to approximately 90 in January.
There have been further incidents this month. In the latest, a boat carrying 13 suspected migrants was intercepted by Border Force on Tuesday morning.
Mr Rodhouse said that, while there has been a reduction in attempted crossings so far this year, this was partly due to the weather.
He told the committee: “I think this is likely to be an enduring challenge for us, particularly as we move into the summer months.”
The majority of people who have made the journey go on to claim asylum in the UK, he said.
Mr Rodhouse continued: “That’s quite sigificant for us. Typically, in the past if people had been using what we call general maritime, they would be doing so in a clandestine fashion.
“What we see in the matters we are talking about today is markedly different because the business model is essentially for the migrants to reach the point where they can engage with UK authorities, whether that be on land or at sea, and claim asylum at that point.”
Kent Police Chief Constable Alan Pughsley said: “On some occasions, from their own boats they are phoning 999 and asking for our help.”
Mr Rodhouse suggested the “changing and deterioriating” economy in Iran has incentivised people who have assets to leave the country.
Around three-quarters of people who have made the journey did so with the help of a “facilitator”, he said, telling the committee: “The amount it costs varies. On average it is about £5,000 a person.
“It can be a lot less, it can be a lot more, depending on the relative safety promises.”
Emphasising that it is an “extremely dangerous” route, Mr Rodhouse noted that general maritime only accounts for a small fraction of the total of around 35,000 attempted clandestine entries a year.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Anyone crossing the Channel – one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – is putting their life and the lives of their children at grave risk.
“The fastest and safest route to protection is to make an asylum claim in the first safe country reached.
“Those who are found to have no right to be in the UK should be in no doubt of our determination to remove them and since January, over 10 people who entered the UK illegally on small boats have been returned to Europe.
“The UK continues to work closely with France and other countries to return more migrants who have entered the UK by small boat in order to provide a strong deterrent against the dangerous crossings.”