London: Britain has set out details of a new law barring the entry of asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel, a proposal some charities say could be impractical and criminalise the efforts of thousands of genuine refugees.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping boat arrivals one of his five key priorities after the number of migrants arriving on the south coast of England soared to more than 45,000 last year, with around 90% applying for asylum.
The new legislation will mean anyone who arrives this way will be prevented from claiming asylum and deported either back to their own country or to so-called safe third countries.
“For a government not to respond to waves of illegal migrants breaching our borders would be to betray the will of the people we were elected to serve,” Interior Minister Suella Braverman told parliament on Tuesday.
The legislation will enable the detention of illegal arrivals without bail, or judicial review, within the first 28 days of detention until they can be removed, Braverman said, and those entering the country illegally would no longer be able to use anti-slavery laws to try to block removal.
The Refugee Council charity said the law would leave genuine refugees “locked up in a state of misery” and compared the government’s approach to “authoritarian nations” such as Russia which have walked away from international human rights treaties.
The UN refugee convention provides an avenue for a fair hearing for asylum seekers, no matter how they arrived.
Braverman said the government was confident the legislation was compatible with international obligations.
Just under two-thirds of those who arrive on small boats are granted asylum or another form of humanitarian protection, Home Office figures show.
Braverman said the legislation would introduce an annual cap on the number of refugees Britain will settle via safe and legal routes.
While the number of applications for asylum in the UK hit a 20-year high of nearly 75,000 in 2022, it is still below the European Union average. Germany received more than 240,000 asylum applications last year.
Opposition parties and charities have questioned whether the latest plans would be any more effective than previous attempts to deter people from making the crossing.
“We need serious action to stop dangerous boat crossings which are putting lives at risk and undermining border security,” opposition Labour Party home affairs spokeswoman Yvette Cooper said.
Last year, former prime minister Boris Johnson agreed a deal to send tens of thousands of migrants more than 6,400 km to Rwanda.
The first planned deportation flight was blocked by a last-minute injunction granted by the European Court of Human Rights. It was ruled lawful by London’s High Court in December, but opponents are seeking to appeal that verdict.
Braverman said she was in discussions with the European human rights court to prevent “the abuse” of injunctions to stop the future deportation of migrants.
Controlling immigration was the third-most important issue for voters after the economy and the running of the health service, polling by YouGov found in November, with 87% of the public saying the government was handling the issue badly.