Thousands of refugees could be turned away under reforms to immigration laws, campaigners have claimed ahead of proposals being introduced to Parliament.
The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill intends to make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission, with the maximum sentence for those entering the country unlawfully rising from six months’ imprisonment to four years.
The proposed laws also plan to increase the tariff for people smugglers, with those found guilty facing life behind bars – up from the current maximum of 14 years.
The stricter rules under the Bill, due to be introduced to Parliament on Tuesday, are part of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s pledge to “fix” the UK’s “broken asylum system”.
The Home Office has insisted the changes will “prioritise those most in need of protection while stopping the abuse of the system”.
Analysis of Home Office data by the Refugee Council suggests 9,000 people who would be accepted as refugees under current rules – those confirmed to have fled war or persecution following official checks – may no longer be given safety in the UK due to their method of arrival under the reforms.
The charity’s executive Enver Solomon said for decades people had taken “extraordinary measures to flee oppression” but had gone on to become “law abiding citizens playing by the rules and paying their taxes as proud Britons”.
He accused the Government of “choosing to not only turn away those in need of safety but also treat them as criminals”, adding: “This anti-refugee Bill will drive an already inefficient and ineffective system into disarray with even worse delays and far greater expense.
“We need a system that gives everyone a fair hearing, protects those who need protecting and enables those to return who don’t. Competence, compassion and control are needed instead of cruelty, cold-heartedness and ineptitude.”
While Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, described the plans as “dripping with cruelty” and an “affront to the caring people in this country who want a kinder, fairer approach to refugees.”
More than 250 organisations – including the Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Action and Asylum Matters – have joined to form the coalition Together with Refugees to call for a more effective, fair and humane approach to the UK’s asylum system.
The Home Office said the “fundamental reforms” under the “landmark” Bill – previously known as the Sovereign Borders Bill – are part of the Government’s “fair but firm” new plan for immigration first published in March which set out the most “radical changes to the broken asylum system in decades”.
It means that for the first time how someone enters the UK – legally or “illegally” – will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful.
Tougher punishments are in a bid to prevent “asylum shopping”, the department said, as it accused some migrants of “picking the UK as a preferred destination over others” when asylum could have been claimed earlier in their journey through Europe at another “safe” country.
The Bill’s unveiling comes after record numbers of people made the perilous journey across the English Channel in small boats so far this year, with nearly 6,000 reaching the UK in the first six months of 2021.
The total figure for 2020 – 8,417 – could be eclipsed within two months if the number of crossings seen in July and August last year are repeated, according to analysis by the PA news agency.
Ms Patel said the Bill “paves the way for a fair but firm system”, adding: “For too long, our broken asylum system has lined the pockets of the vile criminal gangs who cheat the system. This isn’t fair to the vulnerable people who need protection or the British public who pay for it. It’s time to act.”
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the reforms would “ensure that immigration appeals are heard fairly but not repeatedly – resolving cases more quickly and reducing the burden on our legal system”.