The Nationality and Borders Bill, which receives its second reading in parliament on Monday, includes provisions for people who have fled danger to seek asylum in Britain to be arrested at sea and prosecuted under a new offence for arriving without a valid entry clearance.
Under the proposed new law, thousands of people could face up to four years in prison for this offence – punishment that the Refugee Council has calculated would cost an estimated £412m a year.
The charity found that the cost of imprisoning people seeking asylum is five times more than accommodating them in the asylum support system.
Shadow immigration minister Bambos Charalambous said: "This is a staggering amount of money the government will be spending detaining people who are seeking safety.
“Instead of investing in making the asylum system more efficient and fairer, the government will be wasting money punishing people who need help.”
The Nationality and Borders Bill, if passed, would also enable immigration officers to intercept vessels in British waters and take them to foreign ports – a controversial practice known as “pushback”.
And it would enable the Home Office to send asylum seekers overseas while their claims are processed, bearing hallmark similarities to the offshore polices introduced in Australia in 2013. Rwanda, Ascension Island and Gibraltar have been mooted as potential offshore locations.
Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration, which the bill seeks to make possible, would see asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via unauthorised means – around 60 per cent – denied permanent protection and instead routinely assessed for removal.
New polling by the Refugee Council and the think tank British Future reveals that the new legislation is in conflict with how the public think the government should respond to refugees.
The polling by ICM found that three out of five Britons (58 per cent) agree that the asylum system does need to be improved but that any reforms must keep the core principle that those who need protection should get it. Only one in eight (13 per cent) disagree.
It also found that more than half of Britons (52 per cent) agree that everybody seeking asylum should get a fair hearing for their claim based on its merits not on how they arrived in the UK. Only just over one in five (22 per cent) disagree.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said treating people who put their lives at risk to reach safety in the UK as criminals was “not only a huge waste of taxpayers’ money but also a brutal, cruel and cold-hearted response by this government”.
“For generations Conservative prime ministers from Winston Churchill to Theresa May have given people fleeing war, terror and oppression a fair hearing on our soil. Global Britain must not now turn its back on these British values of fairness and compassion,” he added.
A Home Office spokesperson said its New Plan for Immigration would “fix the broken asylum system” and that the bill would “target ruthless criminal gangs who put lives at risk by smuggling people across the Channel”.
“We will welcome people through safe and legal routes whilst preventing abuse of the system, cracking down on illegal entry and the criminality associated with it, rather than allowing people to come here through dangerous journeys with the UK as their preferred destination,” they said.
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