More than 10,000 people reach UK in small boats since January

FILE PHOTO: Migrants cross the English Channel in small boats

LONDON (Reuters) -More than 10,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Britain in small boats so far this year, updated government data showed on Saturday, underlining a key challenge facing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ahead of a July 4 national election.

The number of people landing on England's southern beaches after making the dangerous Channel crossing fell by a third in 2023, but the latest numbers on a government website showed 10,170 arrived between January and May 25, up from 7,395 over the same period last year.

"We continue to work closely with our French partners to prevent crossings and save lives," an interior ministry spokesperson said in response to the surge in numbers.

Sunak, who announced the election date on Wednesday, said later this week that asylum seekers who come to Britain illegally would not be deported to Rwanda before the vote - casting doubt on one of his Conservative Party's flagship policies.

The plan has been bogged down by legal obstacles for more than two years, and the opposition Labour Party, which is about 20 points ahead in opinion polls and seen on track to end 14 years of Conservative rule, has promised to scrap the policy if it wins the election.

Labour's shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said Sunak's government had not done enough to tackle the issue.

"Because all the government's efforts are now focused on getting a few hundred people flown to Rwanda, they have lost sight of the thousands more who are crossing the Channel every month," Kinnock said in a statement.

Labour has said if elected it would create a Border Security Command that would bring together staff from the police, the domestic intelligence agency and prosecutors to work with international agencies to stop people smuggling.

(Reporting by Muvija MEditing by Helen Popper and Jane Merriman)